Nearer and Nearer

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from All Saints

Listen along here.

The gospel according to John, the eleventh chapter:

32 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.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

A word before I begin: It occurs to me that on All Saints, each of us exerts a lot of energy keeping the saints at bay. Somewhere along the way, we were taught to choose composure over remembrance. Today isn’t a day for resistance. Let your beloved saints come; let them fill this sanctuary; let them join our song. //

Growing up, my best friend Emmy lived two miles down the gravel road. We were the fourth generation to live on or near the family farms that had housed our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. From our first breaths, we were deeply rooted—both in our own family history and in one another’s story, as well.

We were girls with brothers as siblings so we came out of the womb loving each another like sisters. On hot summer days, one of us would phone the other around ten o’clock in the morning and ask: “Do you want to meet in the middle?” Invariably, the answer was “yes.” We’d hop on our bikes and pedal down the washboard gravel toward the paved road that stood between our farms.

Though we departed our homes at the same time, I’d always arrive earlier because “the middle” was actually much closer to me—like four times closer. Emmy contended with hills; my route was a gentle decline from the moment I swung my leg over my hot pink Huffy. After I had coasted to the middle, I’d wait, carefully watching the wide swath of prairie dissected by a single gravel road.

First, I’d see a speck kicking up dust on the horizon. In time, Emmy’s outline would become clearer. I’d see her skinny, tan legs working hard and her blond locks blowing in the breeze. She would often do a few tricks along the way—circling for the fun of it or popping a wheelie for no one but me to see. She never took a straight path, but I never remember doubting—even for a moment—that she’d keep pedaling nearer and nearer.

Soon we’d be at a distance where we could see one another wave, and then one of us would shout a greeting, and, before we knew it, we’d be so close that our handlebars touched, and we’d take a couple joyful laps around the paved road to celebrate the simple fact that we were together.

At the beginning of John’s account of the story of Lazarus’ death, Jesus is nothing more than a speck on the horizon. Had we read the whole of the eleventh chapter, we would have heard that when Lazarus got really sick, Mary and Martha phoned their bestie, Jesus. They told Jesus that they didn’t know if Lazarus would survive the night and asked Jesus to come. For whatever reason—maybe he was trying to prove a theological point or he just couldn’t bear to see his best friend bed-ridden—Jesus ignored the women’s request and stayed right where he was. His distance at the start of this story is almost as tragic as the illness that had commandeered his best friend’s body.

By the time we enter the scene today, then, Lazarus is dead—four days dead. In the wake of his death, the community undertook its best burial rituals. Women dressed in black came ready to sit and wail alongside the two grieving sisters. Prayer shawls were slung over their shoulders. That one cousin, who had never been able to sit still anyway, was sent off to get perfume and spices.

When he came back, they all gathered around Lazarus’ body, armed with strips of clean cloth, and they wrapped him, carefully tucking balsam—better known as the balm of Gilead—and myrrh and aloes and tears into the linen folds as they wrapped his feet and legs and stomach and chest and arms and hands and head. The village undertaker helped to lay Lazarus out in the tomb. And strongest among them set the stone in place. Or was it Mary and Martha who lovingly sealed their brother in the grave? After all, the human body can do incredible things in the face of death. When it was all done, they were tired and headed back to town. Another plate of lemon bars was waiting for them on the front step when they got home.

We have the privilege of seeing Jesus enter the story. He steps inside the grief-stricken scene, thick with the sorrow that only arises out of a deep and abiding love for another. His first impulse isn’t to fix—after all, he recognizes that this is the kind of sorrow that only time has a chance of healing. He drops to his knees and weeps beside his dear friends. It’s the first and only time that we hear of Jesus’ tears in the whole of the New Testament, though this crier doesn’t believe for a second it’s the only time he shed them. The Greek word used here indicates these aren’t sentimental tears; they are indignant tears. Jesus knows in that moment just how much death stings.

Our guts know this sting. Many—if not all—of us have felt it this year. Some of you, like Mary and Martha, have come face to face with the death of someone you love. Some of you have felt, in the words of novelist Joan Didion, what it feels like when “a single person missing and makes it feel like the whole world is empty.” Others of us have experienced death in other forms—the loss of employment, the end of a relationship, institutional racism, climate change, shattered dreams. I’ve heard more than a few of you wonder in the quiet of my office where God was in the midst of the grief and pain, which is why none of us fault Mary for her question about Jesus’ whereabouts; the truth is that we’ve wondered about him this year, too.

Jesus asks to get closer to Lazarus’s body. The women take Jesus to the tomb. And they stand and face the gravestone. Together. And they remember. Together. And the tears flow, as if all headed toward the same stream.

Deep grief and deep confidence can go hand in hand, which is why Jesus asks that the stone standing between the living and the dead be taken away. The women say, “Nah, he’s too far gone. It will just make things worse for you and for us.” But, for reasons we’ll never know, they roll the stone away. Jesus is finally within shouting distance of his dead friend. He yells “Lazarus.” And the gospel writer says that the dead man emerges from the tomb. Without hesitation, Jesus invites the community to step into the work of resurrection. You and I watch as the crowd gathers near to a dazed Lazarus. They remove the wraps that bind him with the very same love they had mustered when they put them on.

Atul Gawande, the author of the very popular book entitled Being Mortal, writes that most Americans prefer to practice what social scientists now call “intimacy at a distance.” We’ve have decided that intimacy at an arm’s length is safer, easier, and definitely more efficient. It occurs to me this morning that it may be the American way, but it is not God’s way. Jesus is seen moving always nearer to those God loves—the weepy, the troubled, the trembling, the suffering, and always nearer to the dying. First within eyesight, then within earshot, and, before we know it, he’s is right here, beside us, intimately breathing life even into that which we believe to be beyond resurrection.

The good news is that God practices “intimacy of proximity.” God is near, calling us into newness and inviting us to get busy removing grave clothes that bind our neighbors. If the heaviness of your grief and the hardness of your sorrow make it impossible for you to hold these promises right now, don’t worry; you can trust this community will practice resurrection for you today and in the days to come. That is the joy of being together. And should the community falter, as communities often do, I am confident that the communion of saints, intimately gathered with us this morning, will carry the resurrection tune and sing us into life and love once again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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