The Gospel lesson that we heard this morning is one of the most human and holy stories in all of our tradition. In fact all three of today’s readings are powerful testaments to our God. We heard in the verses from the Wisdom of Solomon that the dead are like gold, tried in the furnace of life and accepted by God. Rev. Kathleen M. O’Connor, writing in Feasting on the Word, summarizes this passage by saying the dead are fragments of God’s light, blazing into eternity with God, whose souls continue to be present to God and in communion with the living. Let’s hear that again. The dead are fragments of God’s light, blazing into eternity with God, whose souls continue to be present to God and in communion with the living. Her description matches the poetry in the scripture reading itself. Verse 9 of our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon says: …and the faithful will abide with him in love. Whoa. They are fragments of God’s light, blazing into eternity with God. They are abiding with him in love. Those two metaphors for what happens to faithful people after their bodies stop working are powerful powerful images. And if that is the word you needed to hear this morning, ignore the rest of what I am going to say.
Fast forward, really far forward, to the Book of Revelation. If you are like me, the Book of Revelation is something you approach with confusion and wariness. It has been used and abused by so many, for so many different reasons that many main line Christians would be happy to ignore it altogether. But we ignore our scriptures at our own peril. So let’s put this scripture in context. The Book of Revelation is at its heart, a book that consoled the early church, a church that experienced great persecution. Remember, many members of the early church were Jewish followers of Jesus, in a world where Rome ruled the entirety of life, including religious life. These followers of Jesus were members, by some accounts, heretical members, of a faith that was barely tolerated by the Roman Empire. Further, they preached a universal humanity, and a new heaven and a new earth, ideas that were seditious, treasonous, to the Roman Empire. They paid for living their faith and preaching the Gospel, in ways we can’t even imagine. It is that context that John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation. And it is in that context that we heard the comforting words: the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples. Death will be no more. How lovely. And how comforting. No matter if it is you, facing death, or a loved one, death will be no more. And if that is the word you needed to hear today, tune the rest of the sermon out.
For those of you still listening, I find the story of Lazarus in the tomb, one of the most reassuring passages in all of our Gospels. I am reassured that the followers of Jesus were as complex as I am; I am reassured that on occasion, they got it, but mostly didn’t. I am reassured that they were frustrated with Jesus, even as they followed him, I am reassured that Jesus cared so deeply about his followers that he wept, and I am reassured that Jesus was not afraid of death. That’s the kind of follower I am, only getting it some of the time. And that’s the Jesus I want to follow. I relate to this story. Many of you know I grew up with 5 brothers. One of them died tragically when I was 20 years old. You can tell by my gray hair that was a while ago…..The anguish we all felt when Johnny died was like Mary’s. How could God let that happen? If God had been there, If God had cared, Johnny would still be here. I know many of you have felt similar things. But what does scripture tell us? When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and those with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed. Jesus began to weep. I don’t know about you but I am deeply reassured by Jesus’ weeping. That’s the Jesus who walks with us. He cares so much he weeps with us. But stay tuned- he doesn’t let that anguish have the last word. But before we get to that, we have the almost comical part of this story where Jesus asked: where did you lay him? They show him and he says- move the rock away. They look at him and each other and say; are you crazy? This is the Middle East! It gets hot here. Hot as Hades. Laz has been dead 4 days! 4!!! The smell will be horrendous! I can almost see people inching backwards. Yet Jesus persists. He is not afraid of death. Some of them, reluctantly, I presume, roll away the stone. “Lazarus! Come out from your tomb my beloved brother”. Lazarus stumbles out, bound up by the things of death. “Unbind him and let him go.” And that too my friends, is the Jesus I want to follow. The one who is not afraid of death, of deadening wounds, of hardened hearts, of clenched fists, or restless nights. The one who beckons us, gently and persistently, each and every day out from the tombs that cripple us and invites us into new life. That is the Jesus I want to follow. The one who does this fearlessly. The one who does this even though he himself is being harassed by the authorities and whose own friends don’t understand what he aches to explain to them. That is the Jesus I want to follow. The one who loves us all anyhow and calls us to love each other the way he loves us. Recently this congregation passed a covenant that laid out how we were to treat each other. It is on the back of your program. These are not simply words. They are how we strive to live like Jesus in this community, in this church. They are how we practice who we are as followers of Jesus here, so we can live that love better out there. There is so much more to say about each of these three scriptures that we heard this morning. But sometimes less is more. So. If you are only going to remember a few things from this sermon remember this: Jesus loves you. He loves you so much that he weeps with you when you are hurting. And he calls you and all of us to come out from the tombs that trap us in pain and sin so he can unbind us and set us free. Remember too that pain, that death, does not have the last word. Love does; God’s love for us, all of us, through Jesus. Remember that your departed loved ones are fragments of God’s light, blazing with God in eternity. Remember those things. Jesus wept, and weeps still. And then he sets us free! Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God!