Sunday, August 23, 2015


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 23, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 11: 28-37

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” [1]

I used to teach freshman English, I did it for four years, and every year we read Romeo and Juliet, which is a hilarious play, a real comedy for at least the first three acts. . . but then midway through act 3, when Mercutio is killed, and then Romeo gets his revenge on Tybalt it all changes. We would watch the old movie, every year, and there are many things that always stood out to my students. One of course was the tights, all the characters in tights, those traditional Shakespearean tights, then of course there was how beautiful Olivia Hussey was, I mean these are boarding school freshman boys, they were struck by Juliet, but then after that Act 3 scene, all she does is cry. She cries and cries and cries, for the rest of the play, then she dies. For some reason those scenes were the images I had in my head reading this passage. There is a ton of crying in this text. There is a lot of weeping in this text. Some days have passed since Lazarus has passed away, and been laid in the tomb, four to be exact, but there is still weeping. And look at the family, gathered round, and with visitors and friends for support. I've been to funerals like that. Family, friends are all gathered around, it tends to be like that when a younger person dies. . . someone where the death is a shock, or a real tragedy. In those situations mourning is a real event. I think it is actually one of the times when the best comes out of people. Real compassion, real sympathy, real presence, because that is all that is necessary. . . compassion, sympathy, and presence, just being there, it's all you have to do, but it's all you can do, just be there for them. . . to get all that crying out. . . but often in those situations, there are just as many fits of laughter as there are tears. . . telling stories, remembering times, good times, good stories. . . being together and sharing often leads to laughter and tears. . . I remember Jim Valvano said that a good day is when you are moved to laughter and moved to tears all in one day. . . he said that is a really good day, because you are alive on those days. It is true that many times in and around real grief, mourning, and pain we can feel the most alive.
Now I know because I've done some crying in my life. . . that there are a few things that can set it off. Most likely these people, Martha, Mary, and the friends there assembled, haven't been crying for four days straight. Most likely it is like we've all experienced, that mix of laughter and stories, but then it gets set off. Something brings that emotional level up, and everyone starts balling. The other day Coralee was crying, she was tired, she was cranky, and we were playing out front, where she loves it, because she can climb the tree and do her tricks. She walks out on one limb hanging on to the limb above. It's a pretty thin limbed tree, so her weight bends the tree down, some. Her trick is, once she gets to the right distance out, she jumps backward off the limb, while still hanging on the limb above, and her weight, slowly drags the limb, she's holding on to, lower and lower, until she can just let go, and she falls about 6 inches to the ground. She must to have done this trick 300 times in the last couple weeks. But this time right when she was about to do it, Clara got stung by a wasp. . . and we went in. . . .then when Clara was ok, I took her out to the back yard, where she wanted to go. . . .and  Coralee lost it. . . she just lost it. . . and threw a fit, so she got sent to her room to stop crying. Finally she met us back outside, and asked really politely to go out front. . . I was pushing Clara on the swing in the back. . . so I said I would in a minute. This set her off crying again. . . again just balling. I told her that crying was not going to get me to go out there. . . she would need to calm down. . . so she did. . . at least she tried. . . holding it back in hard. . . when I thought it had passed enough to talk about it. I asked her something, and she erupted again. . . She was strong while she was focused on it, holding it back, but as soon as she had to talk about it again. . . it was over.
I think Jesus coming represented one of those moments for Martha and Mary. They had it built up in their minds that Jesus could have, should have, and would have saved their brother. He could have saved Lazarus if he'd been there, he should have been here to save him, and would have saved if he'd only been here. . . and then he shows up. . . and all of that backed up praying, and thinking, and hoping, just erupts on him. It brings it all back into focus, back into their heads and hearts, and it's more than they can hold in. . . and you know it was like that, that they had been talking about it, that they had been depending on Jesus, because they both say the exact same thing. Remember last week, Martha meets Jesus on the road and says, if you'd been there my brother would not have died, and now Mary says the exact same thing. . . exactly word for word, verbatim. If  you had showed up, Jesus, my brother would not have died, but you didn't and he did. . . he is dead. Mary's crying, and all the Jews that are there are also crying, and it says that Jesus was deeply moved, and greatly disturbed in the spirit. He asks where they had laid him, and then Jesus himself begins to weep.
It has come to be one of the most famous verses in all the Bible. Jesus wept. . . probably because it is so short. Children throughout the ages have chosen it for their memory verse. Jesus wept John 11: 35. It is such a powerful scene, especially when taken in the context of the Gospel of John. In the other gospels Jesus seems so much more human. He spits, he gets angry, he rebukes, he is more earthy, but here in John's gospel, there is so much high Christological language. Jesus is the Word, eternal, from before time began, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the one coming into the world, the Good Shepherd who gives life to his sheep. So much of the gospel has been focused on revealing Jesus as the son of God, coequal, coeternal, with all of the power and the authority of God the Father himself, not the earthy Jesus of Nazareth. . . So much about it is has been building up the God side, and not focusing on the human side, and here we have Jesus,. that Jesus, the son of the one true, living, creator God, weeping. . . so we have to ask why?
And many have, in my research this week I came across many different takes. One is people being focused on the human nature side of Jesus, that the writer of John's Gospel has been so focused on showing Jesus as the son of God, that he needed to also show that Jesus was very human as well, to make it all much more real, so he includes this episode of Jesus crying to show that side a little better. . . maybe, but that doesn't really get into why Jesus was weeping, just why John is telling us about it. . . some have written that it shows Jesus' real compassion for human beings in general. . . some writing about his compassion for the tyranny that death has had over people, they write about, the pain death has caused throughout, since way back when it was introduced into the world in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus is lamenting that pain. . . Some others write that it is Jesus' compassion for the pain human beings have in general, that Jesus feels sorrow and sympathy, that they shouldn't cry alone, that if someone is crying around him Jesus feels he should be crying, too. . . it is an act of love, of solidarity, of unity, sympathy for those who are grieving, but I don't buy that, we do that as I said when we gather at funeral, we give the silent gift of our loving presence because that is all we can do, but Jesus can and we are about to see him do a little bit more, so these tears of solidarity just don't quite tell the story enough for me. .  . the witnesses at the scene, the gospel writer tells us, were convinced that Jesus' tears show just how much Jesus loved Lazarus, they say, "See how he loved him!" But if they are right, it would mark the first time that anyone other than Jesus has had a clue and said something right in the entire gospel up to this point, so I just don't have much confidence in the commentary of the bystanders.
But they do make a good point, and one that I think puts this whole scene in greater perspective, beyond the simple compassion argument. . . I think it is compassion mixed with frustration, that brings Jesus to tears, the bystanders say. .  . "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" Yes. . . and how frustrating would that be for Jesus. . . the senseless of what they feel, the needless pain, all for naught, brought again by their lack of faith. . . these people, these sisters are saying the right words. Martha we celebrated last week, that she said the right words. . . You are the Messiah, the son of the true God, the one coming into the world. . . .she said that, but in her mind still the son of the true God's power is limited to time and place. . . had you have been here. . . then. . . God is timeless, and without limitations of place or time, every where and every when, he spoke the world into existence, parted the Red Sea, drew water from a stone, sent down Manna from heaven. . . Jesus has turned water into wine, fed the 5000, healed a man who was paralyzed, and as they said, opened the eyes of the blind man. . . . could he not have saved him? He promised that as the Good shepherd he gives life to his sheep. . . was that an empty promise?. . . they still believe, at least they say the right words, but when it comes down to faith, here, they do not have enough. . . there are no if only's with God, his promises are true, we may have to wait, we may have to have faith in the slowness of time, but these are limitations of our perspective, and they have nothing to do with the power of God. . .  I wrote the poem in bulletin, trying to sum up this notion, tying it to all the other times Jesus said, "ye of little faith" because Jesus is about to clothe the lillies of the field here(Matthew 5:30), and he is about to calm the storm here (Matthew 8:26), and Peter is going to be walking out on the water soon here (Matthew 14:31), and the disciples are about to forget the bread here again(Matthew 16: 7), and for if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed we could just move that mountain (Matthew 17:20), and if that isn't enough he says it twice in Luke, too, we suffer from senseless fear, pain, worry, and the worst of all is grief, and Jesus is frustrated and sad that we would have to go through it, and it moves him to tears. I wrote the poem like this:
Each tear screams, "Do not be afraid,
O ye of little faith," wondering when
Believing will be made of more than words;
Wondering when faith will permeate
Every moment, even the slow thin ones,
When all senses point to doubt;
Wondering when the limitations
Experience imposes will fade
In the light of the full reality:
Believing in and receiving of life everlasting,
But alas, so much needless pain I've seen
In the tears on the faces of this world
As I walk among you, weeping.

I believe Jesus is weeping, yes out of compassion, because he could have been there earlier, and he could have stopped them from crying, but if he had, if they had not cried like this, they would not even have experienced the true miracle, the glory of god, without limits,  and their minds would still be full of the doubt, fear, and worry about those same limitations. . . the glory of God being revealed is not for His sake, but for ours. . . so that we can worry less, and love more, so that we can fear less, and love more, and so that we can doubt less, and love more, and finally so we can grieve less and love more. . . . Jesus has compassion for our inner need to love, and frustration over how we constantly limit the fullness of that love, is what I believe brings Jesus to tears. Is he ever crying still? I know he is for me. . . because I like Coralee, thinking she'll never get to climb that tree again, get caught up in moments of inner fear, doubt, and worry, where I'm so focused on myself that I cannot see the pain others are feeling. . . that plank is so far in my own eye that I can't see the wasp stinger in someone else's arm. . . . I think it is the biggest problem of the church today, at the root of so many others, we say the words, the right words, like Martha, with all the trappings, but in hearts, we wish that Jesus is off somewhere, and that if only he'd have been here. . . insert your fear. . . it would be different. . . And while we wait, we miss out on giving a whole lot of love to God and to our neighbors. . . God grant us faith enough, not for ourselves, but so that we have the strength, ability, and concern outside of ourselves, to love ever so much more! Amen!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 11:28-37). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.