Will He Wipe the Tears Away From Every Face?

4 November 2018, All Saints Day, Middletown Presbyterian Church

John 11:32-44

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Will He Wipe the Tears Away From Every Face?

   Good morning. I want to start by thanking all of you for inviting me to be here, as you start a transition from one phase of your church life to another. I’m in a transitional phase myself, having finally embraced a call I tried to silence for thirty years, because it didn’t fit with how I understood the world. When it finally became clear that God wasn’t going to be quiet and leave me alone, I enrolled in seminary, at the age of 56. Now I am overwhelmed by questions that I can’t begin to answer, but asking those questions in the company of people like you is an important part of learning how to do this work, so I thank you for the chance to be here.

   You’ve invited me to join you on All Saints Day, which was originally intended to honor all the saints, but the Reform Tradition has shifted the focus from saints to ordinary believers. God counts all of them as holy, the argument goes — all of us. Later in the service, we’ll recite a Litany of Remembrance, and we’ll have a chance to speak the names of loved ones who have died in the past year. I’m going to speak my father’s name. He was not a saint — he didn’t even call himself a Christian — but I’m going to speak his name anyway; that is, I’m going to add him to the cloud of witnesses we mentioned in the call to worship — and I feel a little uneasy about that.

   One of the basic questions roiling Christianity today is who do we include? Who counts? Today’s Psalm, which we read together in the call to worship, asks that question directly: “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” And the psalmist’s answer is clear: those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false: they will receive blessing form the Lord.

   In another reading appointed for today, the prophet Isaiah goes one step further: “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make feast for all people,” Isaiah says, and in that feast of luscious food and well-aged wine, God will destroy the shroud that covers all of us, which the fact that every one of us is going to die. “He will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from everybody’s face,” Isaiah says.

   Do you believe that?

   My father didn’t believe that. He was raised in a conservative synod of the Lutheran church, but he threw off the limits of the way that church understood the world when he was young, and so did I. Rigid convictions make it hard to get acquainted with reality, my father believed, and reality excited him with passion. He refused to lift his soul to what was false, including the narrow limits of a certain kind of Christianity, which he threw off so he could live with clean hands and a pure heart.

   How then would my father feel about my lifting up his name on All Saints Day? And more importantly, how would God feel?

   That’s the question I approach this morning, by way of the Gospel.

   The simplest thing to say about this morning’s gospel passage, the miraculous resuscitation of Lazarus, is that it shows that Christ has conquered death. That’s why this passage is appointed to be read on All Saints Day — Christ has conquered death! The awful shroud of death has been removed indeed!

   But I feel dishonest saying that because I don’t know what those words mean. At best they point to a vague sense of awe and reverence I’m supposed to feel, for reasons that are not as clear as they’re supposed to be. I’ve heard that language all my life, and sometimes I’ve responded by trying to find that reverence in myself — the right tone of voice, the right posture, the right clothes. At other times I’ve held that language up against the dead people I know, or up against the dying that takes place in the world around me every day, and I’ve said, “That just isn’t true.”

   My father might have said I had to let that language speak a different way. “It isn’t trying to speak a truth that you can hold against reality,” he might have said.

   Well, then, what is it trying to do?

   It’s opening a portal through which we can pass beyond reality, into the world that we can’t see, or talk about, because our words were made for use in this reality, where we have to eat, and work, and change the oil in our cars, and try to love someone, and die.

   Except for Lazarus.

   “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

   Do you believe that? Or, to ask a more troubling question, do you think one has to believe it to be included?

   My father didn’t believe that, and he’s partially responsible for my struggle to believe it. When I was 11 years old, he took me to the gross human anatomy lab where he was dissecting a cadaver. Her name was Ethel, he said. Ethel was open from that little notch above the sternum all the way down, and everything that should have been inside her had been taken out except her kidneys, which still nestled there against the small of her back.

   It didn’t look like Christ had conquered death for Ethel.

   One component of our tradition which grips me ever tighter since I started seminary is our belief that God decided to become a person, and in the passage we just read the person God decided to become breaks down and cries: “Jesus wept.” John 11:35.

   The meaning of those words is unmistakable.  Jesus, the person God decided to become, breaks down and cries.

   At that point the commentator Karoline Lewis poses a startling question: “Is it the human part of Jesus that starts to cry or the divine part?” She asks the question to explode the false dichotomy that places human and divine in opposition to each other, but the question still begs for an answer.

   When I read these stories, when their great dramatic theater comes to life in my imagination, what I see is people. That’s what I can see; that’s the world I know and kind of understand. So it’s the human part of Jesus I see crying here. His friend has died — but that’s not news to him: he knew his friend had died before this passage started. What’s news is Mary. She drops at his feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” And then she starts to cry. Because her brother is dead? Or because she had been harboring some hope that this Jesus, who seems capable of anything, would come and heal her brother, but he didn’t come.

   Her brother’s dead, and now her hopes are dashed, so she begins to cry.

   Surely Jesus knows her hopes are dashed — “If you had been here,” she says, on her knees, “my brother wouldn’t have died.” On her knees: maybe that’s what does it to him. If only she had gotten in his face and pulled his beard and shouted — “You should have been here!” Because that’s the truth, isn’t it? In the world I see and understand, the world of people, that’s the truth: You should have been here! If you can keep my brother from dying, then by God you better show up here and do it! If you dawdle, especially if you dawdle to prove a point, I’m done with you. Prove your point on someone else’s brother!

   But she just collapses at his feet. Beaten again. Defeated by reality again — “Lord,” her sister says, “by now he stinketh. It’s been four days.” She knew that hope would never come to pass.

   So the human part of Jesus starts to cry — because the world he lives in sucks. Our friends die. Our brothers die. And what’s worse: our hopes die. All the time. We’re so accustomed to the failure of our hopes that it doesn’t even make us angry anymore.

    What happens to the story if we say that Jesus’s divinity is crying here?

   If we back up a little, we learn that Jesus already knows Lazarus is dead — that would be the divine part of him which moves both in this reality and in another realm, which we can’t see. And one line of thought holds that the divinity is crying over the fact that Mary and her friends still don’t believe in Jesus — still don’t understand reality behind reality, don’t see past the world they live in, the world that makes them bury their hopes along with their brothers.

   But that’s a cold-hearted divinity, in my opinion. If that’s what God is like, I’m going to line up with my dad.

   The God that I’m beginning to perceive — the Jesus I begin to feel around me and within me, the image of God in me that greets the image of God in you — is more likely to weep about how much it hurts to be a person. What did I get myself into?

   “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will destroy the shroud of death that covers all of us,” Isaiah says. Including Jesus. What’s it like for him to hear those words as a person? When he holds them up against the world around him, do they make sense? Or do they make him cry?

   Are these tears of sadness over how much people hurt? Or are they tears of wonder and astonishment at our willingness to show up here again on All Saints Day, to hold the names of our dead up against Isaiah’s words about the shroud of death, to call their faces back into our company, where they might wait beside us for the God who promises to dry their tears?

   Mary’s friends think Jesus starts to cry because of love. “See how he loved him!” some of them say. But others hold fast to their skepticism: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they ask, in the tone of people who believe they’re onto something. The answer to that question is yes, he could have, and if we require the world to function in accordance with that question, in accordance with the attitude behind that question, maybe we won’t have to cry! And then God won’t have to wipe our faces.

   Wouldn’t that be better?

   Why would that be better?

   I spent thirty years among those people, requiring the world to work that way, because I wasn’t sure that God was going to come. He wouldn’t go away and leave me alone — he wouldn’t stop calling, quietly — but I wasn’t sure that he would come. I’m still not sure, but now I’m lining up with Mary anyway, because I want to be touched. I’ve finally realized that this life-long yearning is a yearning to be touched. I want God to touch my face. I want Isaiah to be right. I want to live in a world where all of that can happen, where the shroud of death can be removed, instead of in a world I understand.

   One of the things I’m learning in seminary is that living in that world — or not — is up to me: all I have to do is choose.

   My father died at home, in hospice care. He refused institutional care because they wouldn’t let him smoke, and he intended to keep smoking to the end. He died of lung cancer.

   He was essentially unconscious for three days before he died, but he was not immobile: we often saw him reach for something. The expression on his face would change, and he’d reach into the space in front of him.

   “Why does he do that?” my mother asked the hospice nurse.

   She shrugged and said, “We see it all the time.”

   “But why?” my mother asked. “What’s he doing?”

   “Well, no one really knows,” the nurse said, “but so many people do it that you have to assume they’re seeing something.”

   “Like what?” my mother asked.

   The nurse shrugged again. “Their escort to the other side,” she said.

   That made my mother cry, but not the way she had been crying for the past few weeks. She had been concerned about my father’s fate, about the disposition of his soul, since he didn’t call himself a Christian, since he didn’t want to be attended by a hospice chaplain, or receive a blessing from the pastor of the church that he had stopped attending. She had been afraid he wouldn’t be included.

   “It’s funny that they’re always trying to grab ahold of something,” the nurse said. She reached out and squeezed my father’s hand. Then she turned back to my mother. “Whatever it is,” she said, “whatever they’re seeing, they never try to push it away.”

   That nurse, in that moment speaking those words, was the hand of God, reaching past the shroud of death to wipe away my mother’s tears. A few hours later, when my father died, my mother kissed his cheek, thanked him for the life he’d spent beside her, and gave him to the angels who were waiting for him, that cloud of witnesses we mentioned in the call to worship.

   I’ve decided to believe that they surround us all the time.


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