Passage: John 11: 1-4, 17-43.
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This passage confronts us with one of those uncomfortable things we in the West tend to ignore: death. I’ve done a lot of funerals as a pastor, as well as sat in on very intimate moments with people as they were going out. I was an on-call hospital chaplain for four years when I was in Wisconsin, through COVID. I consider it a sacred part of my vocation - in fact, it is strangely one of my favorite parts of being a pastor.
My final funeral I did in Wisconsin will always stay with me, because it was so full of the guy’s personality. The man who passed away claimed he had seen a UFO fly by his house late at night. People in our town thought he was full of it. Then there was an article in the newspaper three weeks later talking about other witnesses to a strange, unexplainable light in the area.
That was a unique experience to hear, but then I got an email about a week later from the funeral home. The funeral home was very hesitant because they always worked with more traditional pastors. I was known for being a little edgier because I hung out at bars. That’s all it took in these small towns, really. But this funeral home was overly-apologetic, and then said: “So… the family asked him to be carried out to the country song ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.’ Is that okay?”
I quickly Googled the lyrics. My mouth dropped as I read it. I felt like I had just entered a sitcom. So, after thinking on it for about ten minutes and realizing it was worth taking some potential pushback for, I replied that it was okay.
At the funeral, as I was delivering the eulogy, when I got to the part when I announced what song he was going to be carried out to, the congregation started laughing as I stumbled over my words. I felt odd saying those words out loud, until a family member explained to me that he and his deceased wife used to dance to that song all the time. It was their favorite.
Believe it or not, that is only half the story. There’s other key characters that you don’t need to know about.
But that was a funeral that I will always remember because I felt like I was best friends with the guy. I felt like I was on his porch listening to him tell his UFO story with weird country music playing in the background. I felt like all of his life wisdom and insight he had was passed onto me.
Let's go back to the passage a bit. What’s so interesting about the account of Larazus is that Jesus is shown to spend time intentionally grieving with people over Larazus’ death. He never gives a direct answer about why he was gone beyond some vague answer about it being God’s plan. He just sits and weeps. Jesus, the Messiah of the world, is moved to compassion upon seeing Larazus’ dead body. He doesn’t shy away from the process, He doesn’t tell people some vague platitudes - instead he enters this heavy space, and shows what resurrection will look like someday.
In the United States, we are used to a sense of toxic positivity around uncomfortable things like death. Believe it or not, at least on a cultural level, toxic positivity comes from a response to our earliest founding days. When the Puritans came to the colonies, they brought with them a theology which stated that we were totally depraved and beyond redemption save for God’s predestined grace - but even that was selective. Every earthly desire or hope was basically evil in God’s eyes according to the Puritans. That’s not exactly a message that’s easily sold on a cultural level.
The other competing theologies in the colonial era, the other free church movements like Anabaptism and Quakerism, combatted this by having a more positive view of God. But ultimately Puritanism won the American narrative, however it was a view that wasn’t exactly sold well because, at the basis of it, was this idea that you could never fully tell if you were a Christian and that you were always garbage in some way. Puritan pastors used to have to swear a promise that they would be okay with God if, even after committing themselves to following Jesus, if they would be okay with going to hell if it was God’s predetermined plan.
Eventually, a response to this came out called the New Thought movement. This idea was that you could get whatever you want with positive thinking, and out of this came movements like the Prosperity Gospel and the Christian science movement. To this day, prosperity preachers and more Reformed theologians will actively debate each other.
Kate Bowler, a Duke university theologian and researcher, spent her academic career looking into the prosperity gospel movement. She didn’t agree with any of it, but she found it fascinating. But as she was researching, she was diagnosed with a lethal form of cancer. Suddenly, all these ideas she was looking into about health, wealth, and prosperity, came to a head. She was coming to these church services unintentionally absorbing this message that Christianity is about personal success, physical healing, and having the perfect image.
What she found in the prosperity gospel was eventually what she found in a lot of other church movements. In her memoir Everything Happens for a Reason, she talks about well-intentioned church folks essentially telling her the same thing as the prosperity gospel folks she was researching. Somehow the American dream of a good, successful life blended into Christianity.
She found, too, this is what’s historically embedded in our culture: this idea of thinking our way to success means only thinking about the positive things around us. It doesn’t take long for us to recognize that is just not how life works.
The thing about Kate that kept her grounded was that she married a Mennonite, something that can solve a lot of problems. He came from a more traditional community, but when she was getting married she was gifted a copy of the book the Martyrs’ Mirror. What she was struck by in Anabaptist culture was their embrace of suffering and loss. It wasn’t ignored and it wasn’t dismissed. It was an acknowledgement that God was present through all of the suffering without denying its ugly effects.
She saw that the Gospel confronts us with this idea that we cannot avoid the inevitable. We are all going to face God some day. Because of that, how we live matters. How we treat those who are suffering matters. And in that space, we can find Christ weeping too. Not success, not unbridled happiness. But a God who loves humanity so much that He doesn’t leave us to ourselves.
Kate is still alive today, with this uncertainty about why she is still around. She spends her time now teaching and podcasting about her experiences. She helps other cancer survivors through their grief and emotions. She helps to acknowledge the uncomfortable things.
This passage shows us that suffering and death happens. We aren’t going to live perfect lives. We need to shed this idea that living a good Christian life is about personal happiness at the door of our churches and our faith. And we need to acknowledge the ugliness that pain brings because Jesus takes time to acknowledge it before raising Lazarus from the dead. He takes time to weep and mourn.
We need to weep with those who weep.
And we need to acknowledge just how precious and valuable our lives are.
Don’t waste a second thinking that just because you’re unhappy, or you have struggles, it means you’re a bad Christian. In this passage, Mary and Martha faced doubts about God’s goodness and presence. They wondered where he was as Lazarus was dying. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them, but rather comforts them.
We aren’t told much about Lazarus, but we are told he is missed so dearly that life seems to stop when he no longer is around. It is only when Jesus fills those wounds that we see meaning and purpose. It is only when we face death that we can face the true beauty of what God promises.
So for this sermon, I tried to do a meta experiment. I read a book about writing your own obituary called Yours Truly by James R. Hagerty. The book is written by a Wall Street Journal obituary writer, and he gives advice on how to form your life so it’s remembered the way you want people to remember you. Part of the project is interviewing your friends. So I tried to interview mine, and offered some light bribery. I figured it’s part of the price of being friends with a pastor. None of them took me up on the offer. They thought it was too weird.
But, excluding that, I did write my own obituary. I wrote down the things I want to be remembered for. I looked at the obituaries of some of my favorite writers. Perhaps it’s what I tend to read, but I noticed how all of the obituaries were very frank about their flaws.
I did the same. I wrote about the things I struggled with and the failures that helped form me into the person I am. Nothing nearly as intense as those writers, but it was honest. It was a very sobering experience, but it helped reshape my goals and what I see in my future. Ultimately though, I realized I had no control over the way people perceive me at the end of the day. People are going to see me as they choose to see me.
I don’t know if the man in the final funeral I did wanted to be remembered for that one UFO story. I don’t know if he would’ve wanted to be carried out to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” But what I do know is that he was a loving, gentle man who was also a very committed Christian because that’s the way people remembered him.
A part of me wants to make a joke about ending the sermon here by saying, “We’re all going to die. Have a good day.” I’m resisting it, because the good news that follows is so much better. As important as it is to acknowledge death and tragedy, it’s equally important to remember God’s promises.
So here’s the good news. The good news is that God has already written the ending. Through Lazarus’ raising from the dead, we glimpse what’s in store for those who are in Christ. Jesus overcame death on the cross. He was victorious over the powers and the principalities that were set against him and us. He resurrected, and now we know that the worst pain and the worst evil doesn’t have the final say. Resurrection is here. And in our day to day lives, we can see those promises played out. This is what Easter is all about.
My theology dad, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote in Theology of Hope: “[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.”
We are in this middle space where we celebrate the historical resurrection, but we also participate in a continual resurrection in seeing people’s lives changed and seeing how God interacts with humanity still. And until that final day, we are allowed glimpses of what it’s going to be like some day. We see it in our art. We see it in creation. We see it in laughter. We see it in moments of joy. And we also see it during even the darker times, when things don’t make sense - because we know God is there.
Friends, we first have to learn to accept that God is in the mess and the dark for any glimpses of resurrection to be noticed. If we can’t trust that God is there in the mess and the pain, then we deny ourselves the beauty of his work.
It reminds me of a story about a traveling musician. His name was Thomas Dorsey. He grew up in the black Baptist tradition, studied in Chicago. He was actively involved in the blues and Gospel scene in the thirties. His career was up and rising. He married a woman named Nettie, she was pregnant. He had an apartment, things were making sense. He was playing at a revival in St. Louis one day when he got really tragic news.
A boy came running up to him with a Western Union telegram with just the simple words: “YOUR WIFE JUST DIED.”
Nettie, for whatever, reason passed away from childbirth. Both the child and her passed on. Thomas was absolutely destroyed. He buried his wife and child in the same casket. Thomas isolated himself. He locked himself in the apartment and wanted to renounce his faith in God. He wanted to get involved in the booze and drug scene that was so common in jazz.
Thomas shares that everyone was kind to him during his grief. He had a professor friend who took him to the Malone’s Poro College, which was a neighborhood music school. As Thomas sat next to a piano, he remembered a melody that was common in his childhood. The song was called “MAITLAND”, but in his tradition they paired the melody with the lyrics from “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.”
Suddenly, the words came out as he was playing - words that he struggled to pray in his grief, in his darkest days: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Help me stand. I am tired, I am lost, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the Light.”
Thomas introduced this song to a church in Atlanta. The choir absolutely loved it, and the pastor especially loved it. It took off like wildfire. It gave people comfort and joy in the midst of their most intense grief.
But something else happened. The church this song was first played in was Ebenezer Baptist Church, and that pastor was Martin Luther King Jr. That song became a guiding anthem during the Civil Rights movement, and it personally comforted MLK when he was at his absolute lowest. It encouraged him to keep going when nothing made sense.
We don’t know what would’ve happened if Thomas renounced his faith or just gave up. We don’t know what would’ve happened if he bought into that lie that faith was about happiness and success. What we do know is that because he found courage to bravely look at his own grief and make space for God, he wrote a hymn that literally helped to change the world. Glimpses of resurrection had come for both Thomas and our culture through that hymn.
When you don’t acknowledge your flaws and your struggles, when you don’t allow people to see your pain, you can’t make space for God to work in good ways. But first you have to accept life on life’s terms. There is no easy solution to this problem.
The way you live matters. You matter. You have a much better impact than you realize. I pray we all remember that as we go out from here. Celebrate resurrection, friends, and remember that God’s not done with us. Our stories aren’t final. We go on, and that is reason enough to keep seeing grace in our day to day lives.
Frederick Buechner famously wrote, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Always remember that, and may we sit with both the tension of pain and promise.