Sermon: On death

Sermon for Williamstown
2nd of April, 2017

John 11:1-45

One of the things I like about the three year lectionary cycle is the trips down memory lane that it prompts me to take. When I begin thinking about the Bible passages for any particular Sunday, I look back at what I said about those passages three, six, nine, and now twelve years ago. So I can tell you that on the fifth Sunday of Lent in 2014 I didn’t preach at all, because we were celebrating both the Eucharist and a baptism. In 2011 I preached on the reading about the dry bones from Ezekiel, connecting their ability to live again with the church’s ability to live again even if our numbers and powers are declining. That was because six years’ ago the fifth Sunday in Lent was also the day on which the first Sci Fi and Fantasy service of the ‘Church of Latter-Day Geeks’ was held, and media from all around the world were reporting on it as an attempt to get more bums on pews in a declining church, rather than as Adam Hills making fun of me while I enjoyed dressing up. Fake news!

Nine years ago, and twelve years ago, I reflected on the raising of Lazarus in the context of death. I first preached in this passage in 2005, a painful, death-darkened, year for my community.

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In 2005 three members of Janet Clarke Hall, the university college in which I was a residential tutor, were killed over the Easter holidays when their car went through a give-way sign into a truck. It was suspected that the driver hadn’t seen the sign because the setting sun was in her eyes. No one was at fault, especially not the poor truck driver. Two of the people killed were young women, best friends who had been students at JCH for the previous two years and who had then moved out together. The third was the younger brother of one of them, who was then a resident of JCH. JCH is a tiny college, where people get to know each other well, and Kate, Sarah and Daryl were deeply loved. A memorial service was held for them in the chapel at Trinity College, which JCH shared, four days after their death, and I preached on this reading. The Trinity chaplain and I chose it partly because it had been the reading used a few weeks before the Easter holidays when I had been commissioned as JCH’s Pastoral Care Coordinator.

We didn’t read the whole passage at the memorial. We ended the reading at verse 35, ‘Jesus began to weep’. We couldn’t go any further. All we wanted to do was say with Mary: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,’ and complain with some of those mourning: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ The only possible comfort we could accept that night was that Jesus was crying with us. The rest of the story of the raising of Lazarus would have seemed a mockery.

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There are times when the story of the raising of Lazarus can seem to mock our grief. We all die, every single one of us, and often those deaths don’t come peacefully at the end of long lives. In 2005, a few months after the death of Kate, Sarah and Daryl, Kirk Robson, a young man in his mid-twenties, an elder at my home congregation of the Church of All Nations, and the husband of one of the other candidates for ministry, was killed in a car accident in the Northern Territory. Kirk was an actor and musician and the Australia Council established the Kirk Robson Awards for artists in his memory (this year it was won by a movement coach, stunt performer and filmmaker called Ali Kadhim – I looked it up). On the day of his funeral, my family got the news that the shadow on my stepfather’s x-ray, the lump in his chest, was cancer. Eighteen months later, at the age of sixty, my stepfather died of mesothelioma. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the only comfort the Scriptures offered me that year was that God was mourning with me, and that as I cried, Jesus also began to weep.

But that isn’t the only consolation that we have, even if there are times when it’s the only comfort we feel able to receive. The story of Lazarus does not end there, with Jesus weeping outside the tomb. This story is a story of the triumph of faith and love over darkness and death. We see this even before Jesus arrives at the tomb, when despite her pain and her anger at Jesus’ absence Martha makes one of the greatest statements of faith in the gospel: ‘Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,* the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ Jesus, the Son of God, then raises Lazarus, freeing him from death’s bondage, telling the people: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ It seems that this is the story’s happy ending; the grieving, faithful, sisters are reunited with their brother; Jesus has performed another miracle; and presumably the mourning of the family and their friends turns to rejoicing.

Jesus in the tomb

But if this was all the story was about, the raising of Lazarus, then it wouldn’t necessarily be a story of hope for the rest of us. No loved one is going to be returned to us in the way that Lazarus is returned to Martha and Mary. But like all of John’s miracle stories, the raising of Lazarus from the dead has at least two levels of meaning. Jesus miraculously raises Lazarus from the dead, freeing him and bringing him back to life. And this individual miracle is also a revelation of the identity of Jesus. It’s Jesus who is the resurrection and the life.

Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, and as a result Jesus himself will be put to death. In the passage following today’s reading we’re told that it’s from this day on that the chief priests and the Pharisees conspire to put Jesus to death. The death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In this story we see Jesus bringing life to one family; but the story also points us to Jesus bringing life to the whole world. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and he’s that for all of us, not just for Lazarus.

Modern mainstream Australian culture is very bad at facing death. Partly it’s because so few people die at home anymore; even people dying quietly of old age do so in hospitals and aged care homes. It’s possible for people to live quite long lives without ever seeing a dead body. But I think we’re also bad at facing death because we’re scared of it. I’ve been at a few secular funerals where death isn’t even mentioned. The person is said to have ‘passed on’ and poems are read telling those left behind not to mourn, but instead to imagine that the person they loved is simply in another room. I do profoundly believe that those who love us are still with us, Paul talks about the great cloud of witnesses who surround us, but Christianity is clear that death is real. We, and everyone we love, die. And so Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, and comforts them in their suffering.

Christianity can be so clear and blunt about death because we don’t believe that death is the end of the story. We don’t need to comfort ourselves with the thought that death isn’t real, because we know that death isn’t the end. At every Christian funeral we remember the resurrection of Jesus and commend those who have died to God, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. The pain of death is real. Jesus began to weep. But the hope of resurrection is also part of our faith. In this story of Martha and Mary and Lazarus we see both, pain and hope, grief and glory. In the most dreadful times, when young people die, when death is sudden and unexpected and tragic, we might not be able to feel anything beyond pain and grief. But Easter Sunday reminds us that there is also hope and glory. That’s what we believe. That’s at the heart of our Easter faith. When we can’t feel any hope or see any glory, the church holds that hope and glory for us. We will die, and we will see the glory of God. In a fortnight we’ll celebrate that most joyfully. Thanks be to God.

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One Response to Sermon: On death

  1. Pingback: Sermon: On death | Getting There... 2 steps forward, 1 back

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