Lord, If You Had Only Been Here

October 28, 2013

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According to Celtic legend, All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day is when the line between the living and the dead is blurred, when the dead roam freely upon the earth. This may not be far from the truth. Today as we remember the Saints that have gone before us it seems as if they are not as distant as we think.

Thomas Merton once said, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time . . . If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”[1]

On a day such as this, the line between the human and Divine is quite thin. As we recall and celebrate the lives of the saints this church is transformed into a “thin place,” a place where the relationship between God and we who have gathered becomes very soft, porous, and permeable.[2] The Saints remind us that the work of the church is not bound to a single life span, and those who struggled to bring about the Kingdom of God are timeless and everlasting. We do not remember the Saints for the acts that they have done. We remember the Saints because in this “thin place,” the Holy Spirit makes God’s story present.

In our story today, Jesus blurs the line between the living and the dead. Jesus receives word that his beloved friend, Lazarus is sick and near death, and interestingly he waits for two days before setting out on a two day journey because, as Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.” After word spread that Lazarus died, Jesus travels to his home in Bethany. When he arrives, Martha, Lazarus’ sister says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Isn’t this a familiar phrase—“If only . . .” When tragedy strikes us, when bad things happen we are quick to say “if only.” “If only I had worked harder.” “If only I had prayed more.” “If only he had known Jesus, things would be ok.” I’ve said these things before, but these are not helpful. This suggests that our faith in Christ is to be a protective bubble shielding us from harm. I wish this were true, but this is not the Gospel. Bad things happen. People suffer; a suffering Jesus knows well. Some of you here may have experienced suffering, illness, sadness, the loss of a loved one. What are we to do when we come face to face with suffering? Jesus continues to Lazarus’ grave and there he meets Mary who, through tears, asks Martha’s same question, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, he too wept. Jesus didn’t say, “Rejoice! Lazarus is in a better place,” or “Mary, it was just his time,” or “God called him home because he needed him more than we do.” No. Jesus wept.

God’s story is a history of weeping. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God.’” “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.” When we are faced with suffering, weep. Weep with those who weep. God’s story is a love story written on tear-stained scrolls. Now, some who were there said, “Could he who opened the eyes of the blind man not keep him from death?” That was never God’s promise. Christ did not come to prevent suffering; rather he came to redeem it, to transform it. Christ did not come to prevent death; rather Christ came so that death would not be the end of the story. Saint Francis wrote, “The Lord himself led me among the lepers and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” Christ is not about the prevention of suffering but the redemption of suffering.

He approaches the tomb, and commands that the stone be rolled away. As they prepare to roll the stone away, Mary says a curious thing—“Lord, the stench is great because he has been dead for four days.” Doing the work of God is not always sanitary. Doing the work of God is not always clean and tidy. Sometimes it’s messy and difficult. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Poverty has a particular smell to it. Jesus, what are you doing? It’s going to smell in here when you remove the stone. Don’t let your fear of stench get in the way of seeing the glory of God.

Jesus commanded Lazarus to “Come out!” As Lazarus slowly exits the tomb, Christ commands him to be unbound. As Christians we are to live unbound lives. We do not play by the rules of the world. The world tells us that death is the end, that death is the ultimate victor. Friends, this is not so. Our story does not end with death. Our story ends with life, an eternal communion with God, and God has given us a precious gift to remind us of this unbound reality . . . the table. When we gather around the table, we commune with the saints, those who have gone before us to be in the presence of God. When we are faced with life’s hardship we are to weep and weep with those who weep. We are to receive the nourishment to live unbound lives. We are no longer bound by law or sin or death or sensibilities. Communion is beautiful and dirty. If you sanitize your hands before communion, you will only taste the sanitizer. Now, I’m not going to lick my hands before giving you a piece of bread, but sometimes, most times, we go too far in sanitizing the church. This is not a sanitized place, but it is a thin place. It is a place in which the line between the living and the dead is soft, porous, and permeable. We dine in the presence of those who have gone before us, so that we are nourished to do the work of God. This “thin place” is a means of grace whereby we see glimpses of the eternal, glimpses of heaven. There is life around this table. I find it very interesting that in all of our stories over these last four weeks, bread is broken. Today is the day when those who once were dead roam freely upon the earth. This may not be far from the truth. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.