The Living and the Dead

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 26, 2023

John 11:1-45

As a little boy, I went to pre-school at the Episcopal Church of our Savior in San Gabriel, California. I’ve been a church kid my whole life. Compared to Trinity, it’s a fairly new church; it was only founded in 1867. It’s got some notoriety, too, like Trinity. General George Patton and his family went there, and the life size statue of him in the courtyard towered above me as a boy. But more than anything, what impressed me as a boy going to school there was the big graveyard. I don’t think the graveyard ever spooked me; but I always knew it was there. And maybe that’s part of the majesty, the wonder of churches like this one, and that one. For the dead are never that far from the living. Here, we have the crypt, the columbarium, and the cemetery on Broadway. Just this week I was out there, walking among the yellow coreopsis flowers, and I paid my respects to four of my predecessors who are buried there. The dead are not that far from the living.

This is the reality that sinks in for Mary and Martha when their brother, Lazarus, dies. As was the custom, Lazarus was wrapped in a burial shroud and then placed in a tomb. It could not have been that far away from their home. Jesus and his disciples can walk right up to it from the village of Bethany. And of course, the tomb is sealed by a great stone. That’s to keep the stink in. Because the dead are not that far from the living, and the living don’t want to smell it. “Lord,” they say, “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

So today I want to talk about grief, death, resurrection, and Jesus. And the first thing I want to say is the first thing I said; the dead are not that far from the living. The person you miss, I know that you can still hear their voice; you know the sound of them walking in the front door; you remember their great hopes and their great fears; hold on to that. But also, don’t forget the lighter things. You can remember if they liked crunchy or smooth peanut butter; you know exactly what they would say when they couldn’t find their keys. I would imagine that this is part of what is going on with Mary and Martha. They simply miss their brother, because they loved him, because they knew him. 

But of course, not all grief is healthy grief. Sometimes, mourning can go awry, it can put us in a rut. Notice that both sisters, Mary and Martha, say the same thing to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We can imagine that they were saying this to themselves and to each other, over and over again. Like the little hamster that won’t get off the wheel at 3 in the morning, running in circles inside your brain. Replaying the same old conversations; trying to change the past. Saying the same thing over and over and over again about the one you miss. Mary and Martha know that feeling.

So we must learn to cherish the memories of you loved ones, but we must not worship them. Our memories of them, I believe, are gifts from God. That’s why we put up grave markers and headstones – so that we can remember. That’s why the living go to church and worship adjacent to the dead. So that we can call them to mind. But at the same time, we have to face up and realize that they are gone. The stone has been rolled in front of the tomb. You cannot go back in time to change anything, to say something different. What’s past is past. We don’t worship in the cemetery; my little pre-school didn’t have class in the graveyard. They are close, but they are not with us.

The second thing I want to say, is that mourning and grief have become awfully private since the time of Jesus, Lazarus, and his sisters. Notice, again, in this story, that many people had come out to console Mary and Martha. They all knew, or at least, saw their pain. This was not hidden, it was public. Not that long ago, we would wear armbands or dress in black to show our grief. Because grief and mourning and loss are not shameful. They are part of life. We all go through it. Don’t get me wrong, I think that grief groups are great, and can be great helps for us. But also, grief should not have to be sequestered, isolated, put out of the way so that the rest of us can all just live our lives. Jesus weeps publicly. He groans in distress at the death of his friend. Jesus did not go off to some private place to express his sorrow, he did it right out in public for all the world to see. Even the emotional cemeteries ought to remain in plain sight. And it is incumbent upon all of us, that when we see Mary and Martha in their distress, to offer what consolation we can. The church can, and should, hold both joy and sorrow at the same time. 

For, that is the grace in this story. All at once we experience sorrow and joy; death and life. And that’s the cross, this holy season that we are beginning. At the cross of Jesus we see an agonizing death for our sake. But we also see the instrument by which Jesus gave us new life. Yes, we walk by the columbarium, we drive past the cemetery and think of those whom we love but see no longer. And yet, we also thank God that life is changed, not ended; and that those whom we love in the Lord continue to live with all the saints in light. We come to this holy table, prepared as a foretaste, just a sampling of the great feast that is already prepared for us in the heavenly courts. This gospel passage was long enough, but I wish we would have gone on just a bit more. Because it says that soon after this, Jesus, and Mary, and Martha, and the disciples, and Lazarus are all eating dinner together. We eat to mourn, we eat to celebrate. When someone dies, we bake casseroles and cookies and mounds of chicken salad for the grieving family. When someone celebrates, we bake cakes and pop corks to share in the joy. The church gathers around this table, both to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and to celebrate our new life. Both to thank God for our new life, and to remember those who have gone before.

Finally, I got to this point in writing this sermon, and I realized that what I had done. I’ve written a funeral sermon. A sort of general one, but a funeral sermon nevertheless. Of course that makes sense, this passage from the Gospel of John is often read at funerals, its words are all throughout the burial service. So mostly what I hope to have done this morning, is what I hope to do at every funeral. Offer some words of truth. For that is what Jesus did. “Lazarus is dead,” he says. But more importantly, I hope to have offered some words of hope. For our God is a God of hope. So Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 

The dead are never that far from the living, because God is God of both.

2 thoughts on “The Living and the Dead

  1. What makes this sermon great is that you gave death its due. You entered into it as a child, past the triumphant statue of Patton and into the grave yard. You made it personal, and familial with Mary and Martha, and you dwelt with it for a time.
    The American way of death is to disassociate ourselves with our loved ones, to hand them over to strangers who gut them, primp them, inject chemicals in them, sew them up, put make up on them, and then display them as if they were not dead. We lack the human intimacy of washing and wrapping our family members, along with the very real necessity of moving them away from us to avoid the consequences of their decay.
    It is important to remind ourselves of the customs of our Middle Eastern lord and savior and of the culture he inhabited.
    In contrast to organic communities we deny death. By denying death we deny the possibility of resurrection, since one has to die for that.
    But this sermon did not do that. It gently took the listener (or reader) into the graveyard so that we could appreciate the unexpected hope of resurrection. Thank you for the rumination.

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