All Saints Sunday B2018
John 11:32-44, Revelation 21:1-6a
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, Mary says.
Lord, if you had been here, 11 people from Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh would not have been killed a week ago.
Lord, if you had been here, people from Honduras and Guatemala would not have had to flee their homes to escape persecution.
Lord, if you had been here, Matthew Shephard would not have been brutally murdered in October 1998.
In a year, in a decade, in a lifetime of unjust death and suffering, aren’t these our words leveled at Jesus? Where are you, God? Why can’t everyone live a long, full life? Why do you allow so much suffering in the world?
When Mary accuses Jesus in today’s gospel, her brother Lazarus had died four days before. Knowing Lazarus was near death, Jesus intentionally delayed his visit though Mary would not have known this. Confident of Jesus’ healing power, she believed Jesus could cure her brother of whatever caused his death—if only he had come before Lazarus drew his final breath. And Mary was not the only one who believed Jesus could have cured Lazarus. Some of the Jews asked: Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? Having been accused and questioned about his healing power, notice that Jesus does not answer back. He does not defend himself; he does not make excuses. He does not try to explain. Instead, hearing Mary confront him and the Jews question him, Jesus is greatly disturbed. In the gospel of John, the picture painted of Jesus is one of absolute power and wisdom. But in this moment, the question of why Jesus could not or did not stop Lazarus’ death is upsetting, even to Jesus.
On this All Saints Sunday, we remember those who have gone before us, and we grieve. We remember not only those close to us, our family, friends, and church family, but those who lost their lives during military service or in the line of duty as a police officer. We remember those who have died as a result of domestic violence or gang violence or unprovoked attack. We remember victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and famine. We remember people caught in war: the people of Ukraine and Syria, the people of Venezuela and Brazil, the people of Yemen and Congo and much of western Africa. We remember people persecuted for their religious beliefs and ethnic differences. We remember those who have died of chronic disease and preventable disease, like malaria. We remember all those who perished while migrating. We remember those, yesterday, today, tomorrow, who died or will die in car accidents in our own city. We remember, and we give thanks for the lives of these many people, all beloved by God, many beloved by family and friends.
Despite our thanksgiving for their lives, we continue to wonder: Why does God allow this suffering to persist?
The only answer is: I don’t know. Any other answer compromises either the power of God or the goodness of God. Not even Jesus responds to the question: Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? The question disturbs him, and the question disturbs us.
I don’t know why God allows senseless violence and needless death, but I do know that God mourns it for Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus came to share in the grief of Lazarus’ family and community. Jesus stood next to mourners and allowed the loss of his friend to pierce his own heart. While I cannot make sense of why God allows senseless violence and needless death in the first place, the good news is that Jesus was there.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like enough, that Jesus was there, alongside Mary, Martha, and their community. I honestly don’t understand it, but it is true that, when this life gets difficult, the thing we need more than anything is for people to be there.
This past week at GLOW, someone shared about how they were physically assaulted and how they forgave the person who assaulted them despite the assault resulting in a completely changed life. I pressed the person asking: How did you forgive this person? Because I really wanted to know. The situation was truly quite dire. The person said: “Well, it was healing to be at heat respite this summer with Sven and everybody.” And then, they shrugged. I understand the shrug because it doesn’t seem possible that ‘being-with’ others is enough to provide healing, but it is.
Similarly, when I lived in a small town in Iowa, my colleague and I officiated many funerals. Contrary to life in a city, in small towns in Iowa, funerals regularly take place two or three days after death, regardless of the day of the week. We rarely held a funeral on a weekend, yet nearly always, the sanctuary would be full. People would take a half-day off of work. The line during visitation would extend out the door of the funeral home. The two dozen pies and masses of ham sandwiches prepared for the funeral lunch would get washed down with gallons of black coffee and lemonade. When I lived there, I don’t think I ever really got it, how important it was for the families of those who had died, for their community to come and be with them at those funerals. Just there. No miraculous, healing words. Just their presence in the sanctuary, at the cemetery, in the church basement eating ham sandwiches.
There are so many things I don’t understand this week—the nature of suffering, the power of presence—but as I consider the saints who have gone before us, grandparents and parents, Sunday school teachers and friends, even siblings and children, I’m guessing that what we most miss is not their wise words or inspiring actions, the amazing meals they cooked or the beautiful music they played but their presence. Just them, here, with us.
Because that’s true, perhaps Jesus’ presence is enough, at the tomb of Lazarus—and in the most difficult and inexplicable times of our lives and the life of the world. God is here and will continue to be here, manifest with us in our own community whenever we sit with one another in joy and love, laughter and sadness. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, Mary says. He did die, and suffering continues even now. But God is here, and God’s presence with us is enough.