It feels like this passage hits a little close to home today. If you get on the internet, you can’t help but see stories about the personal challenges across the globe—churches filled with coffins instead of worshipers; people dying alone because their loved ones weren’t allowed to be by their side; hospitals having to use trash bags as scrubs and bandanas as masks; people going without food because they lost their job or can’t go to their job and therefore have no income. The struggle is so real—and it’s here. It isn’t somewhere out there in some distant, third-world country. It isn’t happening to those people over there. It’s here. It’s happening to us. It’s real and it’s close and it’s personal—and it’s hard.
It’s hard to minister to those in the nursing home when you’re not allowed inside. It’s hard to teach your kids when you’re also trying to get your own work done. It’s hard to stay positive. It’s hard to reach out. Sometimes, it’s just plain hard to get out of bed, to get dressed, to make a meal, to do what you may have taken for granted before.
All of us around the world are in a time of grief. And there’s no getting around it.
Grief is one of those things that can often make us uncomfortable, anyway. When someone else is in grief, sometimes our first response is to try to make it better. Someone may say something like, “They’re in a better place,” or “When life closes a door, God opens a window.” But grief can’t be skirted or diminished or undone.
I’m reminded of the movie, “Inside Out.” Inside a twelve-year-old girl named Rylie, we meet five emotions: Joy was the first to appear, right from birth. Sadness showed up shortly after. Then came Fear and Anger, and even Disgust. And while they all make an appearance in Rylie’s memories, Joy takes great pride in being the prominent emotion. But when Rylie’s family moves from Minnesota to California, the emotions start to get a bit muddled. And Joy really struggles to keep her position as the leader. It seems Sadness keeps getting in the way and changing happy memories to sad ones.
Eventually, as it seems all the emotional world is falling apart—perfect for 12-year-old, I think—Joy finally realizes how necessary Sadness is. Sadness doesn’t try to fix the bad emotions. She lets one simply feel them. She sits with a beloved memory and cries with him, and talks about the things they’ll miss. And we learn that it’s okay to be sad—even for those who live in faith and hope. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to feel lost.
Even Jesus wept.
Jesus has both the long-view perspective of a whole creation being restored to life and wholeness, free from the curse of death. But he also has a very personal, intimate view of a friend who has died. He holds his hope of resurrection even while grieving the loss of a loved one. And he, perhaps foolishly, sets in motion his own demise by daring to raise this dead one for the sake of those around him.
“The people who see Lazarus come out of his tomb are given the ability to believe because Jesus does not do the easy thing (keep bad things from happening), Jesus does the hard thing, which is to reverse destruction.”
Consider the paralyzed man lowered into the home on the mat. Jesus does the hard thing of forgiving his sins rather than starting with the easier thing of healing his body. Jesus does the hard thing of putting himself in peril by raising the dead rather than the easy thing of healing the sick. He does the hard thing by going to Jerusalem rather than going into hiding to save his life. He does the hard thing by allowing himself to be killed rather than the easy thing of destroying his captors. He does the hard thing by declaring victory over death itself rather than the easy thing of declaring victory over human enemies. He does the hard thing of loving us so much that he went to the grave and showed us the way through it than the easy thing of telling us how to avoid it altogether.
The raising of Lazarus is the final miracle—the final sign in John—that Jesus performs before he is murdered. He begins with water made into wine to signal a great feast and ends with the dead being raised. And in between, every sign points to the deeper work that the Messiah has come to do: “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).
This is the way of the Lord. This is the way of the Church—to do the hard things so that life may truly prosper for all and not just some. We are called to do the hard things of justice—to welcome the immigrant and refugee, to minister to the addict and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to sew masks for the healthcare workers, to shelter in place for the long haul, to approach Holy Week knowing that we can’t physically gather around the cross or feast at the table together. We are called to do the hard work of grief—to acknowledge how much it hurts and to lean into the darkness.
But we lean in with the light of Christ held tightly in our hearts. We lean in so that we might help light the way for others who can’t see their way out. We lean in and do the hard things with the strength of Christ’s faithfulness.
These are hard things—this is the work of God’s people. This is the work of the life that comes after going through death. It is sacramental, baptismal, holy work. It is literally liturgy: the work of the people. May your life be a liturgical tapestry of God’s grace, woven and spread over the world today.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church