Two weeks ago, while leading a workshop at Super Saturday, and I noticed someone from my past. “Beverly?” She didn’t recognize me, which is not surprising since I was 26 at the time and looked 18, and she must now be 90. “You taught me how to do funerals,” I plunged ahead. My first funeral, the Senior Minister went on vacation for a month with the assurance that everyone was fine, and four people died in ten days. The daughter of the deceased said to me, “My mother was a difficult person. My siblings and I called her the White Tornado, and I am the only one from the family even coming to the service. I don’t want to hear some kind of eulogy that makes her a saint.”
Beverly was this woman’s pastor, and she had pity on me. She showed up with a black notebook and photocopies of her favorite prayers, and she said to me that no matter what I should always start each and every funeral with the words from John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord and all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.” She explained that saying this creates sacred space, it affirms the Gospel and the great mystery of our faith. Funerals are not just about how we feel in the presence of death, it is a time to be in God’s presence in the face of the pain and mystery of death. I have never forgotten this lesson, having said these words at over 200 funerals.
We pop this verse out of the bigger story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It is a strange and complicated story, as full of mystery as death itself. I thought about the text from the perspective of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. They are very close to Jesus, he frequently visits their home, and they send word to Jesus that Lazarus is quite ill. Of course, Jesus, the great healer, rushes too their aid, except he doesn’t. He cryptically waits, takes his sweet time getting there. It strikes me as odd even in death, while everyone else is at the wake, Jesus is still at the edge of town. Martha and Mary leave the wake and go to him. What kind of pastoral care is this, Jesus?
No wonder both sisters say to him the same exact accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The Jesus they know healed the blind man, and the lame woman and cured the lepers. If there is one thing that every person knows about Jesus, he is a healer. Why would a healer let someone he cares about die? To emphasize the distress, John’s Gospel has both sisters come to Jesus. The author could have advanced this story line with just one sister coming to Jesus. I imagine if you are writing on a papyrus scroll in ink with limited space to tell your whole Gospel, you don’t waste words or scenes, so having them both come to chastise Jesus matters. It is the Gospel’s way of emphasizing the reality of grief and anger in the face of suffering. Lazarus’s corpse is not the only thing that stinks, the whole situation stinks, and Mary and Martha want to make sure Jesus gets that.
This is the first time I have noticed that Martha and Mary receive different responses from Jesus. Martha hints that maybe there is still something Jesus can do, and he replies, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha has read Theology Today, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This was popular Jewish theology, something the Pharisees would affirm, and even three centuries later in the final ending of the Nicene Creed reads, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Which then prompts Jesus to make this famous statement “I am the resurrection and the life…” What exactly does that mean, when is the body raised from the dead? Do we not go to heaven until this resurrection? I draw some comfort thinking of my close relatives in heaven, are you telling me they are still asleep in their graves waiting for a general resurrection? Very thick books have been written to parse the answer. A thousand years later people were still debating, what happens if your leg was amputated, or your head cut off? Does God have an adequate tracking system of all your spare parts? Jesus has opened a real can of worms here, and when you are thinking about being buried, the last thing you want is a can of worms around. Jesus then finishes this pastoral conversation asking Martha what she believes, and she affirms that he is the messiah, and then she goes and gets her sister. Jesus makes no promises to her, other than a general hope of resurrection and eternal life.
If you were Martha, would the theological response have been reassuring to you? Is it enough now in the face of our real grief and pain? The NY Times has a great op-ed last Sunday titled, “After Great Pain, Where is God?” The author had just been in touch with several good friends going through terrible things, divorce, death, the loss of a child. He shared,
Another lifelong friend recently died of colon cancer. His wife wrote to me: “I wish I could tell you that we are walking this journey with courage and faith, but that really doesn’t describe our situation at all. The outward courage feels like a ruse to convince ourselves that this immense pain will subside in time, and the weakness of our faith is showing us its shallow limits. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/25/opinion/sunday/after-great-pain-where-is-god.html
No one can teach you ahead of time how to be good at suffering. No theology will immunize you when the time comes. C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century wrote that God allows suffering in the world so we can understand goodness. Pain is often the way God breaks into our lives, and Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: It is (God’s) megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Then his wife died, and everything changed. In his next book, “A Grief Observed,” he wrote: “When your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence…. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’ ”
Which brings me back to Jesus’s encounter with the second sister, Mary. She has a very different conversation with Jesus. Unlike Martha, once she has said her brother would be alive if Jesus hadn’t been out with his merry men, she makes no request of him. She just weeps at his feet. Imagine if Jesus had then said, “Mary, I am the resurrection and the life…” Her response might be bleeped out on network television. Jesus joins her in grief. He is deeply moved. He does not tidy up the death of Lazarus or reassure her that everything will be alright in a few minutes. He asks to go to the tomb, and there he weeps as well.
I learned at a young age that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” He wept after seeing the injustice of the city of Jerusalem, wept at the death of his friend, and on the cross he would shout Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” John shows us a complex Jesus, a rabbi who loved theology, but also a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. The ending of the story is complicated too, for it is not a story of great rejoicing for Lazarus, but rather this is the moment that Jesus’s enemies decide to kill him. This is the act will ultimately lead to his death and great sorrow for Mary and Martha. This is like watching a World War I romance. If you liked “Manchester by the Sea,” then this story is for you.
So let me share a complicated conclusion to an intricate story, by finishing the funeral of the “White Tornado.” I asked the daughter where the nickname came from. She said it was from a 1970s cleaning commercial for Ajax, where they would open the lid and a white tornado came out, which represented the power ammonia rush. I asked if I could mention in the eulogy that the children’s nickname for her mother was the White Tornado and the woman who didn’t want a pretty eulogy looked at me with horror. “Is that appropriate?” Well, its your number one description of her. So she gave me the green light. The deceased woman had been the head of the Brown library, and one of her colleagues stood up after the eulogy, looked right at the daughter and said, “She could be a white tornado because she was a perfectionist, she pushed us hard and pushed herself even harder. She had no idea that her perfection, which was painful to her, was also painful to us. But she loved the library, and she loved truth and she taught me to value that too.” Afterwards the daughter cried and told me how beautiful and healing the service was, and it taught me the power of our sacred moments.
We live in between our pain and our theology. If we ignore the pain of grief and death, our theology cannot save us. If we forget our theology, pain is all there is. Faith embraces both, and so we keep saying in hope, “I am the resurrection and the life, and all who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”