By Pastor Sarah Stadler
Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha.
When he becomes ill, his sisters send for Jesus, but Jesus delays his trip to Bethany for the express purpose of revealing God’s glory. Before Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus dies. Mary and Martha are angry with Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” they say. But Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Clearly, Jesus plans to raise Lazarus from the dead. He waits until there can be no mistake, waits until Lazarus has been dead four days, waits so that no one can erroneously claim Jesus’ actions are merely a healing. Jesus makes sure that everyone sees Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead by the power of God.
Still, Jesus begins to weep.
Jesus weeps because Lazarus is his friend.
Jesus weeps because he loves Lazarus.
Jesus weeps because the entire community weeps.
Jesus weeps because he is human.
Jesus weeps because he enters into the suffering of the world.
And not only does Jesus weep, Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, says to the other disciples when Jesus is on his way to Bethany, “Let us also go [to Bethany] that we may die with him.”
The disciples go to die.
The disciples go to experience what their friend has experienced.
The disciples go to enter into the suffering of Lazarus.
They are shockingly real—both the tears of Jesus and the courage of the disciples. They enter into the suffering of the world instead of avoiding it.
I remember my dad who is a Lutheran pastor talking about how some people will jump to celebrate a person’s life at a funeral without really acknowledging that the person has died. He told me: “Sarah, we must grieve death before we preach resurrection and celebrate life. At funerals, we of course want to celebrate the person’s life. But first, we mourn the person’s death. We mourn the death; then, we celebrate the life.”
Before the suffering of the world is transformed, it needs to be entered into. Before Lazarus is raised, Jesus weeps. Before Lazarus is raised, Lazarus dies, and the disciples go to die with him. We enter into the suffering the world because entering into the suffering is part of how the suffering is transformed.
Sometimes, we try to trick grief by avoiding it, grief stemming from a death or an illness or an accident or a lost job or a lost home. We try to push aside the tears and the anger, the shock and the denial and the horrible weight of loss. We try, and sometimes, we may feel successful. But grief cannot be avoided. It will just seep out in other ways. It will seep out in anger towards co-workers or frustration taken out on children and grandchildren. It will squeeze its way through in disordered eating or excessive drinking. It will manifest itself in a failure to listen to others or isolation from friends. Grief cannot be avoided.
Just as grief cannot be avoided, the injustice of the world is forever in front of us and overwhelming in its vigor: hunger and poverty, war and many types of violence, racism and sexism, human trafficking and…and…and. It can be difficult to look in the face of this injustice. And while simply watching the news can sadden us, we have also all probably been touched in a personal way by systemic injustice, whether that is because of the color of our skin or our gender or sexual orientation, or maybe our socio-economic class or through violence or a difficulty in our family of origin. Maybe we have had personal experiences that have left scars on our bodies or our hearts, experiences that are difficult to move past. Indeed, injustice cannot be avoided.
So what do we do when faced with grief and pain and injustice? Our tendency, I think, is to say with Mary and Martha: Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened. We get stuck in playing the blame game or the what-if game. But the story of the raising of Lazarus reveals a deeper truth: that in entering into suffering, it is transformed. Jesus weeps. The disciples go to die. There is real loss in this story. We cannot avoid it even though we know resurrection is coming. And I, honestly, think that our tendency to try and avoid, avoid, avoid suffering is partly what gets us stuck in suffering. Really, I mean, who likes to be uncomfortable? But when we risk being uncomfortable and facing the injustice or the grief in front us, we see it unravel. I’m not kidding. If I hadn’t experienced this, I wouldn’t believe it, but this is how I have seen God work. And this is how God works in the story of the raising of Lazarus.
What might it mean to face injustice or enter into suffering—our own or someone else’s?
First, we simply acknowledge what the suffering is. What kinds of suffering do people experience in our community or in the larger world? Write those down and tape them on the walls.
Then, we listen to ourselves or others who are experiencing this suffering. This week, I invite you to put your faith in motion by listening to at least one person who is going through something difficult, to be open to it, that you might enter into that difficulty with them, not to solve it, not to fix it, but just to listen. How often do we avoid listening to even how we feel? I find myself at times not giving myself space to acknowledge my own experience. Since these things tend to be quite personal, I’ll give you an example of something not quite so personal from my life and something that really doesn’t qualify as suffering. This past Thursday, I was at church being very productive which was great. But I wasn’t feeling well at all, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix whatever my issue was. But I continued working because I have this ethic about work; work is important to me. I continued to answer emails and make calls and prepare various things, and then suddenly, I was crying. I couldn’t figure out why I was crying. I texted a friend: I’m crying, and I don’t know why. After my friend convinced to leave work and go home, I realized that the reason I was crying was because I was trying to avoid my experience of not feeling well. And I realized when I got home that I was simply dehydrated. Because I had avoided how awful I felt, my dehydration and its effects continued. Had I acknowledged that I didn’t feel well and simply gone home when my head started to pound and my stomach to turn, I could have felt better faster.
Of course, my experience is a simple one. It can be much more difficult to listen to the story of another, especially when that person is facing what seems to be an insurmountable difficulty, and even harder when there is nothing we can do to fix whatever that problem is. But simply acknowledging suffering and then listening to whoever is experiencing it is part of how that suffering is transformed.
Now, does hunger in the world end because we acknowledge it and listen to people who are hungry? Does that end hunger? No, not by itself. But hunger will surely never end unless we acknowledge it and listen to people who are hungry. So it is for all types of suffering and grief and injustice.
The good news for today is also our challenge. Entering into suffering, really seeing and hearing and knowing the suffering of ourselves, others, and the world can be deeply painful, yet really seeing and hearing and knowing the suffering of the world is the beginning of its transformation. When Jesus entered into the suffering of the world, he forever transformed it. That is good news we will celebrate in just two weeks from today. But first, first, there is the suffering, and it cannot be avoided.