Sunday, March 23, 2014

Avelut: Mourning (John 11:1-45)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

 During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

There's a question prompted by this story that I'm prone to forget to ask.

Why did Jesus weep?

We know why we would weep if Lazarus had been our friend. We would mourn the loss of our friend and show our sadness, much like Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha, as well as the other mourners present at the grave. We would feel that loss and realize that we would now continue life without our friend, and that too might make us feel sad even though we would know in our minds that Lazarus was now with the Lord.

But although he was fully human, Jesus was also fully divine and he knew in ways we don't just how wonderful it was to be in God's very presence the way Lazarus now was. He would also know in ways we don't that he would be reunited with Lazarus in God's presence, which would make their joy that much greater.

Jesus weeps in verse 35. Before this, our Bibles describe Jesus as "deeply moved" and "troubled." Those words kind of miss the mark a little bit -- the original Greek in John can mean those things, but it also has a flavor of irritation or even anger. The root word of the word translated as "disturbed" actually means "to snort in anger."

What would make Jesus angry in this situation? Is it the lack of faith the mourners demonstrate when they question why he took so long to arrive, as though he has the power to heal but no more? Is it that he knows he will be taking Lazarus away from God's presence to return him to this world? Is it that he had hoped to use this sign to show something to his own people, and the presence of outsiders will make that more difficult?

Well, we don't really know, although if I was going to lay down bets I would say it was a combination of all of the above, as well as a little frustration that the people seemed so focused on this earthly side of things and they don't show any appreciation that there is more to this matter than just the loss. When Jesus asks Martha if she believes in the resurrection of life, she gives an answer that Lazarus himself probably believed -- that all would be resurrected on the last day.

But she and the others are focused on how Jesus' late arrival meant Lazarus' death. "If you had been here, he would not have died." That's not entirely accurate. The full truth is that if Jesus had healed Lazarus, he would not have died then. He still would have died someday, though. And even though Jesus raised him, he would die again. For whatever reason, the mourners couldn't put Lazarus' death into the context of a belief that God had the ultimate control over all things, including death. Though their sadness was real, so too should have been their understanding of God's ultimate power.

Many of the Jewish mourning practices Lauren Winner describes in Mudhouse Sabbath do have that dual character. A lot of them relate activity following a death to life in the religious community of the synagogue. The people who attended the funeral come to sit shiva with the bereaved. The thirty-day period after shiva is marked off by different behavior during the next four Sabbaths, as the mourners gradually rejoin the religious community.

But even then, the mourning isn't done, as most of us who've lost someone know. According to the ritual, the loss of family members, especially parents, is marked by the twice-daily saying of the kaddish prayer for a year. And kaddish can't be said just by yourself; you have to say it with at least 10 other adults present -- which much of the time means paying a visit to the synagogue.

Even more interesting is that kaddish doesn't have any reference to mourning or any place to insert the name of the dead person and doesn't ever mention death! It's a prayer of praise to God, as if the mourner is to remember not only the sadness of their loss but also the greatness of God. Even though they probably don't feel like praising God, they do so twice a day. Winner says that any and all other responses to God are tolerated -- laments, raging, questioning -- but the prayer of praise is the only obligation that the mourner has in the eleven months leading up to the anniversary of the death. Kaddish is then said on the anniversary of the death.

Our language sometimes reflects the same kind of one-sidedness that we see in the mourners outside Lazarus' grave. We say someone "lost their battle" with cancer or some other disease or condition if they die from it, implying that in order to win the battle, they would have needed to recover. In reality, even if we win this battle, we will eventually lose one of them. Life is a fatal condition for us all; every last one of us will eventually pass away from something even if it's just good old age.

But we as Christian people hold similar ideas to our Jewish friends -- there will come a resurrection in which all life is restored and celebrated in God's presence. What we see as lost battles or endings will prove to be, at most, a pause in life as we move into a life we proclaim even if we can't fully imagine it. The language of lost battles and endings is not for us as we describe death.

Of course the bereaved have a hard time seeing this because the wound is still very fresh. But as the pain lessens, do we come to see this is the view we Christians say represents reality? Would we find ourselves comforted by understanding that death may be an end but is not the end? Many are, if not right away. Would that process be helped by praising God twice a day whether we felt like it or not? For many, it is.

We're in Lent now, closing in on a time of year that many Christians seem to overlook -- Good Friday. We leap from the entry of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter and we may not spend much time thinking about what happened to Jesus in between. And truthfully, Easter is the centerpiece of our faith -- the centerpiece of human existence, according to the gospel message. But the reality of Good Friday in the world sometimes escapes us, and we might forget that there are people all around us who live in that time of mourning or of loss.

We can't forget that, because if we do we're too likely to forget them. And if we forget those who mourn, who will tell them of the Good News -- that the Comforter has come, and the Redeemer lives, and the Savior reigns?