by Wendy Bower, Trained Counsellor and Member of Littlemore Church, Oxford
I prepared this sermon a couple of weeks ago, when the world was a different place. However, the two things from the story of Lazarus (John 11) that drew my attention, seem even more relevant in the place we find ourselves in today.
The first of these is ‘tears’. It was not just Mary and Martha who wept at the loss of their brother, this is one of the very few places in the Bible where we read that Jesus wept. Most of us would probably expect to see some tears shed at the death of a loved one, but I wonder if we have lost sense of the much wider language of tears and as a result we have stopped listening to what they have to tell us?
Tears are the first language we learn when we enter this world. As a helpless baby we have no words with which to communicate and so our communication very often is in the form of tears. Many of you will know that I do some voluntary work as a counsellor, and one of the phrases that I hear frequently is “I don’t know why I’m crying”. It is only as we explore together the possible meaning of their tears that things begin to make sense and to shift. Tears flow from the most authentic place within us. The place that is hidden from others and maybe even from ourselves.
David Runcorn has written a book entitled ‘The Language of Tears’, in which he says that one of the things that makes tears particularly significant is that they are a point at which our emotional, spiritual and bodily selves meet. Tears have huge significance for how we develop our understanding and consciousness, and our search for meaning and purpose in our lives. Yet even within the Church, awareness or discussion around a spiritual dimension to our tears is largely absent.
In the Bible there is a particular expression of pain known as lament. It is an expression that is largely absent in Western culture and in the Church. Many of the Psalms start off on a note of lament: Psalm 4 ‘Answer me when I call, O God; Psalm 10 ‘Why, O Lord do you stand far off?; Psalm 13 ‘How long O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?’; Psalm 55 ‘Attend to me and answer me’. The prophet Jeremiah was known as the ‘Weeping Prophet’ because he felt the distress of the people so deeply, and was so overwhelmed at times that he prayed for a greater capacity to weep.
I have a very vivid memory of an event that took place when I was a young child, probably around the age of eight. My father was a very busy man – working, studying, a church leader, lay preacher and charity representative. When he could do so, he also loved to spend time gardening. He was a gardener of the old fashioned kind, in that he would clear his boarders every autumn and spring and replant with colourful displays. This particular Saturday afternoon he had planted out all the annuals that he had grown from seed and carefully nurtured in his greenhouse. He then went off to a charity fund raising event in the evening. While he was out we had the most spectacular storm, the like of which I have not seen since. The heavens opened and there were hail stones the size of golf balls that smashed glass panes in the greenhouse and decimated the garden. I remember going to my mother in floods of tears and asking her why God had let this happen, and that it was so unfair when my Dad was so busy doing things for God! My mothers response was to give me a telling off for daring to blame or question God! That response stayed with me well into adulthood. It wasn’t my Mum’s fault, she was only passing on what had been taught to her in the church we attended – a theology of submissive acceptance, but the result was that for many many years I lost the whole language of lament because I thought it was unacceptable to God.
The book of lamentations in the Bible is probably the one that is least read, studied or preached on. It is an outpouring of raw grief, bewilderment and anger over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It also has resonance with some of the distressing things we experience in the world around us today. The pain of the world has to go somewhere, it doesn’t simply disappear if we ignore it. What do we say to God when the world has gone wrong, when we experience those times of deep disappointment, fear or sorrow? Lamentation is a call to remember and stand alongside those who suffer, it is an acknowledgement that things and systems are broken. In fact it is more than an acknowledgement, it is an outcry. If we exclude lament we exclude the possibility of wrestling with our faith. We may not find it easy to ask the question why, but it does not go away. If we are going to be authentic in our relationship with God then there are going to be times when we protest and lament.
There is increasing anger and protest in the world around us, and we might think those things have no place in our faith or in our church; that they are things that distance us from God. But if we look again at those places of anger and protest in the Bible we can see that they reveal a closeness to God, not a distance. Anger has no place in an apathetic relationship – why bother? Anger comes from a place of hurt within a relationship of love.
It is often in that raw place of lament that we encounter God. We see this again in many of the Psalms that begin with lament but end with deliverance and praise. This is not the same as a happy ending. The circumstances which caused the lament may not have changed, but in the passion of honest tears we meet with God and hope is forged. We do not need to protect God, He is able to absorb our anger, our sorrow, and our pain.
The lament in this story of Lazarus comes out of the closeness of the relationship that Mary & Martha had with Jesus. It was that close relationship that enabled them to admonish Jesus with the words, “if you had been here, our brother would not have died”. In other words, “where were you when we needed you”? Jesus had his reasons for being absent, nonetheless he was absent. It is at this point that we read that Jesus wept. How are we to interpret Jesus’ tears? I wonder if in part they were due to the terrible position he was in, of having the power to prevent the pain and loss that his friends were going through, and yet having to decide not to use that power, at that particular time, in the way that they wanted him to. When we lament the things that are broken and painful in our world, I imagine God weeps with us as he encounters again that same paradox of having the power to intervene but also having to decide, for reasons we may not understand, that he cannot use that power in the way we want him to.
From the gospel reading we know that this particular story has a positive outcome and that Jesus calls Lazarus back to life from the tomb. However, it was the tomb that was the second thing which caught my attention in this gospel reading.
For Lazarus the tomb was a literal physical place. Outside the tomb people were gathered to talk and weep, inside the tomb all was silent. Jesus cuts across both the noise and the silence and cries out with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out’. Lazarus hears the voice of Jesus calling him by name out of the tomb, and into freedom and life, and comes forth. There are other resurrection stories in the New Testament where it is the voice of Jesus that calls the dead one back to life.
There are times in life when we find ourselves in a tomb. Not a literal one but a part of ourselves that feels empty, or bound, or voiceless, or perhaps even dead. It may even be that we are reluctant to leave our particular tomb – it has become familiar to us, and who knows what might happen if we step outside it? Perhaps the current social distancing and isolation feels like a tomb to some. It is not always easy to believe and accept the promise that Christ makes to us, that he came to give us life in all its abundance. It is not always easy to make the choices that are the most life giving, especially in dark times. But know this, however, impenetrable we feel our tomb to be, it is no barrier for a saviour who shouts salvation through the rock.
Lucy Winkett in her book ‘Our Sound is Our Wound’ puts it like this: the sound of resurrection is for us the same as it was for Mary Magdalene and for Lazarus and for Tabitha. It is our name yelled, whispered, implored, by a God who with unimaginable compassion … searches and pleads for us to emerge into the light of such love we have never thought of.
So, there is a two fold invitation to us today. The first is, dare we be authentic and allow ourselves to voice our cries of lament before God and each other? The second is dare we listen to Christ’s voice calling us out from the tomb, and to say yes to the life that He offers us?