Genesis 49:29-50:3, 12-14; John 11:1-3; 17-19, 32-37
Epiphany 5 February 10, 2013
Death comes to all. If we live long enough ourselves, we will face the death of our grandparents, parents, many friends and acquaintances and then our own death. We may not like to think about that stark reality. We may bury it as deep as a bone. Death, the great leveler, will take its toll. One Bible writer put it this way: …man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… Heb. 9:27 How do we say a final goodbye to a loved one? All over the world in every culture people have ways of coming to grips with death. We know that our connections with that person is now severed or altered in a fundamental way. How shall we process that “presence of an absence”? How shall we acknowledge our love and gratitude, claim our good memories and say a final goodbye? How do we bring our grief to public expression?
In the Christian Tradition the funeral is one way to give closure. Have you ever thought about why we have funerals? A funeral is not for the deceased. The funeral is for the living. The funeral is to bring form to formlessness, to give order to the chaos that surrounds most every death. A funeral employs words and symbols helping us to get a handle on what is happening and will happen now that someone has departed the land of the living. Notice that the Bible is full of death stories. Last Sunday we read two such stories: Moses and Stephen. In both accounts the people left behind mourned deeply. But life went on for the mourners. Funerals, however practiced, offer rituals and symbols and grace-filled words by which order can be restored to life.
Death of Jacob
Today we read two more accounts in the Bible about death and burial. Again, one from the Old and the other from the New Testament: The death of Jacob and the death of Lazarus. We notice in both accounts the pathos, the grief and sorrow expressed by the bereaved family members and friends. In the Genesis account Joseph and his brothers said their final goodbyes to their aged father, Jacob. Jacob gathered the family around the bed. They leaned forward straining their ears to hear their father’s final words. Joseph listened with all of his heart to his father’s farewell speech. After Jacob gave his last will and testament, the text says: When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
How beautiful. It was a good death. Aged Jacob, grey hair, rough, gnarled hands, and walking with a limp having buried his two beloved wives, now makes the final journey we call death. He had lived a long, full life. He saw sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure. He made enemies and reconciled with enemies. He had lived a hard life. Now he went the way of all the living. He put off his slippers and drew his feet up into his bed the final time was a gathered to his people. The story teller directs our attention to the bereaved.
Joseph threw himself upon his father and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days. What do we learn?
Grieving is appropriate and healthy
Account in Genesis tells us that grieving is appropriate. We say goodbye and close that chapter of our lives. But sorrow and pain and sweet memories will follow us like a shadow. It should not be necessary to say that grieving is appropriate and healthy; but every now and then some misguided Christian spews out the idea that we shouldn’t grieve, we should rejoice. We should just praise the Lord. Sometimes they even chide the bereaved: “Don’t be sad. Don’t cry, You should be happy! Let’s sing a happy song!” Such denial of grief and the need for grief work is not only poor pastoral practice; it will meet with resentment and hostility. The wise man long ago wrote this Proverb, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Proverbs 25:20
To deny or suppress grief leads to emotional illness. God gave us tears. God gave us the capacity to cry as a way to express outrage and heartache. Jesus saw the pain on the face of his friends Mary and Martha. He heard the wails and songs of grief of the mourners. In the shortest verse in the New Testament the Gospel of John tells us: “Jesus wept”. In those tears of Jesus we see how he entered not only our moments of joy and festivity, but also our darkest moments of sorrow. He was, after all, a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. Jesus wept; and his tears sanctified and made holy our tears.
The Cycles of Life
We live life in cycles. God made us that way. Let us call these cycles, Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation.
Orientation: Life as well ordered
When our lives are well ordered and we have equilibrium; this is Orientation. Bills are paid, the kids are healthy, there is satisfaction at the work place and you’re feeling great. You have life by the tail. But moments like those seldom last. I think of the Eastern wisdom which reminds us: “And this too shall pass”. With the sudden screech of tires, the sound of grating metal and shattered glass; everything changes. A single report from the doctor, “Mrs. Freeman, I’m sorry, the reports came back positive. It looks like the tumor is malignant. Equilibrium is disrupted and chaos follows. No wonder we resist the transition between Orientation and Disorientation. Usually our first words are “No! It can’t be! This can’t be happening.” We resist and deny. But as the hours go by the brutal facts are confirmed and the truth sinks in.
Disorientation: Life in chaos
We like the well-ordered and oriented life. There is security and comfort there. But suddenly, everything is boiling and churning. The flat grassy plain and tranquil sunset gets suddenly replaced by a turbulent storm with the earth beneath shifting and sinking. At the news of the tragic death of her husband in a car accident one young wife and mother of two with tear stained face told me through red eyes, “I feel like I just aged ten years.” The ground beneath seemed to give way. It is what the Psalmist described as “the pit”. To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit. (Psalm 28:1) The pit is the place we don’t want to be. It is the place of disorientation, disequilibrium, the place where we are tempted to despair. “I can’t go on. I can’t put one foot in front of another for even one more step.” Are you having a “Pit” experience? You feel like you’re drowning. Sometimes we don’t even feel that we can pray. Sometimes our only prayer is just a word, like “Jesus” or “God” or “help me.” Sometime it’s simply a negation, “No…no”. The Christian’s job is to hold hands and sit with. Sometimes we rush to give advice and to instruct when what is needed is the ministry of presence: being with, sitting beside a person in pain, mourning with.
A family was out in the park and when they passed an elderly gentleman sitting alone on a park bench. He was weeping, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief, staring through hollow eyes at the ground. Mom and Dad looked around after a while and couldn’t find their little boy. As they searched they discovered that he had gone back to the elderly man, sat beside him and took his patted his hand. He just sat beside him. They were disturbed and called him to them. “What were you doing? We don’t know that man.” “I saw he was crying by himself. So, I went to help him cry.” That is ministry.
Embrace the disorientation for it will not be forever knowing that even “in the Valley of the shadow of death THOU ART WITH ME.” It is to remind us that God is even in the pit with us.
As the Psalmist declared: If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. Psalm 139:8
New Orientation: From Chaos to Cosmos
The Pit teaches us. The movement out of the pit cannot be hurried. Sometime the most valuable lessons we learn come from pit. We cannot pull people out of the pit who still need time to process the pain. But the pit too will pass. Our ministry is to have that ministry of presence, to be with. No one should be abandoned to the pit. We all need supporters, friends in adversity, prayer partners for when we cannot pray, and persons to hold our hand and to help us cry. “Be happy with those who are happy,” the Apostle wrote. “and cry with those who are crying.” And again, “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ”. Galatians 6:2 Paul wrote to the Galatians. Bill Withers wrote and sang the 1972 hit Lean on me. The words say: Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend; I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long, ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.
Thank God the pit doesn’t last forever. As we help people know they are in the pit we sometimes, by God’s grace also hold their hand as they emerge from the pit into New orientation. Somehow, some way, now and then here and there God speaks through another person a grace filled sentence, or reveals his love in a smile, a little act of kindness, a hug, a patient session of listening, a sympathetic tear, a pot of beans delivered to the door, a little note that says “We’re so sorry for your loss. We’re praying for you.” And a ray of light breaks through the darkness. Day begins to dawn again. That is what the Psalmist tells us when hope sprung up in his heart and he cried out: He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Psalm 40:2
It is New Orientation! Life after the experience of bitterness. Faith tested in the crucible of suffering, grief and loss. Only those who have been in the Pit can testify authentically: “…weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning”. Psalm 30:5
How shall we say our final goodbye to a loved one?
We can with confidence entrust them to God. God loves them and they have no needs. Our sorrow is for ourselves. The first few days after the death, as we grieve and feel the pain of the loss we must know that we are the ones in pain, not them. Christ promised: In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3
I often read these words at funerals. I put them out into the air and let them do their work. I read the words of Jesus from the Gospel story we read today when he announced to Martha: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jn. 11:25-26
In my eighteenth year my brother Bernard,
fourteen years older than me was stricken with acute leukemia. At that time such treatments as bone marrow transplant were in embryonic stage. He went through transfusions and was in and out of the hospital. Bernard served as a missionary in the Caribbean and as a pastor in rural Tennessee. He was married with three children. I remember being beside his bed with the family gathered around when he was in pain. In those moments I thought that he would slip away from us. My Mom and Dad, Joyce his wife and my other brother Bob joined hands and rayed as my brother groaned in pain. I felt the Holy Spirit descend upon my like a warm soothing presence. A scripture text was impressed on my mind. It was from the 16th Psalm: Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Psalm 16:11 I felt the reassurance of God’s unseen presence. My brother’s pain left him for the moment. In my mind I thought that God would heal him. My heart was lifted up. I told my Mom about that Bible verse that came to me as we held hands and prayed for Bernard. “That was Bernard’s favorite Bible passage” she said. I didn’t know that. I left the hospital thinking that God had revealed that my brother would be healed. On December 31, 1971 just before midnight I returned to the hospital. Mom and dad and Bob and Judi were sitting in the waiting room near Bernard’s room. They caught me in the Hall. Dad said, “Kim, Bubba’s gone. He passed just a little while ago.” I went to the waiting room and Dad sat there. I remember what he said, “I just feel like Job. The LORD giveth and the LORD taketh, blessed be the Name of the Lord”: And he began to weep. He cried in manly grief. And I knew the real message of that scripture: Bernard was in the presence of God where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Whatever sadness, sorrow and grief death brings, as can know that this also shall pass. And one day, in the words of the 14th Century saint Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Or in the words of Holy Scripture: Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev. 21:3-4 Amen