Saints, Death, Weeping

sermon for All Saints Sunday (John11:32-44; Isaiah25:6-9; Rev21:1-6a)

A fair question to ask is why in the world would we think of this facing death again today as a joyful festival?

Memories, even of those we really admired as saintly, are helpful and to be cherished, but are no celebration.

On the worse side, some of us can’t walk into church without it calling to mind those we miss. It may be you can’t help but dwell on losses you grieve, the people who shaped you and brought you to church in the first place. Or that one of the last times you were in a place like this was to say goodbye at a funeral service. There are such intense emotions that it’s painful even to come through the doors, that it’s almost too much to face. I understand that, and some of that feeling is exactly what we’re dealing with today.

But before we go into more of that, I also want to put aside a different idea. Some feel uncomfortable in church because of grief and overwhelming sadness. But there are also those who feel uncomfortable at church because they suspect it’s not a place for them. If I could weed out one persistent comment and stop it from crossing people’s minds or lips, it would be the idea of being unwelcome at church or that God would be opposed to you. Too many times to count, I’ve had people say that if they walked into a church, lightning would probably strike or the roof would cave in. It hasn’t happened.

I’m not sure where that view of God comes from or how it gets fueled, but I’d wish never to have to hear it again. Because whatever causes it, that is not the God we have, not the God of the Bible, not the God embodied for us in Jesus. If you think God is out to get you or doesn’t like you or thinks you’re not good enough to be around, then you’ve got the wrong idea of God. Just the reverse, if you’ve got that notion, then God is eager to be with you, already on your side, particularly when things are bad.

That, then, brings us back to the hard confrontation of death today. Being at church can be tough because we face this mostly head on. When you’re watching sports or reading a book or working on a project, mostly you can keep distracted, with death out of your mind. Even following the news—and even when it’s just awful news—still that can mostly seem far away and not need to be dealt with. Even in late autumn days, turning chillier and darker, when trees are getting bare, still we divert our focus to the colors of beautiful leaves. Or we think about compost, and somehow separate that distinction, that leaves break down to become new soil that will nurture future life. That’s a gain, but death in our families isn’t. That kind of death is loss.

At church, we don’t talk around it. We don’t say you need to brighten up and act happy, as if you’re not actually torn up. That’s an important distinction. Sometimes this faith gets manipulated into some sort of antidepressant or motivational poster. God gets misused to whitewash over the pain or to skip ahead. We end up with trite phrases like, “she’s in a better place.” I don’t have to tell you that consolation is crap. For the people around me who have died, the place I want them to be is still with me. That would be better. I’ve also been there with too many of your loved ones whom we’ve placed in the ground, buried in a cemetery, kept in an urn. That’s not a better place. If we ignore that part of our reality then our faith becomes some escapist lie. It isn’t that we don’t hope for more, but if we jump too quickly to the end—or, still worse, if we impose that on others amid the despair of death and brush aside their sorrow, then that is not honestly our faith.

So, again, just as we don’t have a God who is out to punish those who haven’t been in church or feel like they’ve done something wrong, as God won’t ever withdraw a promise of blessing for you, neither do we have some sort of fairy tale God who always has a smile on and watches cute cat videos while ignoring our reality and dreaming that we’re all living happily ever after. That is not our God.

This takes us into our Gospel reading, where Jesus encounters the death of a dear friend, one he loved. Here, as in other places, death makes Jesus angry. It says “he was greatly disturbed.” And then he began to weep. In some versions of the Bible, that is the shortest verse. John 11:35 is only two words: Jesus wept. (There is one other verse that competes for brevity, but we’ll have to come back to that.)

For now, we should probably notice this most encapsulated theological statement of our Scriptures. What does it say to us that the briefest conception of Christ, the most summarized synopsis, the tiniest little kernel we can compress God into is this weeping? I’d say that it focuses our belief on a God of compassion. A God who sympathizes with our hurt and sorrow and pain. A God who is absolutely and utterly with us, in dejection and disappointment and despair. Who laments with us and aches with us. One who knows that death stinks really, really bad. When we face that, it’s right to be sad and broken and confused. We can’t ignore sorrow. So God knows this pain and our longing and our tears. Jesus wept.

It struck me as remarkable this week that when our readings from Isaiah and Revelation tell us that God will wipe away every tear, that that includes God’s own tears. God also longs for something else, the time when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and death will be no more.

Again, we’ll come to that. But we ought to reflect a moment more on this God of compassion, because that identity is both good and bad, to be treasured yet also not fully satisfying.

We know the blessings of sharing in grief, of being able to lean on each other. That’s among the central reasons to gather in church, especially when our lives have been fractured. I heard St. Stephen’s described that way this week, that this community helped in time of loss: in the death of a son, as a husband was struggling with terminal illness. It is the blessing of Bold Café and Soup for Schools groups, this intimate support network that can offer care and be there together in the roughest times. This is part of why it’s important to be invested in the life of the congregation, because this compassion, this shared love and concern, is such a reciprocal relationship of harvesting what you’ve put into it.

To have God identified with such compassion is the ultimate in caring proclamation. More, this love won’t fall apart, is not dependent on your investment in it. God doesn’t get distracted or have to leave to attend to other business; God is with you always. You can always lean on God and share with God. The old song goes:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—

all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged—take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—take it to the Lord in prayer.

So for one who encounters your suffering with you, it can’t get any closer and more intimate than that.

Yet—and here’s the part that isn’t so satisfying—compassion only goes so far. Misery may love company, but we need some company that doesn’t love misery. It’s good news that God isn’t against you, that—just the opposite—God is with you especially when you really need it. But having a God who knows your sorrow and your longing is not quite enough. You also need a God who can and will do something about it. A God who not only shares your tears but will, indeed, wipe away those tears, and every tear. We have this sense that death shouldn’t happen if the Lord is with us.

At this point, my proclamation to you falters. There’s a hiccup in this good news. God went into death for you, was killed on a cross to destroy death, and rose on the third day to conquer the grave and give you the victory…but, well, this doesn’t exactly feel very victorious or glorious or celebratory at this point. God, it seems, didn’t decide simply to undo death, to erase it, to make everything suddenly better. I don’t like that. I don’t like that we are still here grieving, that we’re stuck with our tears, that we still have to confront death that destroys our good relationships and steals loved ones away from us, or sucks away our own happiness or wellbeing or life.

I can proclaim to you that death is not the end. It has not won. There is more to come. And that changes everything, even if it’s all too eventual and gradual for what we’d wish here and now today. There’s a promise we have now, but we experience it not yet. Jesus rolled away the stone from his loved one’s tomb. His own stone was rolled away on Easter. And no grave will capture or bind you or your loved ones or any of the beloved of God, any of God’s good creation. That is the promise. God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. Then we’ll join together at the feast.

Even as we’re still stuck in the messy middle and it can seem so hard to go forward—to face another day, to get out of bed, to hear what the doctor has to say, to deal with our memories, to worry about forgetting, to live in this world—even though that is so much of our reality now, we trust the end of the story. And that changes everything. We don’t need to pretend things are okay when they aren’t, don’t need to stop grieving.

Instead we grieve with hope. I said we’d come back to the other shortest Bible verse. In the original language, there’s a verse that’s shorter than the compassion and shared sadness of “Jesus wept.” It’s not only shorter; it’s a counterpoint that also looks past our present sorrows, since “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans8:18). The shortest verse? “Rejoice always.” (1Thessalonians5:16)

Hymn: In Deepest Night (ELW #699)


Unity and Brokenness — a newsletter article

I’ve been sad because of a loss, lamenting that a friend and seminary classmate has decided to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Partly I’m sad because I’m convinced the ELCA is right. We live the liturgy, we embody our faith in loving service, we embrace Jesus.

Yet I’m not so naïve as to whine, “Can’t we all just get along?!” After all, I’m darn adamant in what I believe. Try saying that Jesus doesn’t matter, that crucifixion and resurrection aren’t important, that creation’s life is no big deal, and I’d be eager to argue. I’m disgruntled and disappointed that my friend’s decision involved homosexuality. But as much as I’d want to debate it theologically, scripturally, and socially, I couldn’t change his mind or convince him he’s wrong.

So much of my sadness is simply the brokenness. I don’t like separations, the pains and sorrows of our losses, whether like long-distance lovers yearning to be reunited or the harder grieving in death, waiting for the more consummate reunion in eternity. Some splits are stubborn disagreements that have gotten out of hand, while others for irreconcilable differences can be reasonable and necessary.

Amid such sorts of schisms, I also want you to know—for myself and for our community—that it’s a rupture or fracture in the Body when we’re not together here, even a single Sunday. Life is a busy balancing of priorities, but it still hurts to be away from you.

With all these dividings, we may wonder what we can do about it. How do we face brokenness in our relationships? If we can’t simply fix or correct what’s gone wrong, how do we move forward?

On the bright side, separations aren’t essentially the same as endings. I’m hoping my friend will remain my friend, in spite of our differences and this distancing. Transformations of the old may have good surprises. A new beginning may even be worth the steep cost.

Other times, we can only cling to hope. We heard John 17 a couple weeks ago, with Jesus’ prayer for us, that his followers would be one. Yet among both denominational and personal relationships, we’re pretty rotten at small “c” communion (being “united with” each other) or big “C” Communion (for the Lord’s Supper). We’re not unanimous (“one in spirit”).

But “uni’s” are not always desirable. We don’t believe that Jesus wanted us to be uniform, our voices in unison without harmonizing, for this to be monotonous. We’re reminded this Trinity Sunday that even God is not simply “One” but also distinguished as “Three.”

And in spite of it all, we believe and confess that we are indeed Unanimous, tied together by the one Holy Spirit, joined by God. Our fate, our hope, our existence is in God’s hands alone. Even when our divisions or barriers seem insurmountable, still we live in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are bound together in love—in a grand family and with all creation.

If that seems like an elusive wish, maybe our parting words—the terminology of going away—can be instructive and put flesh on it. The Germans say auf Wiedersehen, “upon-seeing-you-next-time,” sort of our “see ya later.” An adios or adieu commend somebody “to God!” in Spanish or French. That meaning is also hidden inside our “good-bye,” a contraction of “God-be-(with)-ye!” Our faith connects with the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salaam that say, “peace be with you.” Even the secular “farewell” bids the best, a salutation (meaning a “salve” for healing, health, wholeness).

Rifts in life are hard, but it’s not over until it’s over. When all else fails, maybe we practice prayerful separations, asking the best for the other. Ultimately God won’t fail. We can commend each other to God’s care and trust in what is to come; the finality remains with God who is all in all.

+ nick


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dorothy Jean Anderson  23 April 1927 + 1 January 2015

Psalm 23; Romans 8:35-39; John 1:1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We gather this moment in loss, the person you knew taken away. Death steals a loved one from you. That sad fact is also true in strong degree about dementia and Alzheimer’s, about bad illnesses and diseases that ravage somebody to an extent that you know longer know them, can’t recognize them as familiar.

I know this case has been in process since Dorothy moved to Wisconsin, at least since she became less capable and more dependent, since her mind deteriorated and her personality changed. The final fall into weakness and visit to the emergency room and her body finally deciding enough was enough has just been the last stage, even to an extent a stage of relief, for these many months of having your mother slip away from you, Chris and family. She was no longer the woman you had known.

There is blessing in many wonderful memories, the stories shared that make you who you are. With your mother and grandmother, there are things from long ago, of growing up around her. There was her care and guidance and watchful eye and all she taught you. As you grew, the memories change, but it is still the same woman you know and remember. For those of you who knew her at other times, you have your own recollections and cherished moments. Those are things that, in spite of what it meant to be losing her and even facing this larger loss of death now that nevertheless cannot be taken away. That part of her abides with you.

Yet as I’ve been reflecting on that, also striking me is how difficult—or impossible—it is really to know each other fully. Think for a moment on how much you don’t know: all the things you heard only second-hand, almost as tall tales or legends; the secrets that you heard about much later, as well as those that remain undiscovered; all the vast and long details of Dorothy’s life—from her childhood to daily routines to internal emotions—all that you just plain have no way of knowing.

I’m thinking about that because even as much of her as you knew and loved and have in some way lost, it still means you knew her only in part.

I’m also thinking about that because it echoes our Gospel reading, in discussing what we may or may not know of God. It says there’s plenty we don’t know, since nobody has ever seen God. But it’s not left to mystery or our imaginations. It says what we have known of God is Jesus.

That’s important for us, for this time of death and this time of holiday. At the end of the Christmas season, on this 12th day of Christmas, this reminds us that we know God as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother Mary, as one born to be good news for Bethlehem and for shepherds and for kings and for the sick and despairing and for Dorothy and for us. Jesus is the heart of this good news, the core and crux of what we need to know about God. We know that God has come to be with us, to dwell among us and live with us, that God cares for us. That is the Word calling us into being, creating life in us, and then entering our life, the Word that becomes flesh.

It is also this Word we know in Jesus who will never leave us, who is God abiding with us. In Jesus, we know a God who holds us close, who is there to nurse and assist us in our weakness and help us in our needs. (With that, we should well note that the point of this gathering was in gratitude for the caring staff of Heritage Monona, who are serving as an embodiment of God’s work. Thank you for doing it.) We share in this God knowledge of compassion, since Jesus suffers with us, goes through loss and cries out in feeling lonely and forsaken. So we know a God who won’t abandon us even in the face of death. Ultimately God brings us through that, out of his tomb and out of our graves to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Again, the core and crux of what you may know about God at this moment is that God is not distant or unconcerned or powerless. In Jesus you have a God of love, abiding with you for life. You are brought into God’s family, an assurance for Dorothy long ago in baptism that she was claimed as a beloved child of God. As the beautiful Romans reading reminds us, nothing can stop that love. Nothing can stop God’s work. Nothing that interferes with life. Nothing that goes wrong. No diseases or struggles or brokenness. Not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That, finally, reminds me of one other Bible passage. It’s one we don’t usually relate either to Christmas-time or to funerals, but mostly to weddings. The “love chapter,” 1st Corinthians 13, works well at the start of a marriage, when families begin together, encouraging us to be patient, kind, and enduring in love. It’s guidance that can serve well in all of our relationships. But, as we said earlier, even at our best and closest, still we only know in part. As it says in those verses, we see in a glass darkly, or have a fuzzy view through a mirror. It’s not complete yet.

“But then,” it concludes, “then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.” Those are words of promise for you and for Dorothy. She was fully known by God, recognized and loved and held throughout her long life. In faith, she clung to trust in this God through Jesus. And now she rests in the promise of completion, that she will know God fully, face to face.