Where Is God In Suffering and Death?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC March 29, 2020, fifth Sunday of Lent. “How Can You Believe This?” series.
Text: John 11:1-45
Today’s Gospel is about a funeral, something we all know something about. A beloved brother and friend has died and the family and community has gathered for the rituals of grief…in the midst of the casseroles and crying and storytelling and remembering, there hangs the question that so often lurks at funerals—where was God? Where is God? Both Martha and Mary give voice to this deeply human response to death: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those gathered also mutter under their breaths, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Alongside these words, so often left unspoken, there are also words of hope and faith. At funerals we hear words of God’s loving presence, of hope in the life to come. And in our story Martha says: “I know that Lazarus will rise again…” But Mary, unlike Martha, can’t muster any words. She just cries.
Suffering and death are THE human mystery, the place before which all our best efforts and all our striving reach their ultimate limit. It’s one of the most persistent questions begging for an answer: How can you believe your God is “loving” when that God allows suffering and death? Lord knows, I can’t tidy that up in a handful of words today, of all days…
Right now, as ever, there are people grieving. There are those facing the end of their earthly life, there are people waiting and watching as loved ones travel the final stretch of their journey. We also know that in this present moment there are people experiencing PTSD. There are people fighting temptations to fall back into the bonds of addictions and other destructive ways of thinking and living. There are people who are sinking into depression, dissociation, and anxiety. There are folks walking on eggshells, just waiting for the stress and tension of lost wages and hunger or simply broken relationships to make their partner or parent snap into rage and violence. And all of this—and more—as a result of forced isolation and the layers of disruption and loss that mark these days. Where is God in all this?
Our story today isn’t straightforward in addressing the question. At the beginning, we learn that Jesus knew his friend Lazarus was gravely ill but purposely stayed where he was for two more days, so that by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. Tradition of the time taught that the soul lingered near the body for three days, after which there was no hope of life returning. Jesus waited to arrive until the fourth day, until things were truly hopeless, when the full impact of God’s power might be displayed. This feels not only frustrating, but cruel—like a confirmation that God is playing with us, messing with us, for God’s own self-glorification.
Last week, I reminded us that in John’s version of the Jesus story, there is a clear symbolic, theological frame for the whole book. Part of that frame is this: “What has come to being in [Jesus] is life, and the life is the light of all people.” (Jn 1:4) The writer of John is determined to help us understand that God desires that we experience life in all its fullness. John 3:16 says that God loved the world so much that Jesus came that we might have eternal life. And in John 10:10 Jesus is recorded as saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” A couple of weeks ago, we were led to living water at Jacob’s well. Last week we were led to liberating light that shines in the darkness. And today, our spiritual path leads us to a tomb where Jesus arrives late on purpose in order reveal the life-giving power of God’s compassion, mercy, and love. This extraordinary promise—not divine callousness or ego—is what the writer of John is trying to convey.
In the story, the disciples remind us that Jesus’ return to Bethany puts both his life and theirs in danger. In our current context, I feel this on a whole new level. I’m mindful of so many who are putting their own lives in danger to be present in places where illness, suffering, and death are lurking everywhere. And yet they, with courage and purpose, keep stepping into those places to bring care, comfort, and healing. And Jesus does the same—even when those around him want him to stay at a distance. Jesus draws near and, upon seeing the deep grief of his beloved friend Mary and of those who mourn with her, Jesus reveals one of the most important things we will ever know about the heart of God. Jesus wept. As Jesus cries, we learn that the God whom Jesus reveals shares our pain, weeps with us, and is deeply grieved by anything that threatens human wholeness and flourishing.
But Jesus’ coming into this situation isn’t only to reveal the compassion of God for our human grief and suffering—though that’s certainly a word we need to hear. If that were the only message from Jesus, it would mean that God ostensibly could remain far off, sad for us, but incapable of doing anything to affect human life. Jesus’ purpose was to reveal even more than the great compassion of God.
Jesus comes into a place of death, a hopeless moment, the point of despair and deep grief and he speaks words of faith in the power of God’s love to call forth life that is full and free even in the midst of death.
If we pay attention to the story, we’ll see the many obstacles Jesus had to navigate to get there. There were those who—out of fear—tried to keep Jesus from showing up at all. There were all the emotions and reactions to the death of Lazarus that needed to be cared for before Jesus could get to the tomb. There was cynicism from some on the sidelines. There was the deterrent of physical discomfort that would ensue—things were going to smell. And then there was a stone in the way. And when he had gently worked his way through the obstacle course, Jesus speaks and Lazarus, alive, steps into the light to have the final obstacle to life removed: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The Gospel writer is determined—as is Jesus in the story—to show that God will overcome every obstacle to bring liberating love and new life to us. And there are so many obstacles in our lives: fear, emotions, reactivity, cynicism, defense against discomfort, heavy things of all kinds that others have used to keep us trapped in places where we are not able to be fully alive, and the old clothes and uniforms that bind us to old identities and ways of being. There is the reality of suffering and death itself and all our reactions and defenses in the face of it all.
My own struggle with all this has been ongoing. A kind of breakthrough happened years ago on retreat when God and I wrestled over the reality of suffering—my father’s long debilitating illness, loved ones’ deep pain, and the reality of suffering everywhere. On a morning walk, I saw a baby rabbit, alone, out in the open, and nibbling on tender grasses still slightly dewy from the night. It didn’t run away at the sight of me. // Baby animals are one of my most favorite things. But it wasn’t delight I felt at the sight, but panic. I regularly saw hawks circling and swooping in those fields. I was so aware of the bunny’s vulnerability. And I started to cry. Why did God make a world like this, a world where this precious baby rabbit could so easily become food?
That year, in the monastery bookstore, the volume that fell into my hands is the classic text written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. There’s a reason the book is a classic. The thing I have remembered most clearly is this: “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?...The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world…” Imagine that. Imagine forgiving God for allowing suffering, for making a vulnerable creation, for trusting human creatures so much when we’re so likely to screw things up. For me, this was a revelation and a gift. It helps me remember that I get to have my feelings and my griefs about the way things are, that I am in a relationship with God and that God can take responsibility for God’s own stuff, and that, if I’m willing to forgive God, I might receive liberation from my anger and my despair—both of which keep me stuck in the question “why” instead of being free to move forward and experience the fullness of life. Kushner says that having forgiven God, we can “reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
What I discovered is that acknowledging how sad and angry I felt—about my dad, the bunny, the world—all eventually brought me around to realize that it’s only because there is so much beauty and possibility in life that its vulnerability is so upsetting. That is to say, it may be a broken world, but it’s a beautiful world and this beautiful world and the life we have is all pure grace. And though we may never fully come to terms with the mystery of suffering and death, we can come to terms with how we will respond to it. We can have all the feelings, we can be angry at God, and we can forgive God. We can acknowledge the obstacles that get in the way of stepping out of stuckness and into a life that is more free. If we don’t, we can live our whole lives bound and in the dark, allowing blame, resentment, and the specter of death to keep us fearful and defensive. In the midst of this moment of suffering and death, how will you respond?
Whatever feelings and thoughts you’re having today, the Gospel teaches us that God can take it… and that, even though Jesus wasn’t there when and how others wanted, even though Lazarus died, God was there and ready to bring about a miracle of life restored. God was there. God is here. Jesus shows us that God will let nothing stand in the way of drawing near, to love us into life, to liberate us into love for others, to hold us gently even when all we can do is cry.
Responding the Word:
Earlier in our worship service you were invited to find an object which represented an obstacle in your life which kept you from stepping into the fullness of God’s love through Jesus Christ, much like the stone placed in front of Lazarus’ tomb kept him bound in death. Today, we’ve heard again of the power and promise of Christ’s love, which meets us in the midst of grief, fear, anxiety and heartbreak, offers us compassion and care, and through grace liberates us from their power over us so that we may step into new life.
I invite you now to take the object that you’ve found. Hold it in your hand for a moment. Think about the power that obstacle, whatever it is has over you. How does it define your relationships with other people? How does it constrain the way you share God’s love and grace with the world? **PAUSE**
Now, I invite you to place that object within the worshipful space you’ve created in your homes. And, as you do, release it to God who is even now at work so that you might step past it and into new life.
Let us pray…
******* And now, as we move to the time in worship when we’re invited to offer our gifts to the church, let’s receive a word from Pastor Kelly.