Tag Archives: Funerals

Looking Backward to Move Forward – John 11:32-44

[sermon begins after the 3 Bible readings]

John 11-32-44  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Reveleation 21:1-6a  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

[sermon begins]

One of the things I get to do at Augustana is work with a Faith Community Nurse as part of the staff here.  Sheryl is so titled because (a) she’s a nurse and (b) she works in a faith community.  See how that works?  She has a Master’s Degree. She’s a Nurse Practitioner.  She has worked in an ICU.  She has worked in an outpatient clinic. She has a passion for wellness.  She has a heart for the gospel.  She brings an amazing amount of knowledge to the congregation.  We all benefit.  She’s on vacation this week so I get to brag on her all kinds while she’s out of town.  That has to be some kind of reverse gossip, #Lutheranhumility, right?

Sheryl is part of our weekly Care Team meeting that also includes our Children and Family Minister and the pastors.  Two weeks ago she told us about a conference she attended to prepare for the upcoming Grief Support Group at Augustana.  The conference was led by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transitions in Fort Collins and known for healing and grief.[1]  Sheryl summarized Dr. Wolfelt’s three main points in this way – we need to say hello to the person who died before we can say goodbye, we need to sit in the darkness before we see the light, and we need to look backwards before we can go forward.

All three points are worth addressing.  And Sheryl will facilitate the Grief Support Group beginning on Sunday, November 15th between worship services.  I encourage you to take advantage of it.  However, it was the last point that really caught my attention.  “We need to look backwards before we can go forward.”

The story of Lazarus is a long story in the Bible.  We are only privy to part of it in the reading today.  Lazarus has died.  Jesus takes his time getting there.  Martha, Lazarus’ sister, is in tears.  Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, is also tears.  The Jews are in tears.  Jesus ends up in tears.  There are a lot of tears.  The Isaiah and Revelation verses reference no more tears but we are not there yet.  We are in the Gospel of John with a lot of tears.  Mary says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary is looking backwards.  She is looking backwards on the event of her brother’s death with Jesus by her side and with her people, the Jews, by her side.  She is doing the work of grief and the people around her are doing the work with her.

Funerals happen here in Augustana’s Christ Chapel and Sanctuary.  Sometimes the funeral is for a member of the congregation.  Sometimes they are not.  As a pastor, I make no distinction between member or not.  We are a visible church on a busy road and a lot of people know people connected to the people here.  Sometimes they just know that the building is here.  Sometimes they know the Early Learning Center is here.  Regardless, this congregation offers hope and healing in Jesus Christ and there is no more significant moment in which God’s promise is more alive than at the time of death.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Todd was the officiant for one such funeral here in Augustana’s Christ Chapel. The Early Learning Center children were on their way to lunch.  I was headed downstairs as they were headed up.  Their teacher was reminding the children to walk quietly with the funeral going on upstairs.  I crouched down and whispered to the kids, “There are people upstairs who are sad because someone they love died a few days ago…can you all help them by being quiet on your way to lunch?”  They all nodded at me, big-eyed, some serious, some smiling, some telling me their names, some waving wildly.  The children became part of the community doing the work of grief with the people at the funeral.  They started ever so quietly on their way to lunch while looking backwards up the stairs before moving forward.

There is sometimes a misconception that tears show a lack of faith. Or that funerals should be only a celebration of life – no sadness allowed.  Indeed, funerals are a celebration of the person who lived.  But they also make space for our loss and surround us with people who also feel that loss.  In the Lazarus story, Jesus cries with Mary and the people with her.  When people we love die, Jesus cries with us too.  There is indeed a time for tears to be cried and we do well to let our bodies do what bodies do cry them.  When we allow the tears to come, we are looking backward to move forward.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  Today we remember by name those who have died as part of the Augustana congregation or loved by those in the congregation over the last year.  Some of us are in worship today to hear a particular name.  Like Mary, there are people with and around us.

Today is All Saints Sunday so we also remember the saints who came before us in last two millennia.  Today there is a sign marking the stairs to the choir loft.  It reads, “No seating upstairs in the choir loft for worship today. We leave them empty in remembrance of our ancestors in the faith.”   I like the idea of seats held empty in remembrance of the people who came before us.

Saints, so named by their baptism, whose lives and voices proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ so that we might live in faith today.  Some of whom went on to lead extraordinary lives that we can look to as examples for our own lives of faith. Looking back toward the saints, we look forward in faith.  We can look as far back as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Slightly more recently through history to Hildegard of Bingen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rosa Parks.  We look backward and hear them crying with grieving people, proclaiming Christ crucified and risen for you, and setting the captives free.

In the Lazarus story, Jesus cries with Mary and the people with her.  There is a time for grief.  Jesus spends time looking backward with them.  And, only then, Jesus looks forward.  He rejoins them with Lazarus raised from the dead.

Jesus is the one who turns death into life.  Jesus turns death into life for Lazarus.  Jesus turns death into life for you.  This is an unconditional promise made by the power of the Holy Spirit through the cross of Jesus Christ, through Christ crucified and risen, for you.

God, the Alpha and the Omega, cries with us and opens our future through Jesus Christ.  “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Amen and thanks be to God!

 

[1] Alan D. Wolfelt. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart.  (Fort Collins: Companion Press, 2003).

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

April 29, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

House for All Sinners and Saints as well as Lutheran Church of the Master

John 10:11-18  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

I have this memory of an image from childhood.  I’m not sure where it comes from or how old it is.  You may know the kind.  It’s a little hazy around the edges and slightly out-of-focus but a couple of things come through in crisp outline and color.  It pops into my head of its own accord when I hear Jesus talking about being the Good Shepherd.  In this image, Jesus is laughing in a group of children who are also laughing and he is holding a little lamb.  And, after my initial freak-out about overly-sentimentalized religion that would domesticate God, this image rings true for me as I think about the story a friend of mine tells about his Hebrew Bible professor tucking in her children at night.[1]  When she tucks them in she asks them, “Who are you?”  And they reply, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” – a sweet image of mothering and bedtime as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep.  And it rings true for me when I sit with families during funeral planning and they choose Psalm 23 time and time again.  I can hear the psalmist crying out through the families’ tears and from their broken hearts, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

 

And, for some of us, there are times when it is enough and sometimes quite necessary to allow those texts to wrap around us in the sweet, simple comfort of being cherished and celebrated as Jesus cradles us in light.  But what else might these texts have to say to us?

 

Wondering about Jesus’ claim of being a Good Shepherd is a good place to begin.  Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse into one of early Judaism’s understandings of God as shepherd.  And the words of Jesus echo deeply from within this tradition as he says, “I AM the good shepherd.”  The ante is upped as Jesus also says the words, “I AM”.  The “I AM” at the beginning of his words is the same “I AM” used in the divine claim by God, by Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus statement is infused with so much divinity it simply spills out all over. In fact, it is THE claim that sets the cross in motion.  The bottom line for us today?  God is made known in Christ.[2]  But how so according to John?

 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.”   Jesus is the good shepherd who died.  There’s a leadership model that would climb the bestseller list today.  A good leader is a dead one?  Why is this?  How is this a good thing?  How is the good shepherd the one who would lay his life down?  Why does the church call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” anyway?  I know, that last question seems a bit out of order in this exuberant season of Easter resurrection but I will take the liberty of asking it anyway.  How is any of this good?  It is good because God in Jesus, dead on the cross, reveals the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God will go to wrap us into God.  Belonging to a crucified God doesn’t mean that God is dead but that death is now captured up in the living God.

 

Jesus tells the story of the good shepherd not in an idyllic, cozy, safe location as my determined memory of the smiling image of Jesus from childhood would suggest.  In this story, there is howling that warns of threat and danger and hired hands who run away in fear, leaving the sheep to the wolf, leaving the sheep to death.  Ultimately the wolf means death in this story.  This infuses quite a different urgency into the mother tucking in her child at night and asking, “Who are you?”  And the child saying, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”  The sweet image of mothering at bedtime, as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep, reverbs within a fiercer promise of love and protection.  And the wolf’s howl intensifies the prayers of a family and a community as they pray the words of Psalm 23 together during a funeral – “yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, (through the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil.”

 

One of the things that I am privileged to do with my time over the last year while awaiting a call to a congregation is funerals – lots of them.  All excepting one have been the kind where I receive the call from the funeral director that a family is asking for a Christian minister to be the officiant for their loved one’s funeral within the following three to five days.  Either they or the person they have lost to death are often long unaffiliated with or never been part of any faith community and the element of having a Christian minister seems important.

 

One could argue lots of things – that there request for a minister is simply an example of a family hedging their bets or covering their bases or whatever might work as a metaphor for thinking their motivations shallow.  Or it could be that it is something that is a supposed-to-be-done.  In some of the stories these lines of thinking might be true.

 

But as I speak with these families, often torn open by their person’s death and their own grief, there is something more going on.  That something more has to do with the ways in which meaning in their lives had been suddenly shattered into a million pieces.  What had once made sense from the sum of their experiences and gave life meaning, no longer does.  Something more is needed.  This “something more” that is needed is a word that comes from outside of their own experience.  The story of the good shepherd offers meaning not crafted from within ourselves.  Rather it comes from beyond our experience – gifted to us from outside of ourselves through the cross of the one who laid his life down.

 

As the conversation about the funeral continues with the family, two things quickly become important as the life story about person who died takes shape – having the body or the ashes at the funeral and the commendation at the end of it.  Having the body there speaks a truth about the death that has happened, just as Jesus and the commendation speaks a promise of new life directly into the heart of that truth.  The commendation is a prayer that acknowledges God’s welcome of the person who died.  The prayer of commendation sounds like this…

“Into your hands, O merciful God, we commend your child. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.”

 

When I pray this prayer on behalf of the one who has died, I take quite seriously in our text today, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

 

In the Gospel of John we hear over and over and over again how Jesus came for sake of the world.  In day-to-day living, many, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more.

 

So hear this gift, the promise of the good shepherd for you this day of Easter resurrection…

By the power of the Holy Spirit of the risen one who first laid his life down,  Jesus draws you through the cross of Christ into faith, into meaning, into new life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life and took it up again for you.

Death is now caught up into God, for you.

New life is here and now, in you and for you, by the power of the risen Christ!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Justin Nickel, personal conversation, April, 24, 2012.

[2] Craig Koester. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 297.