Thursday, November 8, 2018

All Saint's Day: Life and Death

Ezek. 37:1-14

John 11:1-45

The old time pastor was galloping down the road, rushing to get to church on time. Suddenly his horse stumbled and pitched him to the ground.  In the dirt with a broken leg, the pastor called out, “All you saints in Heaven, help me get up on my horse!”

Then, with superhuman effort, he leaped onto the horse’s back and fell off the other side.

Once again on the ground, he called to Heaven, “All right, just half of you this time!”

“Jesus wept.”  The shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  What does it mean to you that Jesus wept?  What do you think about Jesus weeping?  

Today we celebrate All Saints Day, and while by “all saints,” we include ourselves (because “the saints” are all of those who are communing with God both during and after life), it tends to be a day when we honor, remember, celebrate, and grieve those who have gone on before us. We remember our loved ones who’ve died.  We celebrate the lives they led, and we remember that death is a temporary physical separation from those we’ve loved.  Death is a change in our relationship from one which is material, to one which is purely spiritual.  But while All Saints Day is a day to remember and celebrate, it is also appropriate that those memories would bring up some grief for us as well.  And All Saints Day is a day to honor those feelings as well, to remember that while we can rejoice in lives well lived, while we can celebrate the end of pain, while we can carry forward the legacies of those who led the way forward for us, while we can honor those who’ve passed by leading the best possible lives forward that we can, none the less, there is grief involved for each of us when a relationship changes from one of physical interaction to being simply one of remembering, celebrating, or speaking to our loved ones that have passed without tangible reassurance or promise of an answer.  That grief is a good thing.  It is a sign of the depth of the love we have for the other.  And it is a God-given experience: an opportunity to express the changes that happen within and without when someone we love has passed.

Sometimes people struggle to accept the grief they feel, thinking that in comparison to others, the loss they are experiencing is minor.  Or they feel they shouldn’t grieve as long as they do. Or we feel that we should just be thankful for what we do have and not mourn what we have lost.  I cannot tell you how often people say to me, “I shouldn’t feel this way.  I’ve been so lucky…”  But grieving is not unfaithful.  It is a recognition that we have loved and loved deeply.

“Kierkegaard said, ‘the most painful state of being is remembering the future… particularly the one you can never have.’ ”   I want to say that again, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.”  In other words, the deepest grief comes when we realize that the future we envisioned for ourselves, for example, with another person, is no longer a possibility. 

Grief is an invitation to work that through.  When we are able to do that, then we can live lives that honor and celebrate those who have gone on before us.  When we try to stuff the grief, that is when we get into trouble.   

Many years ago, a parishioner died whose husband had spent the last thirty years caring for her.  It was his purpose and his focus in his life to care for her.  And when she died, her husband was left not only with the grief of losing his wife, but also with the feeling of having lost his purpose and his meaning in life.  He could not deal with the pain and he avoided

it by jumping into another relationship almost immediately, interestingly with someone who also needed a great deal of care.  He was remarried within six months of his wife’s death.  But while that whirl-wind romance put off his feelings of grief for awhile, it could not keep them away in the long run.  The result was that he then had to do his grieving within the context of a new marriage.  His new wife, not understanding grief, felt hurt by his pain over his wife who had passed.  She felt that he hadn’t let go or that he didn’t really love his new wife enough.  It made their relationship very difficult as he struggled both to live within his new relationship and to honor his old relationship through the honest and natural process of grieving.  In addition, the woman whom he married, as I mentioned, was also extremely needy and probably not someone he would ever have married had he taken the time to heal from his last relationship.  He jumped in to this relationship, he ran away from his grief into this relationship, not making the best choice for the long term.

That’s not to say that grief has to look the same for everyone or that there is one right way to grieve or even a right time line.  There isn’t one right way and grief looks different for everyone.  While grief specialist Kubler-Ross identifies as normal parts of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, there is no prescribed order to these feelings and many experience them in different amounts, at different times, and in different ways, sometimes experiencing each of these stages multiple times and again in multiple ways, other times skipping one or more of these stages altogether.  Other grief specialists add “pain and guilt” into their lists of normal feelings associated with grief saying that even in cases in which a person could have done nothing differently, we feel guilty about things not done, about things that might have been done, things that should have been said.  But however one experiences grief, grief is a natural, normal process in life that we can’t avoid as human beings, as real honest people.

I remember a conversation I witnessed in which a parent was trying to protect their child from grief, keeping the loss of their grandmother from the child, not allowing the child to attend the memorial service, telling others not to mention the grandmother around the child, removing the child from any situation in which the grandmother’s name might be mentioned.  The mother thought she was doing what was best for her daughter.  But the daughter in her wisdom, as she grew a little older, finally told her mother, “I have to go through this. By forbidding me to grieve, you are taking away from me something that is extremely important and beautiful.  Please don’t take my grief away from me.”  Unlike her family, she understood the deeper truth that not going through the pain of grief was in some way denying her something important.  There is a gift in that grief.  There is a gift that is hard to see when we are in the midst of deep pain.  But the gift of grief is that it leaves us open and able to see things as they really are.  It leaves us able to move on, to heal, and to be ready for what God will bring in the future.  For Christians, the gift in the celebration of the Saints who have gone on before us is that we are invited once again into a deeper relationship with God, for God is with us in our grief, grieving with us as well.  And God is the God of resurrections, bringing new life out of every loss.  But again, we have to grieve, have to go through the death of the past in order to be open to the new life that God brings.

And that brings us back to today’s verse, “Jesus wept.”  It can feel difficult to understand this verse at some level because Jesus kept saying to all those around him both before and after Lazarus had died, that Lazarus would live.  Jesus knew that Lazarus was not really gone forever.  In light of that, what does it mean that before he raised Lazarus from the dead, that he wept for him?  How could his grief have been sincere when he knew his loss was not long lasting or real?

I belief Jesus’ grief was real.  I think that Jesus realized, and reminds us through his grief, that new life never looks the same as old life.  A resurrected person doesn’t look the same or act the same as a person who has never died.  We are changed by the losses we experience, the deaths we live through.  Roberta Bondi sums it up well in her book “Memories of God” with these words, “Even Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.”  Jesus, too, was not the same after his resurrection and he knew that Lazarus, too, would not be the same.  He grieved the Lazarus that died because the Lazarus who was raised would not be the same.  He would be different, he would be changed by his experience of death.

The reality is that it is hard for us to look at those wounds, the wounds of life, the wounds that have forced us into lives different from what we imagined.  It is hard to accept that even though new life has come, the old life is gone, really gone.  But it is.  Lazarus died.  He truly and actually died.  And while Jesus was able to bring new life to Lazarus, he first had to grieve for the life that had died, the life that was, the life that ended.  That, to me, is the message in that one very important Biblical passage, “Jesus wept.”  Jesus knows that we, too, must grieve for what was, grieve for what has past, for what is over, for what is done.  It is only through grieving and letting go of the past that we can really truly be open to the wonders of the present, to the gifts of the now, to seeing the new life around us.

Those two simple words, “Jesus wept” give us permission to not just live in the Easter celebration of new life, but to grieve the death that preceded it as well.  “Jesus wept” gives us permission to recognize that every change includes grief, and that it is okay to feel that even as we look towards new life.  Jesus wept.  And we can, too.

I want to end by reading you a poem by Washington Irving:

There is a sacredness in tears.

They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.

They speak more eloquently than 10,000 tongues.

They are the messengers of overwhelming grief,

of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.

            So today, I would like to invite you to come forward and put your pictures on the tables that are set up and name the Saints that have meant something to you.  If you would like, tell one good thing about that person.  If you did not bring a picture or a momento, I invite you still to come forward and say the name of someone whom you are remembering this day.  For this is our celebration of the Saints: all those who have blessed our lives, and continue to do so with our memories and celebrations of their lives.

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