Sermon: The Fourth Day

Earlier this week, I was on my weekly morning walk with my friend when — for some reason — we began talking about plastic flowers. I think it was because the Beverly’s crafts store had closed down in Alameda several months ago, and we were regretting not having a fabric store in town anymore and then we got curious about who bought all of those plastic flowers that took up the entire front part of the store. I told my friend of all the folks I know back home who buy plastic flowers and said they would have been able to keep Beverly’s in business.

“But my Mom,” I continued, “she never liked plastic flowers. Instead, she grew her own flowers that she dried and made into arrangements. And she got so good at it that she started her own dried flower business called Bev’s Everlastings.” “That’s so cool,” my friend said. “How did she preserve the flowers?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I have no idea.” And just like that…. my grief hit. I realized, in that instant, that I will never know how my Mom dried her flowers. Because I can’t ask her. Because she died four years ago. Such a simple question for which there will never be an answer. 

There’s a saying from the Jewish Talmud, the collection of rabbinic reflections on scripture, that says: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” The saying reminds us that each precious life is a whole world unto itself, and when that life ends, a whole world goes with them. That’s why it is so horrifying and shocking that anyone could take another’s life. That someone could walk into a synagogue or a grocery store and just begin shooting, ending whole worlds so quickly. That’s why it is so horrifying and shocking that a leader could use their public power to foment this violent disregard.

At this particular time in our world, we are all so aware of these death-dealing forces that seem to press in on us from every side. Each day brings a fresh round of bad news. It’s why I limit my intake of the news right now. Too much death.  But All Saints Day comes to remind us of the good news — that in the midst of death, we are promised new life. (I am indebted to Debie Thomas’ essay on the Lazarus story for these and other insights.) That is the point of this story of the raising of Lazarus. But before we get to the new life, the Gospel writer goes to some effort to make the point that Lazarus is really, really dead. 

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha live, we are told that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. That’s a crucial detail. At that time, people believed that the spirit of the person who had died “could reenter their body at any time within the first three days after death, in which case the person could be resuscitated. After three days, however, return to life was no longer possible.” (From the Believers Church Bible Commentary on John.) The fourth day, then, is the day when an “act of God could no longer happen.” Just to underscore that point, we’re told of the stench of Lazarus’ decaying body, when the people around Jesus urge him not to open the tomb. So the fourth day is the day when the finality of death becomes reality and when despair begins.

Because it’s the fourth day,  the family and community of Lazarus are weeping. They are not crying it in a quiet, dab-at-the-corner-of-you-eyes way. The Greek word used here means “loud wailing.” Jesus is surrounded by wailing, despairing people and he is, according to the text, “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” This is one of only three places in scripture where emotion is ascribed to Jesus. He begins to weep with them. 

On the surface, this is kind of odd. The author of John tells us that Jesus knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knows that, in just a few seconds, Lazarus is going to walk out of that tomb. Why mourn when joy is minutes away? But he is overcome by grief anyways. Jesus weeps, even when new life is right around the corner, and maybe that’s what we’re supposed to get out of this story: that we’ve got to go through grief to get to the new life. 

Think about it: This is a pattern repeated over and over again in Scripture. Read almost any psalm: The pattern is lament, praise. Lament, hope. Lament, new life. The psalmist begins with loud wailing: “Things are not right, all hope is gone, death is everywhere, this injustice is intolerable, are you even there God, why are you not answering us!”  And then, just when you things couldn’t get any worse, in the next sentence, praise: “Thank you, Creator, for your abiding presence, for your help, for your deliverance.”  The lament has enabled new life, fresh hope. As the psalmist says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

And then, of course, there’s the central act of our Scripture — death and resurrection. Jesus dies, and there is lamentation and weeping and fully experiencing the finality of the loss. The women wash his stiff body, anoint it with oil, wrap him in linen clothes, lay him in the grave. And then, in the morning, new life. 

There, at Lazarus’s grave in Bethany, Jesus enacts this ancient pattern. Even though he could have, he doesn’t skip over the step of grief. Grief takes hold of him — this one whom we say shows the face of God to us — grief takes hold of him and breaks him down. He stands there, as wasted and vulnerable as any of us are when we weep: salty tears going into his mouth, snot coming out of his nose. With his tears, he legitimizes human grief, making it a necessary step on the road to new life.

We need to have our grief legitimated — we need to see its necessity — because our dominant culture is one that does not know how to grieve and does not honor grief, whether that grief is due to a death or a divorce or a breakup or some other painful loss like opening up the newspaper and reading the morning news. Addie told me in the DSM, the diagnostic Bible of the therapeutic world, you are given three months to grieve before you are diagnosed with depression. Three months. Many of you, grieving your losses, have told me that people stop asking you how you are doing after a few weeks. 

I believe my home community does not know how to deal with grief well. And this is not because the people there are cold, unfeeling people. I think they are stoic white people who are afraid of grief. I think they are afraid of what might come up if they allow themselves to feel their losses.

The problem with grief unacknowledged is that is can bring about a kind of “soul death,” as Addie put it, “and then it makes us more likely to harm or be in a place of denial.” It makes us less capable of empathy with others who suffer. And it actually cuts us off from the wellsprings of new life. Ungrieved loss becomes a kind of cork, keeping both the grief and the new life bottled up, unavailable to us. Our Lazarus story tells us that only after grief is aired and shared is new life possible. 

And it also tells us two other things that are important to her. This story tells us there is no statue of limitations on when God can bring life back the dead. Even when the stench of death is overpowering, even on the fourth day when all hope is lost, new life is possible. Maybe that’s something we especially need to hear right now, at this particular moment in the life of our country and our world.

And, our Lazarus story also tells us that the life that will be returned to us is new. It isn’t the old life. Will Lazarus be the same after he walks out of that tomb? I’ve talked to people who have had near death experiences and the answer is an unequivocal no. As Addie said to me, “There’s who you were before a loss, and there’s who you are after — and they are different. That is the power of the resurrection story. You can not be the same person you were before the loss happened.”

Maybe this is also why we fear grief. Because it will change us. How would we change if we allowed our grief to break our hearts? How would our country change, if we could grieve everything we have perpetrated and suffered? Maybe we would be given hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone. Maybe we would look at each other and see the face of God.