Beth A. Faeth November 4, 2018
Texts: “The Magdalene’s Blessing,” Jan Richardson; John 11:28–36
I have been a Minnesotan for fourteen years, and, in addition, I spent three years here in the early ’90s while in seminary. This week reminded us once again of the great Halloween blizzard of 1991, and, like a badge of honor, I attest that I was here for that, holed up in my small apartment in New Brighton for way too many days. I finally took a cab to a friend’s house because my extroverted self desperately needed some companionship, . . . but we can swap stories about that historic event another time.
In all my years here it seems that particularly this year Minnesota has lived into its reputation of only having two seasons: winter and construction. Winter hung on tight this spring with a blizzard I will never forget on April 14 and 15 (when I was called to ministry at Plymouth) and then teased us once again with a snowfall on October 14, another memorable day for me (my installation). But it has been the construction this year that has been especially problematic: I have had to take so many routes on my commute from Stillwater that some days I wondered if it would just be smarter to take up residence in my church office. Exacerbating the situation is that this is the year the city of Stillwater decided it was time to replace the concrete on my residential street—only about two decades overdue—while at the same time creating a whole new thoroughfare and stop light on the major street artery that my road intersects. I live on a dead-end street and there is only one way out—so when that out isn’t accessible things get a little tricky. I have been living in the midst of a construction zone all summer, my front lawn will probably never recover from literally being torn up and there have been many a day when I could not even drive my vehicle to my home but instead had to park blocks away and hike in. I am so tired of the orange “Road Work Ahead” signs and think I might burst into tears if I have to endure another detour. Who would have thought that our season of construction could be so emotional?
Today is a tender day in the life of the church—as the candles on the communion table remind us of our great cloud of witnesses and especially of those saints we have lost in this past year. And then those powerful memories snowball in our heart as we recall the saints in our own lives—spouses, parents, children, friends . . . those we continue to love but no longer see. And even though we try and wish the sorrow away, because we did not come to church to grieve today, like a bright orange construction sign barring our path we are forced to quickly change lanes, take a different route and give in to the raw, sharp edges where grief tends to lead. Grief is an unplanned detour, and it takes us in a direction we would never have chosen. And more often than not, our way is paved with tears.
Weeping is our outward sign of grief. Even the most stoic of us has given over to tears when someone we love has died. As a child, the only two times I saw my father cry were at the funerals of his own brother and sister, only months apart. Many people who are in the early stages of grief have told me that they do not know where the tears come from, how there could be any left, how they wish they could only stop. Our tears often speak what our words cannot.
In our scripture lesson this morning, we hear only a part of the Jesus and Lazarus story. Earlier in the 11th chapter of John we learn that Lazarus, the brother of the infamous Mary and Martha, has taken ill. The sisters send a message to Jesus and expect he will drop everything to come and tend to their ailing brother. But Jesus stays where he is and Lazarus dies. Jesus doesn’t come because he has revealed that Lazarus will not die or, at least, will not stay dead, because Jesus plans to “awaken” him. But in the Jewish tradition, dead was dead. There was no resurrection. So people did not understand what Jesus was foreshadowing. Regardless of what Jesus may have proclaimed, the facts were clear, Lazarus was dead. And so, the scene depicted in our reading this morning is a dramatic one.
When Jesus does finally arrive in Bethany, four days after Lazarus has died, Martha runs out to meet him. Anger, frustration, grief, tears come with a powerful force as Martha exclaims, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I can imagine Martha impaling Jesus with her words, perhaps even jabbing him in the chest or grasping at his robe. “Why weren’t you here? Why don’t you care? Why didn’t you come? What am I supposed to do now?” The rawness of grief often takes us to places we didn’t know we could go, and we say and do things far outside of our character. We entered the story this morning as Mary arrives on the scene, kneels at Jesus’ feet and says the same thing as Martha: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The overwhelming sense of despair is more than Jesus can bear. As Mary cries silently at his feet, releasing the pain and anger and loss that have been her life for some time, so too does Jesus weep. In many translations of the Bible, this is the shortest verse of scripture, two words: “Jesus wept.” Here, perhaps more than any other place in scripture, we see Jesus’ very human response. A person he loves has died; two women he cares about are in the throes of painful grief. His own life’s end is imminent. He has endured years of difficult existence. His days are filled with conflict and doubt. In that moment, there are no words to say, no messages to preach, no miracles to produce. And so, Jesus weeps.
As one who has wept buckets of tears in the past few years as life spun precariously out of control and everything I knew as normal became anything but, I have thought often of this poignant biblical scene and the significance of Jesus’ tears. What if we understood Jesus’ weeping as a letting go of all his insecurities, all his misunderstood moments, all his fear of what is to come? Jesus is mourning his friend and perhaps his own ministry, yet in his tears he is submitting himself fully and completely to God’s yearning for him. Because Jesus weeps, we know that Jesus can feel and we can be affected by his feelings. And perhaps, through Jesus’ tears, we are given permission to feel more deeply, too. Here is love, mercy, passion, compassion, grief and anger over our condition, our frailty, our vulnerability, chiseled down to two words: Jesus wept.
And perhaps those tears empowered Jesus: that instead of allowing his weeping to decimate him, causing him to collapse into a puddle on the ground, as Jesus wept he drew upon the energy created by his tears and allowed his emotions to lead him forward, into some kind of action; that in his vulnerability there was strength, resolve, resilience; that tears are not a sign of weakness, but rather a cause to garner up strength for the next challenge, the next encounter, the next event on life’s detoured journey. Jesus’ tears brought with them clarity for his work and ministry. They allowed him to be fully human, and in so evoked the divine spirit to work more deeply. Jesus’ tears did not have the last word; rather as Jesus wept he began to see more clearly the world he came to change. Because Jesus wept, the gap between the unseen God and the lowliness of humanity narrows even more. Tears did not get the better of Jesus; they allowed him to be his best.
In 2015 Pope Francis embarked on an Asian tour, where hundreds of thousands of people flocked to hear his speeches and masses. During a stop in Manila, Philippines, the Pope abandoned his script to address a weeping child. Tearfully recounting a young life spent forced to forage for food from garbage and to sleep outside on cardboard mats, 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar had a simple but profound question for the Pope:
“Why did God let this happen to us?” the young Filipina asked, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed. “There are many children neglected by their own parents,” she told him. “There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them, like drugs or prostitution. Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children? And why are there only very few people helping us?”
The pope did not respond with a theological lecture on the mystery of evil. Rather, he affirmed her tears, saying, “Only when we are able to weep about the things that you lived can we understand and answer . . . Only when the heart is able to ask the question and weep can we understand . . . Today’s world needs to weep,” he said. “The marginalized weep, those left aside weep, the scorned weep, . . . but those of us who lead a life more or less without needs, don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears.”
Only when we weep can we can understand.
There is much in our world today that is cause for our weeping. Over and over again we grieve death and destruction from senseless gun violence: in a synagogue, a yoga studio, a grocery store. Our sacred spaces are no longer safe. Hate speech fuels fear. Down the street hundreds sleep in a tent city. People we love are ill, addicted, estranged. And today we detour again into those thin, tender places of our hearts where our loss lives, where the endless grief for the saints we remember today is tenacious, where all the tears we do not shed live for moments like this, when the well opens again, and we weep. We weep.
Grief is a great teacher. It breaks us open and exposes us to new perspectives and understandings, to looking at our surroundings with new eyes. We must acknowledge the pain of our own lives if we are ever to feel empathy towards another. When we allow ourselves to really feel, to move along our detoured lives with both determination and vulnerability, the cathartic nature of our tears will open our eyes to the realities of the world so that we can acknowledge and embrace another’s pain, too. Grief is patient. We can resist, remain stoic, harden our heart, but grief insists we acknowledge it. And if we do not, it comes out backwards and sideways and creates the potential for self-destruction. And so while no one welcomes life’s unpredictable detours, the road we travel leads us to destinations yet to be imagined. As our own grief rubs us raw, it also enlivens to us to the needs of the other, for those we do not yet know have become kin in our conjoined suffering. The living beckon to us to pay attention, they call to us from roads less traveled, they need our highly sensitized, tear-stained spirits to walk with them—to help and to hope. As Jan Richardson so eloquently states in her beautiful blessing:
So let the tears come
let them go. . . .
Let it give you
what you will need
for this journey. . . .
All you need to remember
is how it sounded
when you stood
in the place of death
and heard the living
call your name.
When you weep for someone you love, or for the one you do not yet know, or for the injustice of the world, remember, too, your weeping is not in vain but joins other rivers of tears that flow towards justice, that long for peace. Jesus wept liberating tears that allowed him to see more clearly that which he was called by God to do. May our tears cleanse us and heal us as well, allowing us to pick up the pieces of our scattered lives and hold them together through the odd combination of water and salt. And as our cheeks grow wet, may we see more clearly those who summon us out of our pain, out of our imprisoning tombs, into a life filled with light and possibility, courageous action and miracle-making.
Thomas Reese, “Pope Francis: ‘If you don’t learn how to weep, you’re not a good Christian,’” National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2015, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/pope-francis-if-you-dont-learn-how-weep-youre-not-good-christian (accessed November 8, 2018).