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