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This Life We Live

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John 11                                   This Life We Live                              Rev. Beth Hessel

St. Stephen Presbyterian Church                                                        9 June 2013


James had been a chubby, happy baby his first year. His parents and big brother delighted in him. Knowing this youngest was her final baby, James’s mother drew out nursing, cherishing those quiet moments before her active boy wiggled away. He weaned at 18 months. Immediately, his parents noticed a decline, as James lost weight and strength. Tests revealed a pernicious cancer from which his mother’s milk had protected him.  The family fought, oh, how they fought for life. But at five, James couldn’t fight anymore. He died at home, in his father’s arms.

A few hours later, as I met with them, his mother and father were calm and strong, visibly grieved. They spoke of their loss, their hopes, their determination to beat the odds for marriage survival after the loss of a child, the plans they had already made to cope and to help their eldest son.

As they poured themselves out to me, as I pondered how to best provide solace and hope to this bereaved family, the thought that pounded like a hard refrain in my heart was: How can anyone live after losing a child?

It was my first pastoral experience with death. I was a young seminary intern. I’d  had my own share of loss already. I was able to make theological statements about loss and death, but not yet capable of living into them. Like the disciples who grandly proclaimed themselves ready to “Go and die” with Jesus, I really didn’t know what that meant. Like Martha, I could make the most sincere affirmation of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Savior sent into this world by our loving and life-giving God and still wonder how one can survive the death of a child. The end of a marriage. The shunning of a community. The fall into bankruptcy. The loss of sight or use of a limb. The daily, life-numbing insults that can bury a person slowly, slowly. How do we live in the midst of death? How do we not just survive, but thrive?

This question swirls around the story of  Lazarus. It is not a question directly asked, but it weaves throughout the conversations. The disciples have difficulty understanding Jesus’ explanations of Lazarus’ state. Is he sick? Is he merely taking a nap? No, for their obtuseness, Jesus must rather flatly lay it out for them: “He is dead.”

Mary, Martha, and even their community that sits with them in their grief, besiege Jesus with accusations of his absence. If Jesus, the one who restored sight to the blind, had only been present, Lazarus would have lived. His touch, his prayers, would have healed their brother and friend of whatever ailed him. This loss would not have been borne.  Where was Jesus? Why did Lazarus have to die? Why must we now be grieving? If you are the Bread of the world, the Living Water, what hope do you give us, Lord? You were absent, and now our brother lies rotting in a tomb. How are we to survive this loss of him . . . of you?

Even Lazarus, as he emerges from the tomb to have his grave clothes tenderly unwrapped from his resurrected body, must grapple with the question. For he, too, is once again alive, yet knows that he will again face death.

Jesus, who is fully aware that traveling to Bethany, so near to those who plot against him, and who knows that this very act of raising his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead will serve as the final pretext for his betrayal and death, knows that his life here in God’s precious world, his painful death, and his glorious resurrection, will not eradicate death nor the daily stings of death that attack us. He cannot render death obsolete, not yet. He knows we will still weep. We will still mourn.

But he offers us the answer to our question of survival in his actions and his being in this story. Pivotal to this text is his conversation with Martha. Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again, and she affirms her belief in the final resurrection of the body – which was a recent faith claim of the Pharisees. Jesus also believes this.  On the last day we will be resurrected and joined with God. Our souls and our bodies are not doomed to the dark forgetfulness of Sheol. There is life after bodily death.

But this is not the solace he seeks to give Martha. It does not answer the question of his intentional absence during Lazarus’ illness. Jesus offers to Lazarus’ sisters and friends, to his hapless disciples, to us, a declaration that shakes the very foundation of our lives: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever has faith in me shall live, even though he dies; and no one who lives and has faith in me shall ever die.”

I am the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus isn’t talking simply about eternal life in the hereafter. Jesus is telling Martha about the eternal life that starts here and now. Today. He is proclaiming the power of life that is deeply embedded in the life of Christ, a way of life that shines in the midst of decay and death. In Jesus, we find the power of the Love of God incarnate, made real and present, never absent. As Martha proclaims, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God come into the world. When we have faith in God through Jesus, that statement is more than a mouthful of words. It is a radical reordering of our lives. It is a recognition and embodiment of God’s will for life for each and every one of God’s created beings. It is to know, to embrace, on every level of our being that we, each and every one of us, are created for life, not death.

As Paul reminds us, the incarnation of God in the created world means for us the defeat of death’s power to remove us from life with God, on either side of the grave. The life we live today is resurrection life; our life after death is to be an extension of our life as we live it today. God’s life-giving power in Jesus must be the power that determines our existence, and not the power of death.

How do we survive soul-crushing loss? We claim the Life in which we live, knowing that in the face of threats to our wholeness, we find the grace of God . . . and we very often find that grace and life through the community that lifts us up, that unbinds us from the sorrow or pain or confusion that shackles us, and gently leads us back into the bright sunlight. We can claim the life God created us to live by radically re-ordering our lives to that we live each day out of the freedom of hope and love, compassion and grace, rather than the bonds of anxiety, fear, lassitude, loneliness, or selfishness. We survive, we re-enter life in the face of death, so often one breath at a time, breathing in that sure promise that the Spirit wafts those breaths to us, that in arms of the creator we are upheld.

I recently finished reading Say You’re One of Them, a stunning and heart-wrenching collection of short stories about the horrors of war, poverty, and religious and ethnic violence in Africa. Written by Nigerian Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, these stories seek to uplift the reality of life for far too many children in many regions of Africa, stories he challenges us Americans to hear, instead of burying them away. In one story, Jubril, a devout orthodox muslim teenager flees violence in his home village in northern Nigeria. With the aid of a compassionate Christian man who risks his life to protect people regardless of their faith from massacre, Jubril disguises himself as a Christian named Gabriel, and seeking refuge on a bus filled with Christians heading for what they hope will be safe haven in the south of the country. As the story unfolds, we are gripped in Jubril’s terror of his identity being discovered, even as the crowd on the bus slowly unravels under the stress of the situation. Jubril’s story ends with his sure knowledge that he will die, yet Akpan also lifts up Jubril’s resurrection along the way: his clear revelation that the fanaticism on all sides was not in God’s plans, that every life counted in God’s eyes. Jubril’s response, in the midst of terror, is to feel like “singing and dancing. . . it was time just to be a human being and celebrate that.” (255)  Caught in the snares of death, Jubril rose into the fullness of life to be found in the moment. He chose to believe in life, not dogma, and discovered the power of life over the death-dealing grave-diggers in daily life.

This was the power that James’ family drew upon to survive his death, indeed the source for anyone who has managed to live and find new life when faced with the unthinkable loss. The loss of a child is a cruel loss, a grief that never disappears. But they knew that they experienced God’s life-creating, life-renewing power daily in their brief time with James. This young child recognized the gift of life we have all been given and shared it with his family.

His mother recounted to me a ritual she shared with James each morning while he received treatments at a children’s hospital in Seattle. Each morning, she said, they would wake up to watch the sun rise over the Seattle skyline.  One morning as they hugged each other close and quietly  saw the earth begin again, James turned to her and said, “This is the life, mom. This is the life.”

This is the life. Our Savior leaves Lazarus in the care of his amazed community, contemplating how to embody eternal life each day, how to dig one another out of tombs in which they were each buried. Jesus journeys to his own death, knowing that God is never absent, because death in any form does not have the power separate us from our Creator and sustainer. He invites us to live so enmeshed in his own body, so empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we will also know we will survive what death throws at us, because this is the Life, our life in God.

Poet Mary Oliver grappled with the same question, how will I survive, after the loss of her life-long partner. Her response was to enter heart, soul, and body into life, singing these words:

 My work is loving the world

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –

Equal seekers of sweetness. . .

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

Keep my mind on what matters,

Which is my work,

Which is mostly standing still and learning to be

Astonished . . .

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart

And these body-clothes,

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

To tell the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

Telling them all, over and over, how it is

That we live forever.