A Time To...
There are 1.59 billion, billion with a ‘b’, users on Facebook. 1.59 billion people making up the world’s largest online community. Every month 1.59 billion people share pictures of grandchildren, their latest thrift shop find, the latest snowfall totals, and even pictures of cats doing cute cat things (don’t believe me? Just check out Pastor Tim’s Facebook profile).
There’s a lot of upside to Facebook. There really is. I know some in the room might view social media as a waste of time or as a watered down reality. But Facebook has allowed many of us to reconnect with childhood friends, family, and even stalk people who in real life we would never talk to. If you’re not convinced yet, just know that teenagers, the students I work with on a daily basis very much view Facebook as an integral part of their lives. While it might just be virtual to you, it is very much so reality to them.
Facebook is a place where we share our joys - videos of our children walking for the first time, maybe meeting a celebrity in a hotel lobby, or sharing with the world the spread of loot we received on our birthday or Christmas morning.
Facebook is also a place where we share the lower points in our lives - the newly discovered illness, the loss of a job, and even car accidents. When dating relationships go south and sides are chosen online it can lead to very volatile (and real) situations.
Facebook is a place where we can share the best and the worst that life throws at us.
Our reading this morning from John’s Gospel has everything a Hallmark Channel drama needs: sickness, a friend who delays going to see the ill, fear of a dangerous journey, death, despair, anger, crying, and then just as you get back from a dramatic commercial break a restored life.
When Jesus is first told about the illness that has overcome his friend Lazarus he does not spring to his feet, quickly or frantically rearrange his schedule like we might do, and then take off in a guy to go see his ailing friend. And this delay goes unexplained. Jesus doesn’t say why he is staying. All he says is that the “illnesses does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”
When Jesus decides it is time to go see his friend, two days after receiving news of his illness, fear overcomes the disciples. They are afraid because they had just left the place to where they were returning. We heard about this just last week. “The Jews took up stones again to stone Him (John 10.31)...Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands (John 10.39).” It’s no surprise then that the disciples question the logic of Jesus wanting to go back there. First century stoning’s were a big deal and if you were on the receiving end of those stones life looked pretty bleak.
By returning to place they had just ran from, the stakes are being raised. And we end up finding out that Jesus has sealed his fate by returning.
When they arrived Lazarus had been dead for four days. The body prepared and already placed into a tomb. When they arrive, Jesus and the twelve, Martha greets them not with signs of love and compassion that you might show to someone who just found out their friend had died but instead her despair and griefs comes out in full force: “if you (Jesus) had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus reminds Martha that he “is the resurrection and life”, a line that most funerals today begin with, reminding Martha and everyone around him that new life is found in him.
We then move to Jesus visiting Lazarus’ tomb, the equivalent of us today visiting the grave of a lost friend who we were too late to say goodbye to. Jesus begins to weep. Not just cry but weep. Weeping seems to me to be similar to crying but with more emotion. Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, Immanuel, the Light, the Son of God is visibly disturbed being in the presence of death.
When we see Jesus crying, deeply moved and angered in spirit, we have to, we must remember that Jesus while being fully human was fully divine too. Meaning, that God is weeping when faced with death. God is angered by death. God is deeply moved when faced with death. Sin has a power over us that since the garden has led to death, and still God cannot come to terms with the power sin has over us.
Jesus calls out to Lazarus to come out and then the four day dead man walks out, still bounded by the strips of cloth that had been used to prepare his body for burial.
This must have been a dramatic scene. Imagine, all of the emotions of Lazarus’ loved ones. The weeping, despair, and anger towards Jesus. And then Jesus is like, not today. Lazarus come on out. Take off those bands of cloth. Take off your funeral garb.
I am uneasy reading this scene sometimes. I am uneasy reading it because death is not exactly something I have dealt a lot with. I’ve been blessed to be able to count the number of funerals of family members I’ve attended on one hand. I can fill out the other hand with funerals for friends’ family members, church members, and a work colleague. In each of those instances, being faced with death I’ve never known how to react. Even in seminary there’s no class that teaches you how to deal with death. I mean I can tell you the theological significance of how death is not the finale. I can tell you what you’re supposed to say to the family, immediate and extended, and even how to deal with that crazy uncle who might get a little loose in the tongue during a eulogy.
But still, death when faced with in a personal way makes me uneasy.
This past December my grandfather finally succumb to a long battle with multiple illnesses. My grandfather, Sonny as many called him, was a ‘man’s man’. He served in the Army, could literally fix anything you put in front of him, could belt out a hymn better than anyone in the choir, and even didn’t have a problem confronting a preacher who had, ‘no _______ idea what they were talking about’ or who was too long winded during a service that was to be followed by a church potluck. And yet when he passed away last month, I didn’t know what to do.
My lifelong Methodist background, years and years of Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, small groups, and even seminary did not prepare me with how to respond to death. Which is odd if you think about it. The endearing term Methodist was originally a derogatory label because of how structured and regimented John Wesley’s approach to spiritual formation seemed. Everything about our church is organized and structured. Everything from nominating church leaders, the structure of our local church, and even the global Methodist infrastructure is regimented. But when it comes to death, we have no protocol. There is no handout or book from Cokesbury that says here is how you mourn. Many Methodist pastors and leaders have written books on the subject, but from the denomination with method in its name, we get nothing.
This is where Facebook comes in. While my grandfather was sick family members would post on social media updates about Sonny’s ups and downs before my mom or grandmother could pass the information along to us. This made it nerve wracking for me to sign in online. My job depends on me being online to connect with students and their families. And when he did pass away, my first instinct was to get a hold of my sister who lives in China to make sure she knew about Sonny before a rogue second-removed cousin shared the news online.
In the age of instant updates and news, often our first instinct is to post what we are feeling or experiencing. Maybe you don’t do it personally, maybe you’re one of the few who are able to filter what is appropriate to share online and when it’s appropriate to share, but the vast majority of those who are connected online do not know how to filter the what to post and when to post it.
Unlike Jesus, who always seemed to be focused on the present, what was right in front of him at the time, we have a hard time dealing with what is right in front of us. Like in our reading today. Jesus learned of his friend’s illness and yet he stays two days and waits.
So we escape. We post things online that solicit a response from those recently reconnected childhood friends or strangers who always seem to like our cat photos. We are so distracted by the dings and tweets and snaps that we often miss out on giving or giving the greatest gift we can give someone, being present.
We live such distracted lives that we have outsourced the grieving process. We have funeral directors now who are more than willing, for a price, to plan the entire grieving process for us if we choose.
“Dad wouldn’t care about the flowers, but make sure he’s wearing his red tie. He always wore a tie to church.”
“We don’t really care what hymns are sung, we just want to service to not be too sad or ‘churchy’."
Even my grandfather’s funeral lacked the necessary opportunities for his family and friends to grieve. This is no fault of my family members, my mom, aunt, and grandmother who planned the service. When it came down to whether or not we wanted to grieve, we panicked. We opted for things that made us comfortable rather than allowing ourselves the opportunity to praise God for my grandfather’s life.
In her book Mudhouse Sabbath author Lauren Winner, who grew up in a synagogue but converted to Christianity while in college, outlines the Jewish grieving process. Ahh process, something Methodists can relate to.
Mourning for Jews is something that is not just a disciple but it is expected. It’s engaging. From the days immediately following the death, aninut, the time immediately after the death where both the mourner and community have obligations to yearlong reciting of the Kaddish the mourner is actively engaged not only in mourning but also praising God.
“This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way the mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast food society can easily accommodate.
When Jesus allows himself to weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus he is allowing the grieving process to begin. He is sad. He doesn’t hold it in because men don’t cry. He doesn’t hold it back because he is the Son of God and he should act like it. No he weeps. His spirit is angered and he is displeased with the state of affairs. There in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel God is weeping. God is weeping at what sin has done to us and even all the while knowing that in him this temporary death would not last.
This could be the bluntest scene in the New Testament.
When we look behind the tears of Jesus, the Son of God, we are able to understand much much more, maybe more than he originally intended to show the world, that he was in fact human. And sometimes our human emotions need percolate out. And yet, we can’t do it. We often cannot figure out how to allow our human emotions to be exposed and we hide them. Hold them back, for fear that they might be seen as a weakness.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook shared this grieving process with the world on the 1 month anniversary of the death of her husband, the end of sheloshim or mourning of a spouse. She posted what printed as a 4 page essay outlining how she was dealing with the death of her husband. She shared with the world her grief. On her Facebook page, she very publicly shared that death is a terrible terrible thing. And that many of us don’t know quite how to deal with it. And when we don’t know how to deal with it we say things like, “it's going to be okay.”
Sandberg’s response to that is similar to Jesus weeping at the graveside of a friend:
“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”
Grief is the acknowledgement that death is terrible. And yet, for us we have the Good News of Jesus.
When we hear the words of John 11 verses 25 and 26, “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.” We find hope. We find it knowing that even God is grieved when confronted with death. And knowing that allows us to grieve when confronted by death. And yet in the midst of our grief, in the midst of Jesus’ grief we find hope of life everlasting with a God who loves us so much that he grieves alongside us.