By Rev. Dr. Storm Swain
As we enter into John’s Gospel, we are standing some way off from the tomb. The air of grief is all around. The family has returned home to a place that looks the same but is empty because their loved one is gone. People are gathered around to grieve, support, console and to say Kaddish. And into this Jesus walks.
Not as early as anybody would have wanted. Not early enough to stop the death that has happened. Not early enough to be with those he loved as they died. One of those Jesus was closest to has died and is in the tomb and he wasn’t around to prevent it, the family is in pain and they are angry.
In this text we are invited to stand with Martha (and others in her position,) a little way off from the tomb and give voice to those questions we all need to ask, to give voice to our anger and our pain, and in our exhaustion wonder – if God was there, why did this happen?
This week, on April 3, we are being invited to stand at the face of the tomb again. Independent Lens/PBS is showing the documentary, Newtown, about the 2012 shooting of 20 first graders, and six teachers and staff from Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT.
It would be much easier to let the face of the tomb be a scriptural story, so we could talk about terror and grief at arms length, to let the gut-wrenching pain of siblings and neighbors, simply be a set-up for one of the great Christological confessions. But if we strip the story of humanity and humanity from the story, we have no recourse but to fall into Christian platitudes that have no resilience in the face of real pain and grief.
Although a long way away from the small town of first century Bethany, the grief on the faces and in the bones of parents and community of Newtown, is as sacred as Martha and Mary’s. The plea, “Please, Jesus,” is a call for the divine to be no less present, on the voice whispered into a 911 call, than in the words of Martha. The questions are not dissimilar, the reality of death when it seemed like the action of others could have prevented it, no less palpable. Only, Newtown takes us closer to the cross, when innocents are murdered by government-sanctioned weapons of violence.
In John 11, we are invited to stand with Martha and with Jesus, not only to hear her great statement of Christology that locates God in our midst not far beyond, but to stand here knowing that the story has only begun and that there is a long way to go yet. Jesus stands with Martha four days after her brother has died. For those in Newtown who have marked their fourth year, this probably feels like eternity and no time at all.
Martha is angry, grieving and yet still holding onto that sliver of hope. “Lord, if you had been here…’ “But even now…” Four days after the event Martha is beginning to accept that first task of grieving, the reality of the death of one she loved, and she is allowing herself to express all that she feels about it – her shock, her disbelief are passing, and her immense sadness, her anger, and her sense of “if only” is present. How many times has she gone over when she last talked to Lazarus and if she told him she loved him before he died? She is still looking around for some way – wishing she could go back and change it all. She looks to one who has power to have seen it, done something, stopped it from happening. She looks to Jesus.
This story, which only appears in John’s gospel is one of those scriptural stories that go to the heart of humanity, and the heart of the incarnation. At the midpoint of John’s gospel, it pivots towards Jesus’ own death, but does not let us skip easily to resurrection, transformation, or solution. It takes us into the heart of grief, and there we find God.
The writer doesn’t allow us to see this as a simple conversation between Martha and Jesus. From the beginning of the story Jesus is referred to as ‘Lord’, rather than the more familiar Rabbi, Teacher or the formal ‘Sir’. Here is the signal that beyond the simple story of a Galilean rabbi and his friend, God is present, present in the person of Jesus then, and present to us now. We are in the story in which God speaks to us.
Where do we stand in this story?
What is the reality we bring here today?
Are we in the place of Martha who is grieving the loss of a loved one?
Are we in the place of one who arrives after the event to care for and counsel those who have lost someone?
As we follow the story on, are we one of those who gather, feeling helpless, not quite knowing what to do, but praying and supporting those closer to the tragedy?
Are we like Mary, so spent with grief that she falls to her knees?
Are we one of those at the tomb, who have been told to “take away the stone?”
Are we one of who are caring for the body surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds of death, thinking, “I don’t think anyone needs to know what we saw there?”
In the face of grief are we one of those who feels so often like dry bones, only to be suddenly enfleshed with a flooding of memories and images that come out of nowhere?
Are we, like Lazarus, one who has faced the tomb and survived, recent memories of death, not knowing why he is still alive?
And into this Jesus walks and weeps. The shortest verse in the Bible, and one of the most significant, “Jesus wept.” (Jn. 11:35) The God who speaks the words of light and life, of hope and consolation, of resurrection and life, is the God who grieves with us. Here we see that Christianity is not a place of avoiding pain, but an invitation into the heart of God who bears the reality of our humanity, our pain and our ability to inflict it.
We know here, that in this textual story, Lazarus does rise from the dead. And yet we are called also into a deeper level of the story, in that it is exactly this action of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, that seals Jesus’ fate. The Gospel says, recounting the conversation of the Pharisees, who fear that their holy places and their nation will be destroyed by the Romans, ‘So from that day on they planned to put him to death.’ (Jn 11:53)
The one who comes into our midst to grieve with us, is the one who walks the way of the cross, the God who faces into the horror, the injustice, the evil in us, who goes to bring light and peace there also. The God who walks the way of the darkness of death, that the dead might see the light beyond. The God who tells us that death is not the end of the story, but that we will be reunited with those we love in God.
And yet this is also the God who does not offer us easy answers or lets us do the same to each other. And when we face into the reality, our own grief or that of others around us, whether we see it close up or via the media, pictures of the absolute devastation wrought by not only illness and natural disasters, but the inhumanity of the slaughter of innocents, in the classrooms of Newtown, the streets of our cities, and in all those less publicized and forgotten places. How can we face all this, without letting it kill us too.
Who can model for us the way ahead at this time?
I suspect the answer may be both comforting and disturbing. It will probably be different for all of us. The usual answer would be Jesus. But in the faces of the devastated parents of Newtown, the grieving parents of Trayvon and Tamir, and others like them, the victims of terrorism, and those hollow-eyed pictures of the perpetrators, the usual answers don’t work as well. We know that God and God’s near failing love is with us, but somehow like Martha facing Jesus, we know that we are in a different place than the one looking back at us.
I think perhaps, during Lent, someone who can show us the way forward is Lazarus. I find myself wondering about the relationship between Lazarus and Jesus before the crucifixion. Lazarus, the one who has been raised, the one who knows the journey that Jesus must take. It is the ones who have faced death and know the reality of the light beyond that can comfort us at this time and give us the strength to keep going.
They may be those who have survived, if they can work through their trauma and guilt. The teachers who will return to a rebuilt school, the EMTs who continue to race into the aftermath, the students who survived and will go on with this as a part of their eternal story.
Or perhaps it may be those who have not survived.
As we pray for the souls of those who have died, it may be them who can be here for us who have not. In the midst of our horror and grief, what is it that they wish to say to us?
If they were here, what is it they would wish you to know? What words of comfort and reassurance would they enfold you with?
Those that gather on this fifth Sunday in Lent come together, not simply to gather as a human community, but to gather as the body of Christ. When they stand at the altar/table, they do not stand alone. For those celebrating the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist, as the prayers are said over the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, we join together in the prayer in which we are told we stand with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” as we say “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We stand with God and all those who have gone before us. And in this God speaks and acts to bring us into communion.
In this communion we are called to receive and trust the one that calls us to the foot of the cross, to the emptiness of the full tomb, and to the fullness of the empty one, the voice that will someday call us into the eternity of God. And it is into the hands of God that we commend those we love, in confidence and trust in the midst of our pain, that the God that enfolds them in love, will enfold us also as we face the days ahead.
Bible Study Questions:
Where do you stand in this story?
How do Martha and Mary’s questions to Jesus, and Jesus’ response (including weeping and asking how their beliefs help them make sense of this) give us a model of both grieving and caring for those who are grieving?
What is the Christian responsibility to prevent violence and traumatic grief of others through attention to social issues of gun violence prevention, inadequate resources for mental illness, racism, and other forms of oppression? How might we need God to help us in such acts of grace?
The Rev. Dr. Storm Swain is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is the author of Trauma and Transformation at Ground Zero: A Pastoral Theology, Fortress, 2011.
For Further Reading:
Worden, J.W., Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for Mental Health Practitioners, Springer Publishers, 2008.
Kraus, L. (et.al), Recovering from Un-Natural Disasters: A Guide for Pastors and Congregations after Violence and Trauma, WJK Press, 2017.
Day, K., ‘Gun Violence and Christian Witness,’ Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 2014. https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/65
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