November 4, 2012
My grandmother, or as I would sometimes call her in Swedish, my Mormor – which means mother’s mother – died three days after Phoebe was born. My parents, following my dad’s hunch that this baby was on her way, rushed from Minnesota to Upstate New York and got to our house the day I went into labor. Phoebe was born the next day. Two days later we brought her home, made it through our first night, and the next morning the call came that Gramma was gone.
Within 45 minutes my parents had packed, loaded their van and were gone, heading back to Minnesota to help my uncle with final arrangements and the funeral. In those moments as they were packing I remember sitting on the couch holding Phoebe, numb with shock, trying to process what was happening. My thoughts were like a tape on a continuous loop circling and re-circling through my brain. “I have a beautiful baby girl. I’m a mommy. Gramma is dead. Mom and Dad are leaving. I’m a mommy!”
Before they left, both of my parents held and kissed Phoebe, and they hugged and kissed me. My dad told me that it was going to be all right. I had a beautiful little daughter and I was going to be a good mom. It would be okay. But anyone who’s ever had a baby or lived with someone who’s just had a baby knows that your postnatal self is like one big hormonal pinball machine. You’re happy. You’re sad. You’re elated. You’re in the depths of despair. All new parents are exhausted, but add in a measure of grief to this mix and you’ve got a roller coaster ride of crazy.
I was a mommy. But I really wanted my mommy. And my mommy wanted hers. The one thing that helped get me through those first few days of learning how to care for my newborn daughter as well as grieve my grandmother, was when my mother called to tell me that that Gramma knew all about Phoebe. Up until that phone call, it had haunted me to think that she had died and didn’t know that Phoebe had come into the world. I think it was my sister-in-law who went and told her that Phoebe had been born. Gramma was mentally sharp right until the minute she died, so she knew exactly what that meant. Her 21st great grandchild had come into the world. She loved the name we’d chosen. She was thrilled that we’d given Phoebe the middle name Hope because that is also my mother’s middle name. She knew that Phoebe was well and that I was well, and then, as though she’d been given some sort of cosmic permission, she died, peacefully and quickly. No suffering. No lingering. In fact one of the doctors who attended her hugged my dad afterward and told him that she’d died a good Swedish death. Everything, every organ, every bodily system, just shut down at once.
Phoebe was born. My grandmother died. I understood then that the circle of life isn’t just a beloved Disney song. It is real. And as much as I missed and grieved my Mormor, I had this brand new little life in my arms that needed me. So we went on.
But that time made me realize just how tenuous the line is between life and death. We know intellectually that death is a part of life. We recognize our mortality and the mortality of others. It’s there. It’s real. But that knowledge doesn’t absolve us from grief, from loss, from the anguish that follows.
That’s where I think Mary and Martha are in this passage from John’s gospel. Death would have been an even more intimate experience for them than for us. There were no hospitals or life support machines. Death, most often, would have occurred at home, in the midst of the family, in the midst of life. Yet the grief and the loss and the sorrow were still there. That anguish was as real for Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, as it was for me, for any of us.
Our passage today begins after Jesus has heard that Lazarus has died, after Martha meets him and tells him that his presence would have prevented Lazarus’ death. Jesus gives Martha the words of assurance that death is not the final word, and Martha declares her belief. Our part of the story begins with Mary. Mary hears from Martha that Jesus, the teacher has come, and she goes quickly to meet him. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates many things well, but I think its language loses the force, the punch of what happens in this moment. Where it says that Mary got up quickly, I think would be better translated as jumps up. Mary hears Jesus has come, at last and apparently too late, and she jumps up. She rushes out to meet him. The NRSV states that she knelt at his feet. But a more apt translation would be she threw herself at his feet. This is no calm, collected greeting of a beloved teacher and friend. This is a grieving, desperate, even angry woman who throws herself down in front of the one person she believed could have kept her brother from dying.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In other words, where were you? Why didn’t you get here faster, sooner? Why didn’t you do something?
We read that Jesus’ response to Mary’s tears and the tears of all the people around her is that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit.” But what does that mean? Most often I have heard this interpreted as Jesus was moved by compassion and remorse and his own grief for Lazarus. But one commentator sees this disturbance of spirit as Jesus being frustrated, disappointed and even angry. The people who should have had some glimmer, some grasping of what and who Jesus is still don’t fully understand. They still live by an old model of how the world works. We live and we die and we’re done. But the coming of Jesus has irrevocably changed that model. Something new has happened. Through him we have a different kind of life, a new life. Death is no more. Why can’t they see it?
So Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?” Then Jesus weeps. And his display of emotion brings up mixed feelings in all those around him. “Look, he’s crying. He really loved Lazarus. Yeah, but if he could open up the eyes of the blind man, why couldn’t he keep Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus goes with Martha and Mary and the others to the tomb where they’d laid Lazarus. There was a stone in front of it, foreshadowing the stone that would block the entrance to Jesus’ own tomb, and he tells Martha to take away the stone. She says, and I paraphrase, “Lord, Lazarus has been dead four days. It stinks.”
Learning that Lazarus has been dead for four days wasn’t just to give the reader an indication of passing time. In Jewish tradition, it was believed that a person’s soul or shade hovered above the body for the first three days after death. After the third day the soul would make its way to Sheol. Perhaps this was John’s way of making it clear, to borrow from a beloved musical, that Lazarus was really and most sincerely dead.
When Martha tells Jesus that her brother has been dead four days and it really stinks, Jesus tells her once again, as he did in the verses preceding this passage, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
When the stone is rolled away, Jesus prays. And then he commands Lazarus to, “Come out!” Then he does something wonderful, yet I think most of us miss it when we read this story. Jesus raises Lazarus, but then he calls on the community to “Unbind him, let him go.”
Jesus gives new life to Lazarus. But the community is called to share in that experience of new life.
On this day we participate in two important aspects of our life of faith. Today we observe the tradition of All Saint’s Day. We lift up in our worship the saints that have gone before us. We remember our collective saints, men and women who have undergone persecution and torment, who have literally given their lives for the faith. We number the women and men who have devoted themselves to lives of service and witness, who have shown through their words and their deeds the love of God to all people. And we remember our personal saints, our grandmothers and grandfathers, our parents, our children, our friends, all of those people who in one way or another contributed to the depth and meaning of our lives.
Today we also recommit ourselves to stewardship, stewardship of our time and our resources and our gifts and talents. We acknowledge that while Jesus creates the new life that is all around us, we are called to participate in that new life. We are called to unbind one another from the cloths of death that are wrapped around us. Not only do we celebrate the new thing that God is doing in our midst, we are called to be bearers of that new thing to others.
So how do these two aspects of our faith relate to one another? What is the connection? Believe me I’ve spent several weeks trying to figure this out. And although I’m not really sure I’ll ever have a complete answer, I think that the connection lies somewhere in that line, that tenuous line between life and death. In remembering our saints, we remember that life and death are never very far apart. We remember that life is both precious and fleeting. As stewards of God’s goodness, we also know that we are called to live fully in the time we have. Life is both precious and fleeting so we need to make sure that as many people as possible know of God’s goodness and love and mercy. Isn’t that the fundamental purpose of the Great Ends of the Church?
And both our saints and our stewardship remind us of our reason to hope. The people who have gone before us had great hope that God in Christ would swallow up death. Every tear of grief and sorrow would be wiped away. Death would be no more.
Death will be no more. That is why we remember our saints. That is why we live and serve and give. That is our hope. That is our joy. Death is no more! In Christ we have new life. In Christ we live, now and forevermore. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”