(Just a note that this sermon was written for the context of my 20 year high school reunion. It was part church service, part memorial service. Out of my graduating class of 339, we have already lost around 20 or so classmates).
“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV)
My apologies to those of you for whom this may be a strange and disturbing look. Often when I tell people that I am a pastor and they knew me in college or high school, they usually back up. “But JV I knew you back when!” Yes, I’m well aware of that. And we’re not gonna tell anyone about those times.
We come together this morning to praise the one who has sustained us for 20 years since the last time we all gathered. We also come to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are not with us. And I am not afraid to speak the truth as you all know, we are all too incredibly young to have lost as many classmates as we have. As we say the names and recall the faces, the reasons are as varied as the people. Some taken too soon because of accidents, some by their own hand and demons, and some by the horrible “C word” cancer.
And for every name, there was at least one person in this world for whom that person was their world. It is important for us to remember, while all of the names may not be familiar to us, they were familiar to someone. At holiday or family gatherings there is a hole. At children’s activities or important events, there is a missed absence. In times like this when we think back to fun memories and maybe even the troubles, we notice who among us is missing.
It is also natural to feel a bit of guilt. We can easily fall into the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve categories. We also may wonder if there’s something we have the power to control to prevent death. My brothers and sisters, take heart and know that none of the deaths we marked today were your fault. We might wonder had we invited Amy to come with us which she have been in a car accident? Maybe we should have been more purposeful in reaching out to Shawn or Andrea to help them walk as they battled their demons. Or we may lament the fact that cancer took Holly or Shelly and there still is no cure in a country that has the resources to find them. And so, while I will not tell you how to feel, if you are feeling that guilt, that’s fine. But do not stay there. We call to mind the good times, the times filled with joy and light, the times that may get you through your own dark days. Unfortunately, “death” is too familiar a word for so many of us. It has snuck its way into our vernacular more times than we care to admit. Maybe you do not just mourn our classmates, perhaps you have had the unfortunate task of burying a spouse or partner or child. The pain endured is difficult on your best days, crippling on the worst. The good news is however, my brothers and sisters, death is not the final story. The ending for us is not death. It never has been and it never will be.
By the time Jesus had arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. And Lazarus was dead dead. He was all the way dead. Not “oh isn’t that cute he sleeping.” But dead. All of the friends and relatives had already come to visit, the casseroles had already been eaten, flowers would’ve already started to die, and people had most likely already started to go on with their lives. But Martha, in the midst of all of her grief, was not prepared to welcome Jesus into her home without saying something. Martha as well as her sister Mary knew what Jesus was capable of. And sol Martha, in the midst of her grief, most likely through ugly tears, yelled at Jesus. This was not a sweet demure womanly thing to do. But, by this point in time, Martha really did not care. Martha was grieving and, quite frankly, pissed off. She needed to take that anger out on someone. So she did what most of us probably would’ve done. She yelled at Jesus.“Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died”. Now we must understand that Jesus was not a casual visitor to the home. Jesus loved Lazarus. Although we are not told in this reading, Jesus was most likely quite upset that his friend Lazarus had died. After all, like us, Jesus was fully human. This means he had a full range of fully human emotions. That includes all of the emotions that normally a company death. Grief, anger, confusion, denial, everything that Mary and Martha had been experiencing already for four days, was very real to Jesus.
As Jesus approaches the home, Martha does not even wait for him to arrive at the door. She runs out to meet him. Most likely already yelling at him as she goes. “Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died!” I wonder how many of us find ourselves questioning ourselves in similar situations. Had I been where ever my friend may not have died. Had I invited them over, faught for more treatments, called them when I was thinking about them, they may not have died. I’m sorry to tell you my friends, but none of us are powerful enough to stop death. None of us had the power or ability to stop death when it came for our classmates.
But just like graduation was not the end of our stories, death also is not the end of our stories. The hope of the resurrection is for all of us, friends. I want to make sure you heard me loud and clear, the hope and promise of the resurrection is for all of us. And here is something you may not hear very often especially from people in my profession. It is completely OK if you doubt what I just told you. Make sure you hear me again. As far as your faith life goes, it is appropriate, natural, maybe even a little expected, to have doubt. What is comforting to me even in the times of my own doubt and yes there are some, is that the God I serve keeps promises. And God’s faithfulness to me is stronger than my doubt of His existence.
Here is something else I want you to know. God loves you. God loves you more than you ever will know and more than you ever can imagine. It does not matter if you are in church every single Sunday, or the last time you’re in church was 20 years ago. God loves you. And God loves you despite anything you may have done that you continue to beat yourself up over it. God loves you despite the ways you may have fallen short. God loves you even in moments of darkness and uncertainty. And why? Why can this be true? How is this even possible?
I know that God loves me because of Jesus. I know God loves me because He saw me and considered me worth dying for. I know God loves me because even in the times of my own darkness and doubt I have come out on the other side, strengthened. I know God loves me because even on the days I cannot even love myself, God looks at me and says “you are amazing!” And God looks at you the same way my brothers and sisters.
And do I know any of this for sure? Nope. I don’t know anything for sure when it comes to faith and God. But what I do know is that a life without God, at least for me, is too dark to imagine. In a world where the rhetoric of hate is quite strong dare I say even popular, I need to believe that something is better than this. God has a plan for you and for me. I hope you are able to trust in that, even if you are a type-A personality like me. Trusting God can be so maddening and so rewarding all at the same time. And even if you’re not at that place in your life yet, know that God loves you anyway and still protects you and has plans for you.
My brothers and sisters, my friend, my classmates, all of you are part of my story. You are part of one another’s stories. I am honored to have been here with you today to share a small part of our life’s journey together. I will keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers. May God protect you, watch over you, guide you, and love you, until our paths cross again. Which, for the record, cannot be soon enough. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to remember how much not only I love you but God loves you as well. Amen.