Gospel: John 11:32-44
1st Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
2nd Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” the Judeans ask. This week, a lot of people asked this question as Megastorm Sandy beat down on the east coast. Thankfully, due to evacuations and preparation, only 35 deaths are blamed on the storm when there could have been a great many more. But if you are family of one of those 35, certainly you have a very deep loss and there is loss of property, homes destroyed, power out, whole neighborhoods in New Jersey flooded. The storm hit the coast line so hard that maps will have to be redrawn.
An article on CNN.com this week evaluated the trending words on Facebook and Twitter and found “prayer” to be at the very top, as well as “thanks.” News organizations found the storm to be an opportunity for people to discuss the power of God verses atheism and all aspects of faith.
We believe in a powerful and active God. We believe that God hears our prayers. There are times when we can explain human suffering as a result of human error or selfishness. Someone might be seriously injured in a car accident because of a drunk driver. Someone’s bad decision to drink and drive caused another person to suffer. But in the case of natural disasters, human error can’t be said to have caused the suffering. In fact the insurance companies call it an “Act of God.”
Could not the one who raised from the dead this Lazarus, have kept those people from dying in the storm or kept those houses from being destroyed? It is a question people are asking this week and ask any time there is a natural disaster.
There isn’t an easy answer. You could say humans are causing climate change which makes these storms worse and worse. It is hard to prove the many causes of any one weather event. And people died long before we put so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
You could say that God gave the universe, this earth, laws of gravity and magnetism and convection that govern how systems interact and God doesn’t interfere every time a human life is in danger. That isn’t how the world works. That isn’t how God works. Yet God parted the red sea and allowed Jesus to calm the winds and walk on water. God has the power over weather and has chosen to use it at least a few times.
I don’t think you could say that God doesn’t care, though. When I was growing up, my grandma made sure if I knew nothing else about the Bible, I knew that the shortest verse in there is, “Jesus wept.” Here we read it, “Jesus began to weep.” This way of saying it gives it an ongoing feeling. “Jesus wept,” sounds like he broke down for a moment. “Jesus began weeping,” is more true to the original Greek it was written in, that Jesus’ weeping goes on. Jesus was hurting. He was hurting at the loss of his friend. He was hurting that his friends were grieving. He might have been a little frustrated that everyone was blaming him that he didn’t get there in time. Some also believe that he may have been weeping in anger. When it says in the Gospel that he was “greatly disturbed,” that might better be translated “furious.” Anger and sadness are so closely related. We have a hard time picturing our meek and mild Jesus getting angry, but he may have been angry at death, itself, his big adversary and one he would soon face in a final battle alone on the cross.
Storms and car accidents and earthquakes and suffering don’t happen because God doesn’t care. Jesus weeping shows me just how deeply he does care. That’s the thing to remember when we are suffering, is that God knows what it is like to endure great suffering. God walks with us in our suffering. God is beside the one who is suffering. God is within that person. When we weep, God weeps with us.
And this is where the Saints come in. Saints are people just like us whose lives have born witness to God’s loving compassion. Their lives have not been without troubles or suffering, in fact many of them suffered quite extensively. Yet they didn’t live for themselves or their own comfort. They used their God-given gifts to lessen the suffering of others. It was about the big picture, not their own wishes in the moment. They thought of others and God worked through them to relieve suffering of those around them.
And none of them have escaped death, yet. We will all die, one way or the other, whether it be in a megastorm or quietly in our sleep. The end will come to our earthly life. But death is Jesus’ big adversary that he defeated. Jesus offers eternal life. Like Lazarus, we will all go to the grave. Even Jesus didn’t escape death. But like Jesus and Lazarus, we will be raised to new life.
Death and resurrection is something that happens at the end of our life, but it also goes on throughout our life. The saints practiced dying to their own desires. They lived and died a thousand small deaths throughout their lifetimes and came through them to find new life. They denied themselves the comforts of life. They gave up family and friends and houses and lucrative jobs. They let go of the things that didn’t really contribute to the bigger picture of a better life for all people and they devoted themselves to bringing that better life. They allowed Jesus to raise them to a new awareness of how they are connected to all life, of how their gifts could be used to make a better world. They rose everyday to new life to bring that life to others around them.
So when the time came for them to die, they had been there already. They knew how to surrender. They were ready. They had been waiting to hear Jesus call their name and command them to “come out!”
We also die a thousand deaths. As we go through life we have to let go of our ideas of who we thought we would be. In marriage we have to let go and make a lot of compromises with our spouse for the sake of a relatively peaceful home life. When we get sick, we have to let go of our independence. When we lose our job or retire we have to or get to let go and die to our old life and try something different. So when it is time for us to physically die, we know we have already been there. We have died before and we were not alone. We had community. We had God weeping beside us. And we rose to new life, something different than we expected, but a place we experienced God’s grace all the same. Not what we would have chosen, but a situation where we could learn and grow in compassion and love.
I invite you to picture your loved ones hearing their names called and walking from the dark grave that really is this life, and stepping into the full sun, the welcome of community, full peace and health and life, knowing connection, knowing love, being one with God, being complete. And I invite you to think of God calling you from the grave. Maybe it is one that you dug for yourself in this life or one you just fell into. And picture being raised to new life and new experiences and new heights of love and growth. And picture yourself having physically died and being called out of the darkness into the light and presence of God. May that view of the big picture give you courage and peace for whatever you face from day to day—that God knows the end of the story and it is going to be ok and better than ok. It will be God’s Kingdom realized both here in this world and in life eternal.
At the very end of the Gospel, Jesus calls for Lazarus to be unbound from his grave clothes. In this life, Jesus calls us from the grave, from our sinful ways, from our deathly choices, from our fears and hatred. But we are not just called from something. We are called to something. And we unbind each other. We need to hear forgiveness from each other. Part of that grave experience sticks to us and keeps us from moving forward. We need to know that we can leave those old grave clothes behind. It really is a new start. We aren’t held to the law anymore. We are freed to move forward in true new life. Jesus calls us to new life, and it will be in community, with the help of others around us can we truly be freed from the remnants of the grave to serve and to practice that new life and love.