The first funeral I ever attended or performed was a suicide. Still a new seminary student, I was so determined to be “helpful” and do whatever the grieving family asked of me I lied. Rather, I aided and abetted their secret and shame. Neither the truth nor, consequently, the Gospel was spoken.
Since I know preaching funerals where the deceased has died by their hand can be hard, I offer this one from this weekend as an example, not a good or perfect one just more honest than that first attempt. I owe Kenneth Tanner a big shout-out for assisting me.
Here it is, using both John 11 and John 20.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as I said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken Martha right before he asks her- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”
“I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”
But probably- Let’s be honest, probably she wants to say “No.”
No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe in Resurrection and Life. After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up her brother Lazarus is four days dead.
Dead. And he didn’t have to be. His was an unnecessary death.
When Lazarus first fell ill, Martha had sent word to Jesus: “Your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.”
But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored the warning. He didn’t heed the cry for help as seriously as he should have so that by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”
In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.
To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”
Scripture calls it the Enemy for a reason. It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death.
Especially an unnecessary death.
We don’t know the why or the how of Lazarus’ death. We just know it didn’t have to be. “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” Martha asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?
“Do you believe this?”
Do you? Do you?
All of you- you’re all Martha today.
Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.
For others of you the answer is “No.” You don’t believe. You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with _________.
And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!?”
The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.
I’ve presided over too many services like this one- and don’t get me started on the kids I’ve buried or the forsakenness I’ve felt- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.
“No, I don’t believe.”
I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death.
Take those together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.
But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.
In here, on our calendar, it’s still Eastertide, the season of Resurrection, a season that began with the scripture reading you heard this morning from the Gospel of John.
Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.
She mistakes him for the gardener.
Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be.
He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. His Resurrection is but the first fruit of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing.
When she realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars.
The life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated.
The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus. He is who he was.
That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘Resurrection.’
Namely, this world and this life- it matters. It matters to Almighty God.
Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, that suggests our ultimate destination is an evacuation from this world has nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with Resurrection.
Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, Resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.
God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”
No, God Resurrected Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. God plans to restore THIS world.
The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, Resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else.
If that were the case, why on earth go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? And not just him but God raised him as the first fruit of God raising us all.
God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”
God raised Jesus from the dead.
Therefore, Resurrection means this world that God made matters.
Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—
Literally, everything, it all matters.
Every pitch, every batting practice thrown, every conversation breaking down your swing.
It all matters.
Every game coached. Every reluctant walk along the beach. Every date night in Old Town.
All of it matters.
Every piece of unsolicited volleyball advice. Every vegan chicken sandwich shared. Every trip to Philly or Boston or New Orleans. Every GPS-induced “shit show.” Every ‘I love you’ left unsaid or said in deeds if not words.
All of it. Every bit of it.
All of ________ and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him.
It all matters.
It all matters to God.
When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a ‘celebration of life.’
I hate that language.
I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.
For one, it compels us to be dishonest. It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, neither was every part of ________’s life nor the way ended he it. It forces us to pretend that if _____ were here with us he wouldn’t apologize and say he wished that none of you had to be here today.
For another, I hate that ‘celebration of life’ language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.
We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. We’re celebrating a life that God is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.
Mary mistakes him for the gardener. He still bears the holes in his hands. Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. God doesn’t throw things out.
Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.
Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.
Belinda Carlisle was right; she just got the tense of her verbs wrong. Heaven will be a place on Earth, a New Earth- a New Creation- and nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken, everything broken will be mended.
Every wound will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, are gift.
Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.
And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.
I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.
But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’
Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’
Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.
Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. Again.
Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.
Christianity is not spirituality.
The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.
We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.
All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.
Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.
That’s our hope.
That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”
Do you believe this?
Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, whether ______ believed it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.
Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.