Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jessie and I’ve been a member at First Church for about a year now and have been attending and a friend for 2 or 3 years. I live up north in Virginia MN now but still count First Church as my home. I currently work as a hospice chaplain and prior to that I was a youth pastor in a number of denominations. And by happy providence I get to discuss a complicated and dramatic story in probably the more complicated of gospels. I once had a professor describe the gospel of John as shallow enough for kids to play in and deep enough for elephants to swim in.
This story is really the turning point of the Gospel. We see Jesus perform the greatest miracle yet, and it also immediately leads to a plot to kill him. Prior to this Jesus has been performing miracle after miracle. Also in this passage Jesus proclaims himself as the resurrection and the life . The very core of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
We also see the famously shortest verse in the bible. I was a youth pastor at one church when the 8th-graders went through their confirmation program and had to memorize and recite a bible verse. We often worked on this during their confirmation retreat. Every year a kid wanted to do John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” I always allowed it. As it happened every year one of the parents, elders or teachers convinced the student to memorize a “real bible verse.” And that always made me a little sad. Not only because I think there’s a place for humor in our faith and spirituality (another sermon for another day) But I do believe this verse is deep and impactful. It shows us Jesus’ deep humanity and grief. Sometimes I think we forget about Jesus’ humanity how he was fully human and divine. The fact that Jesus wept in the midst of proclaiming himself the resurrection and performing a resurrection illustrates both divinity and humanity.
I often wonder if it’s overlooked because the western reader doesn’t like crying. I raise the questions: How do you feel about crying. Do you avoid it? Do you hate crying in front of people? Do you get uncomfortable when other’s cry? I think we as a culture have trouble with crying and grief in general.
In the passage we see Jesus our Lord and savior crying because a man he loved has died. And I do think it’s that simple. I’ve read commentaries saying Jesus wept for a number of reasons. But some of those gathered around say “See how he loved him.” Grief is the flip side of love. Jesus loved Lazarus and Jesus grieved for Lazarus.
I remember when I was still training to be a chaplain I was working at a hospital for a year. And one chaplain was on call every day. During regular working hours we were the ones who were paged to emergencies. When the pager went off you went—sometimes you had an idea of what you were walking into and sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes if there was a messy situation with a family they would call a chaplain. And one situation was very tragic. A migrant worker who worked here in Minnesota in the summer/fall was hospitalized. So his wife and three daughters came up here while he was in the hospital. The family was religious and we had a Spanish-speaking chaplain who had been working with them. And tragically after several days the patient had died in the hospital. The chaplain who already knew the family wasn’t in. So I was called: the intern with high school Spanish. I stepped onto the unit and immediately heard very loud grief. And a nurse looked at me and said, “You need to take them somewhere.” I don’t think the nurse meant to be culturally insensitive or insensitive at all. They work very hard to keep the units quiet and restful for all the patients. And this family was yelling in Spanish and it was echoing down the entire unit. I gently guided them to our chapel/meditation space and stayed with them for what felt like hours. There were prayers, there was yelling, there was slamming of fists onto furniture and walls, and wailing. It was a grief response I had never seen before. I had witnessed a lot of tears, a lot of anger, sadness, and grief in that hospital, but not like these women. Afterwards they hugged me and thanked me and talked about their dad/husband. But what I remember most is that they didn’t apologize. They fully embodied their grief. All I did was bear witness to it and be present to them. And they went back to their hotel and made arrangements for the body and the funeral and called family. All the other times I sat with those grieving at this hospital they almost always apologized and also thanked me for being there. When you cry in front of others it’s very vulnerable. I wish more people felt freer to weep when they need to.
I was in a meeting with coworkers just last week and they started sharing tricks and things they do to try and prevent themselves from crying. Like sticking your thumb against the top pallet in your mouth or pinching your nose. I said, “Can’t you guys just cry when you need to?” But the truth is we don’t like crying in front of others.
But Jesus did. Jesus fully embraced his humanity and felt all the emotions. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God we often read he is here, and present. Fully embracing Jesus, the resurrection, and the life means fully living our faith and humanity here on earth as well as in heaven. Not just after we die but right now, embracing love and grief. There is something very powerful in bearing witness to someone weeping and them being vulnerable in that.
Once when I was leaving a ministry job and some students were saying goodbye they told me what they would remember most. Top memories were trips and hilarious things that happened in the care. But one student said, “I remember when your grandpa died.” I was in my 20s and it was my first major death and a couple students knew it happened. And we were doing check in where you say how your week has been and I shared my grandpa dying. I did cry a little bit and just talked about how funny he was. When my student shared this as memorable the other students looked confused and I said “Why?” She just said, “I don’t know.” But I think for a teen to see an adult cry and normalize that can be validating and powerful. Can you guys think of a time when you grieved with others, shared your tears and sorrows? Did it bring you closer together? There’s a reason we gather together for a funeral or memorial; it’s an important ritual in collectively naming and experiencing grief together. As well as celebrating the life of someone. That’s why public memorials are important. They invite others into the hurt and sorrow, giving space for a vulnerable and powerful connection.
Grief isn’t easy. But it is something we can share. The crowd around Jesus seeing him weep didn’t tell him to walk it off, or try and minimize it, even though some were angry. Twice Jesus is told had he been there Lazarus may not have died. Anger is a natural grief response.
I admit when I first started my chaplaincy training, I was quick to try and make people feel better. Look to the positive. That’s not helpful. Now when someone shares a death with me. I offer condolences. If we have time I’ll say “Tell me about them,” or “You must miss this or that.” Bearing witness to someone’s grief doesn’t entail talking so much as just being there. I think it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t wallow in his grief. He feels it, acknowledges, it then goes about the reason he came, to bring Lazarus back from the dead.
I think if we can fully embrace our tears then we are fully embracing our humanity and living fully in this world. My hope and prayer is that we remember that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and to fully live that in our love, in our grief, and in our shared humanity, bearing witness to one another in both grief and love.