"Jesus began to weep"-Sermon for Lent 5, John 11:1-45
Hope…hope for me is the quintessential virtue and gift of the Christian faith. Hope is what we come here each week to discover or rediscover…and perhaps rediscover is the best word to use…for hope to remain alive, to suffuse our lives, to become the defining characteristic of our faith, the flame of hope, the light of hope, must be nurtured, tended, cared for…we must never let the fire of hope ever go out.
Like beginning a camp fire without the aid of lighter fluid, or a starter log, or some other chemically enhanced fire starter (what a boy or girl scout might call cheating), we must carefully tend to the task. A single match has almost no chance to light up an entire pile of wood. Instead, we must begin by gathering small twigs that are dry and light easily. We create a teepee of sorts to allow enough oxygen to flow in and around those wigs. We have to block often with our bodies or other materials gust of winds that might blow out the vulnerable flame we are nurturing. Then we must add fuel consistently and carefully…never leaving the newly lit fire’s side…diligently adding more twigs and leaves and other easily combustible material. Then we can begin to add larger sticks and eventually larger and larger pieces of wood…till we can carefully lay a log across the fire…at the perfect time…when the fire is large enough to not be crushed and snuffed out by the pressure. Sometimes the fire needs a little boost…so we blow on the flames, avoiding inhaling too much smoke…to give the fire that added boost…a little flow of oxygen to bolster the flame…and overtime…and with great care and attention the fire begins to take on a life of its own. It grows, becomes strong, provides warmth in the cool night…enough heat to roast smores or even a hot dog…giving us the physical nourishment in the form of cooked food that we need to sustain our bodies, to sustain our living. And then even after the fire is fully lit, strong, robust, almost self-sustaining…providing light in the darkness…giving us a sense of accomplishment and joy as the campfire stories begin, the food is brought out, and the guitars come out of their cases and familiar songs ring out that remind us of good times, meaningful times, the love that exists in the circle of friends that surround the fire…the good cheer we then light up in one another…even then the fire can never be neglected…for without adding the fuel it needs, over the course of the evening, over time, it will eventually go out and the heat and light will diminish…so we tend the fire…even as it provides for us its own gift…warmth, light, nourishment.
So it is with hope…it must be tended, nurtured…carefully, intentionally…as we make our own way through life. For life can indeed, at times, be cold and dark. There are times when we find ourselves hungry in body and spirit…needing nourishment to sustain the lives we live…energy to overcome trials and travails, light to see a firm, clear path ahead, heat to warm us up and get our blood flowing when we feel the coldness all the way down in our bones. For if we don’t tend to the flames of hope, then the darkness can and will interrupt our vision, and the coldness immobilizes us, and we feel like we have no energy left…nothing left to nourish our bodies and souls. Thus, we profoundly need hope and must tend to its flames, keep them stoked, kindled and strong.
As we come to the fifth Sunday of Lent we near the end of our 40-day journey through the wilderness, our journey of introspection and self-examination, the time of reflecting on the ashes that represent our own mortality. We are moving ever closer to the cross…which reminds us of the death that Jesus did die…and we come face to face with our own sin and brokenness that inaugurates that most unfortunate and undeserving of deaths. But even in this time when the story we consider and tell in church gets ever darker, ever more barren, perhaps leaving us feeling cold and worn out, if we but pay attention, we find that even in the darkness, even with a cold wind whipping by, hope begins to emerge. After all spring time is upon us, the vernal equinox has past and the day light is lengthening, the temperatures are rising, the birds are beginning to sing, cardinals and blue jays fliting on our bird baths, flowers beginning to emerge at the tips of our plants. Even our gospel lesson today, on this fifth Sunday of Lent, begins to point us to hope. We can begin to just barely see past the sorrow of Good Friday...and the flames of hope are indeed rekindled.
As the great preacher and teacher Tony Campolo is best known for saying, “It may be Good Friday…but Easter is coming.” It may be Friday but Sunday is coming. The Son of God’s triumphant day is coming. Like song birds singing a hopeful tune in a cemetery reminding us of a truth that is as old as time itself…that love not evil…that life not death stand at the end of all things. And hope is what will surely get us there…all the way there…the great move from Good Friday to Easter. For hope is what kindles the fire that shows us the way. Thus hope…seeking hope…looking for hope…nurturing hope is what we do till we arrive at the other side…hope is the very elixir of life as we stand in our own nighttime moments…as we live in the darkness, face the cold wind that soars through our death-dealing world. The world has so clearly not yet been set to rights…and in so many ways we feel moored in Friday…the sin, brokenness, death and disease that so often characterize the world we live in and the lives we lead. And this is exactly how our Gospel lesson begins, not ends, for again it ends by pointing us to hope, but as it begins, Jesus faces the death of a dear friend named Lazarus. He was even told of his friend’s illness by Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha who sent word to Jesus that their brother was not doing well. They reached out to Jesus the one in whom they had placed their own hope. The one whose love and teaching and friendship had kindled the flames of hope in them. But Jesus did not come, or did not come in time…and Lazarus succumbed to his illness…he died and was buried. Thus, the fire of hope waned, the fuel was almost spent…like coals that though they still smolder and burn produce no flames…no movement…and little in the way of heat.
And this is not a foreign experience to any of us. We all know the grief of losing someone we love dearly to death or divorce or distance. Perhaps we have had a health scare, the diagnosis we did not want to hear. Or gotten the call that someone we love has made a really poor choice and is in jail or the hospital. Or gotten the proverbial “pink slip”…learning that the company is headed in a new direction and we are not a part of that plan. Or whatever it may be…we know what it is like to find ourselves out in the darkness and cold of night…lost and sad…like coals that though they still smolder and burn produce no flames…no movement…and little in the way of heat…hope begins to diminish…it begins to wane…to even go out.
But as I said, this is a story that in the end points to hope, so whatever reasons or commitments or good and important work that kept Jesus away, he did come. He came to Bethany and entered into the sadness, the loss…the nighttime moment that must have felt terribly dark in the wake of Lazarus’ loss for those who loved him. And this includes Jesus’ own sense of profound loss. The Gospel tells us that Jesus wept for his friend. He experienced his own sadness all the way down to his own toes.
Now we know the end of the story…that Jesus goes to the tomb and tells Lazarus to come out…and he does. We also know, or least profess by faith, that death has no power over our own lives and the lives of those we love…that it is more gate than grave. And I sincerely hope that this truth we proclaim engenders hope. That it is a profound, life-altering well spring of hope…for though we have not arrived out our Easter celebrations this year, we know how the story ends…we have walked through this Lent and Easter cycle many a time. Further, each and every Sunday in the life of the church is an Easter celebration and our Eucharistic prayers tell the story of resurrection to us each and every Sunday…and I hope it is has been, or is being, written on our hearts, inscribed upon our bones, life wins, love wins, we are an Easter people. In the fullness of time God will be all in all…as St. Julian said all will indeed be well. God intends and will ultimately provide a good and everlasting end for each and every one of our lives…whatever nighttime, Good Friday-like, moments we might find ourselves in along the way. There is indeed hope in our own confession of faith to be discovered.
But…but before we even get to that…get to the end of Lazarus’ story, Jesus’s story and our own stories…especially when this promise of Easter that stands at the center of our faith feels far off and distant…when the darkness and coldness of the moment won’t allow us to look beyond the sadness and loss we are currently living in…even now when the hope of future resurrection feels distant, and maybe even unattainable, when the world seems like such a mess that untangling it all is just impossible, there is still hope to be found…even now…right now. And it begins with our tears and in our grief…with Jesus’ tears and our own. For our tears says something…they say to us that we believe in love…that we are made for love…that we desire nothing more than to belong to love…God’s love and each other’s love. When we weep over our own losses, they say to the one we have lost, “See how much I love you…my love is not tied to your physical presence or anything you might be able to give to me…I just love you for who you are and for the love you have for me.” Our tears are an eternal witness to the bonds of love, the power of love…that love is what makes us whole and the world go round. There is hope that love, God’s love, is the most powerful force in the universe…and our tears and grief tell this story. God’s love that exists within us…is both the reason we grieve and the source of hope that our mourning can turn to gladness for love is huge and powerful. I would suggest that it was the love that Jesus had for Lazarus, the love that led to his own tears at his own experience of loss, that provided the very same power that Jesus used to heal him…to bring him back from the dead. So our grief is indeed holy and our tears express the power of love, which makes all things new. Hope emerging not on the other side of our loss, not at the end of the story, but right in the center of it…right in the midst of the darkest and coldest moments.
Something else that I note is that when Jesus arrives it says that he found Mary and Martha being consoled by their own community…their own loved ones. And again there is hope here to be found…for our love and care one for another is so often how the fire of hope is lit and nurtured till it brings life and warmth and light and nourishment. For as we care for one another, as we literally shed our own tears at the loss and sadness of another, we say to them, “See how much I love you…I will give you all my love a source of healing…as a measure of hope…my presence will remind you that you are not alone.” Again, in the midst of our sadness and loss, not at the end of the story but right in the middle of it, we are living, breathing hope for one another, like blowing on a fire, providing the oxygen it needs to come alive, our care and love for one another breaths hope into their lives…and at times it is the very air we need to live.
And lastly, I will note that Jesus is indeed present, when he is needed most. If he was needed during Lazarus’ illness…he was needed even more at Lazarus’ death and he was there then. Jesus reminds us that we have a God who weeps, who knows our pain, who loves us and is with us in the midst of our suffering…in our most nighttime of nighttime moments. Jesus is with us…his sweet Spirit is with us…like a person with a stick shuffling the coals that are dying down…giving them the room they need to breath and increasing their heat…adding fuel to the coals…such that a flame can again emerge. Even before the end of the story…even before the miracle happens…in the very midst of the darkness and as the cold wind blows…Jesus is there…thus there is indeed hope.
This is our work as a family of faith, to nurture hope, not at the end of the story…but right in the middle of it…right in the midst of the sadness and loss…right in the midst of the darkness, the chill, the moments when our souls are literally starving. Our tears that flow from the love in our hearts point us to hope. Our care for one another that is an expression of love points them and us to hope. Jesus’ faithful presence, his own tears for all of our suffering, points us to hope. And I believe it is the fire of hope, kindled and burning brightly in our lives, that allows us to see the end of our story, the end of the story for all we love, which is indeed Easter…healing, wholeness, even salvation. Hope is what allows us, gives us the energy we need, to make the great move from Good Friday to Easter. Thus, our work is to always kindle the fire of hope in our very midst…to even now tend it and nourish it…to provide the fuel it needs…and never, never let it go out. Amen.