With Truth and Tears Comes Trust
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
I will never forget the first time I encountered death face to face. It was the summer of 1994. I was doing my internship here at Community Presbyterian Church as a student at Princeton Seminary. Pastor Brent Dugan was my teacher and mentor. One day he took me to the funeral home to be with the family of a man who had died. I don’t remember who it was or what was said, all I remember is the dead body. I had never seen a dead body before and I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. And because of my anxiety and fear, I missed everything else that happened. At the time all I could think was: If only I would have kept my boring government job. But, later I thought: If only I had heard what Brent was saying, his words of reassurance and the truth of the gospel. If only I had seen how Brent comforted the grieving family. If only I would have taken my eyes off the dead body, I might have learned how to trust God’s call to be a pastor sooner rather than later.
In today’s gospel story, there is a dead body. Lazarus has died.
And his sisters Martha and Mary are focused on his dead body.
Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here my brother would not have died.”
This is a statement of grief and anger, blaming Jesus for not being there.
But it is also a statement of faith, saying that Jesus could have saved her brother’s life.
Overall, it is a statement of regret. If only. How many times have we said these two little words?
If only she would have finished her degree. If only he would have stopped drinking.
If only she would have gone to counseling. If only he would have gone to doctor sooner for treatment. If only God would have answered my prayers for healing. If only I knew then what I know now.
We understand Martha saying, “If only you were here, Lord, my brother would not have died.”
In the midst of her grief Jesus reassures her, “Your brother will rise again...I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live.” The truth of what he is saying is: God’s power is greater than your pain, your blame, your regrets, even than death. Death does not have the last word. God does. And it is a word of life. He asks her, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a powerful confession of faith, “Yes, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus helps Martha to see beyond death to life, beyond troubles to the truth, beyond regrets to faith, beyond if only it were true, to “it is true.” Knowing the truth sets Martha free.
In the second encounter of the gospel story, Mary is also focused on the dead body.
She says to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If only. Mary uses the same words as Martha, but Jesus recognizes that Mary needs something different. Mary does not need to be convinced that God is all-powerful, even over death. She doesn’t need the promise of the resurrection. She doesn’t need to know the truth of Jesus. She needs to feel the touch of Jesus. Mary needs to grieve. Jesus not only lets her cry, but he cries with her. Jesus is hurt by the loss of his dear friend Lazarus. In the shortest and perhaps most profound verse in Scripture we read: Jesus wept. In these two words, we see a powerful truth: Jesus is human. Jesus knows our pain, feels our hurt, and is with us as say “If only….” over and over again…until we can let go of past grief and be open to future healing. This week has been difficult to hear the news. Especially the story about the abuse that children suffered at the hands of Roman Catholic priests--in PA, it was found that 300 priests abused 1,000 children. It is shocking and disturbing. I have been moved by the news videos of the survivors telling their stories, speaking truth and shedding tears together. I thought, surely Jesus is in their midst, crying with them, weeping over the children who were abused. And hopefully over time, those tears will set them free from some of their pain and bring healing.
In the story we see that knowing Jesus is human who feels pain sets Mary free.
In the third encounter of the gospel story, Jesus tells the crowd to open up the tomb, but they are focused on the dead body. Lazarus has been in the tomb four days and the dead body will smell. Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Then, to help them believe, Jesus prayed: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the crowd, so they might believe that you sent me.” Jesus knew that the crowd needed to see that he was both divine and human, he could raise a man from the dead, and could also weep…He could preach the word for others to hear, and also pray that God would hear.He knows that Martha and Mary and everyone gathered need to know how to trust.
Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And he did. The crowd no longer says, “If only you were here, Jesus,” because they know he is there with them always--as divine and human, power over death and presence in grief. And they trust that Jesus will be present when they pray and when they help one another. And so they help unbind Lazarus and set him free. With truth and tears comes trust. The story ends with “Many who saw what Jesus did believed in him.”
This story today is not about a dead body. If only we could see that it is about the truth of a God who is more powerful than death. If only we could see It is about the tears of a God who is present with us even in our darkest times. If only we could see it is about trust in a God who hears our prayers.
If only we could have such an encounter with Jesus today.
It’s been years since I saw my first dead body. Since then, I have shed tears with families in grief and reassured them of the truth of God’s promises of eternal life. And I have had the blessing of being with people who were dying who taught me about living.
When Dave Williams received his cancer diagnosis and prognosis, Dave did not say “If only,” he lived the life he had left to the fullest. When he met with me to plan his funeral service, he gave specific instructions that we were to sing the hymns with great gusto, so that he could hear them from heaven!
Sandy Stauffer was a friend of many in this church. We loved her and prayed for her to be cured. It is easy to say, “If only the chemo would have gotten rid of her cancer. If only she would have lived.” But Sandy never said that. She lived the life she had to the fullest. And was grateful for the time she had. As she was dying, I was not seeing her dying body, but her living spirit….her spirit that was not afraid to die, her spirit who trusted that God would raise her up. Her spirit that wanted us to sing “I’ll Fly Away” and play a tambourine at her funeral service. Her spirit that continues to be with us, in our tears and in our joys.
Both Dave and Sandy are powerful witnesses to us--to let go of regrets and make room for faithful living and fearless dying.
If only we could see encounters with people like Dave and Sandy as encounter with Jesus...because they are.
Thanks be to God. Amen.