Fifth Sunday in Lent
2 April 2017
When I younger and would attend the children’s Sunday school class at church, the teacher would often play a game with us. The goal of the game was to get the most points, and we would score one point by quoting a Bible verse. No one could say one that someone else said, so it was always a rush to quote the famous ones first. And as soon as the teacher would say “Go”, you knew what the first verse was going to be: “Jesus wept!”
As a child, it always seemed ridiculous that two words could somehow make up a whole verse. I suppose that in our reading today, the editors of this edition translated it as “Jesus began to weep,” which is a bit more substantial. But even still, memory verses were supposed to be long, holding some kind of deep truth. There are those that we even still remember because of how engrained they are in our brains, and I’m sure if I asked you to recite one, many of you could do it immediately.
After being at church for a few years or decades, we find that there are verses that have been drilled into our memory. They sometimes reemerge when we’re not expecting them in the same way that an old song creeps into our consciousness at strange times. And sometimes, we know why verses are so popular. We understand them on a deeper level, in a part of our being that goes beyond cognitive recognition. It was only about three years ago that I finally understood the meaning of “Jesus wept.”
When I was still living in Nashville, I attended a church right at the edge of the campus of Vanderbilt University. It was a small church; you’d only see about fifty people there on a good Sunday.
I started out in undergrad as an irregular attender; I think six months elapsed between my first and second visit. After about a year of regular attending, I became an intern at the church. Halfway through that internship, I became a member of the church, and when the internship ended, I was voted to serve on the board of the church. And though the church was small, and though I ended up there completely by chance through the invitation of a friend, the community really was my home.
I invited my best friend to join me after a year or so, and he ended up becoming the worship pastor of the church. Most of the friends that I still have in Nashville aren’t through my college or other communities but rather are some that I bonded with in that community. The pastor, Dana, really became a second mother, and she remains a close friend and trusted mentor to me. I first wrestled with a call to ministry in that building, gave my first sermon in front of that congregation, got my first exposure to liturgy and worship planning, and it really was that community that gave me a renewed hope for what a church could actually be.
And I give you all of that background not to just tell you about a church, though I love talking about it. I say all of that so that you can begin to see how much that church was a part of me, be it emotionally, socially, personally, or spiritually.
Let me say that the hardest part about moving to New York was not leaving Nashville. It wasn’t leaving my school friends. It wasn’t even the fact that I’d be away from my family, since I knew that I would still see them frequently and could talk to them any time that I wanted. No, the hardest thing about leaving Nashville was that I no longer would be a part of that church.
I began the move to New York on a Sunday, which meant that the very last thing I did as a resident of Nashville was to attend a final service at my church. It was a bittersweet day, as I’m sure you can imagine. It just like any other Sunday as Dana preached, my best friend led worship, and the homemade communion bread was just as delicious as it always was. Yet in the back of my head, I kept reminding myself: “This is it.” At the end of service, Dana invited me to the front of the sanctuary, and the whole congregation sang a song of blessing to me as I left. I avoided direct eye contact with everyone, tried to think happy thoughts, and managed to avoid completely bawling in front of everyone. After the benediction I said my goodbyes, both to the people in the church and to the building itself, and jumped in the moving van to begin the drive.
As I sat in the front seat while my family drove through Tennessee and Virginia, I began to feel a distinct sense of loss. I had avoided those feelings as I was saying all of my goodbyes, and I managed to stave them off when I left that building for the final time. But now that I was sitting with nothing to do but stare at the passing road signs and semi trucks, I was left alone to grapple with what I been suppressing for the past month, and I was losing the battle. It was somewhere near Roanoke, Virginia that afternoon that I got a text from Dana that only said, “Allow yourself to grieve.”
You see, when I had been planning to move to New York City, all I could think about was what was coming. I had the excitement of joining the world famous Union Seminary. There was the potential about making new friendships. I had the greatest city in the world as my backyard and the best restaurants as my dining rooms. For those of you who have moved here from somewhere else, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In the fever of getting ready to restart somewhere new, I did not take the time to consider what it was that I was letting go of. Really, I think I was suppressing it. But when I finally opened myself up to what was lurking just below the surface — when I was able to focus on the reality of that present moment — I found myself unable to do anything but grieve and wonder if I had just made a terrible mistake. I moved into my apartment that week with those questions and feelings still lurking above my head.
This morning we gather to observe the Fifth Sunday in Lent, and it’s hard to believe that we are already nearing the end of the season. Palm Sunday is already next week, and two weeks from now is Easter. Indeed, the Easter preparations have begun. The order form for the lilies has been placed into the announcements, and we in the church office have begun to plan out the timeline for that morning. Noby has been going over the music for Easter for over a month already, and Teresa has already been crafting a draft of our bulletin for the day. Resurrection Sunday is creeping up on us.
Our text that Jennifer read this morning is in many ways a foreshadowing of what is to come. Biblical scholars have arranged the Gospel of John into what they call the “seven signs”, those events that the other gospels would classify as miracles. Close to the end of the gospel in chapter 20, John writes that there were many other signs, but “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Namely, these Seven Signs are indeed a sign to the fact that there is something particularly special about Jesus Christ; they all serve as means which point to Jesus as the Son of God.
And this is a Son of God who weeps. But not just a weeping out of sorrow, though there is sorrow in there. Instead, this is a weeping by someone who is disturbed, as the text mentions twice that “he was greatly disturbed in spirit.” This is a Christ who sees the situation and knows that something is not right.
For what we have here in this story is true Life coming face to face with death. And not only that, but it’s true Life seeing how normalized death has become. For as Mary and Martha know, dying is a part of what it means to be human. We are born, we live a little bit, and then we’re buried in the grave and our stench starts to fester. It’s the circle of life. Yes, Martha believes that she will see Lazarus at the end in the resurrection of the dead, but that’s far off. It may not happen for all she knows.
What she knows is certain about this life, however, is that people die. And Jesus faces this death; he sees the horror of death. He sees the true mourning of the Mary and Martha, he sees the people around them, and he cannot help but be overcome and disturbed by this reality.
For in that grieving, Jesus recognizes that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. Death is a distortion of who we were supposed to be and who we were created to be. And as Walter Brueggemann notes on the front of our bulletins this morning, Jesus saw how numb humanity had become to something so devastating. So he weeps. He grieves.
I find that we tend to rush Lent. There’s always a temptation to push on quickly to get to Easter; we want the resurrection as soon as we can get it. But I also find that the structure of Lent slows us down. It takes us out into the wilderness with Jesus where we can’t help but be surrounded by death. As it does that, it takes away the signs of new life that we normally have around us; the alleluias are gone from our liturgy, the fresh flowers have been taken away from our altar. It seems as though the shadow of death kind of hovers over these forty days in the church. And as we find ourselves in the wilderness, we have two options I think.
On one hand, we can remain numb to the death around us. We can act as though things are the way that they were created to be, and we can just get through Lent without too much criticism with reality.
But that’s not the way that Jesus shows us. Instead, I think we are called to fully engage the death around us. Because if we want to get to resurrection, we first need to sit with death. We need to understand it, we need to learn how to recognize it. And, my friends, there is a lot of death around us. Not just physical death, but emotional, spiritual, and relational death. We find death in injustices, and we find a certain kind of death in trauma. People all around us are surround by death; all of us in these pews are grappling with various kinds of deaths in our own lives and in the lives of those we love.
For if we want to truly get to resurrection on Easter Sunday, we can’t help but go through Lent, and we certainly cannot avoid Good Friday and Holy Saturday. And that is where death meets us.
And when we get there, in the words of my dear friend and mentor Dana, we need to allow ourselves to grieve.
For when we do that, we ultimately recognize that something is not right. We weep because sickness and death were not supposed to be a part of life. We mourn because loss and sin was not the way of creation, but it was rather life abundant that we were created to celebrate and embody.
And when we grieve, we open space for newness. We open our creativity to search for new ways in which death is not the final answer. We stoke our courage to call out death when we see it in hopes of something new that is to come.
My friends, we have 13 days left in Lent. I encourage you not to push too hard towards Easter just yet. Instead, let’s sit for a minute in this death. Let’s recognize where it is. And as we sit and grieve, our text tells us that Christ is weeping there beside us. For as the author Alexander Schmemann writes, “it is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”