For my last act at Aldersgate Church before moving to Annandale United Methodist Church, I buried a 14 year old boy who in a foolish, impetuous act took his own life. It was an accident in the most impulsive sense of the word. I’ve presided over far too many funerals for such acts and, at Aldersgate, far too many funerals for children. Here’s the sermon on John 11 and John 20. One of the speakers at the service read that terrible poem “Do Not Weep for Me,” forcing me to riff on it in my sermon, which I’ve added into the manuscript here.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as Dennis 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 sisters, Martha and Martha, right before he asks them- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”
The scripture text doesn’t mention the sisters’ mom and dad. Likely, because they were too numb to even come outside to see Jesus. The scripture doesn’t mention the boy’s many friends from all over though likely they too were there with casseroles and cards, grieving, wanting something to do to help, wishing they’d been there and muttering I should’ve done something.
“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, exhausted from grief, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”
Let’s be honest, this is the last place where we should lie or pretend.
Probably his sister 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 given everything that’s happened. No, it’s a waste of time to believe- what good did belief do when they most needed it?
After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up the sisters’ brother, Lazarus, is four days dead.
And he didn’t have to be.
His was an unnecessary death.
When she first found him, ill, his sister had sent word to Jesus: “Lazarus, your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.” But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored her prayer. He didn’t heed his sisters’ cries 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 and done something,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”
In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.
Whenever someone dies, especially when they die unnecessarily, it’s tempting to reach for an explanation, to find a reason, to search for someone to second-guess or something to blame.
Jesus doesn’t bother about any explanations or reasons.
He’s not interested in second-guessing blame.
Or maybe, by not rebutting the sister’s blame, Jesus is telling us that if we’re going to blame anyone then, yeah, go ahead and blame him.
He can take it.
To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”
For all you who might slip into language about how God has plan for everything, even in Death, I’m going to take a timeout for a little Sunday School scripture lesson.
The Bible calls Death God’s Enemy with a capital E. It’s what God promises to defeat in Jesus Christ one day still. It’s why Jesus weeps and groans before his friend’s grave.
The Bible calls Death the Enemy for a reason, I think.
It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death. Especially an unnecessary death. An impetuous, impassioned or accidental one.
We don’t know the why or the how of their brother’s death. We just know it didn’t have to be.
“Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” the sister 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 Peter- your last time to hear him talk in his funny accents, your last time to see him jump off, flip off, a picnic table and pile drive himself into the playground dirt, your last time to see him climb a tree, reenact Titanic in the pool fountain, or give you one of his big, broad shit-eating grins.
And so you don’t believe, but, even more than Fox Mulder, you want to believe.
And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!? What’s the use of you?!”
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.
This isn’t how I wanted to leave Aldersgate.
In my years here, I’ve presided over way too many services like this one- for kids, especially- 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 central part of their scripture a belief in life after death.
Take those together-
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.
The other reading we heard from the Gospel of John, it’s an Easter text.
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, the Apostle Paul promises, of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing. When Mary 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; that is, the life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated. Not erased but redeemed- recovered and reclaimed in resurrection.
The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus; that is, 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, which suggests that this life is ancillary to the life to come has absolutely 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.
With all due respect-
God’s not freaking satisfied for Peter just to be “the diamond glints of snow” or on “the winds of blow.”
A poem like that is comforting to NO ONE who loved Peter.
Peter is here in this coffin and you damn well know it, and you should- we should all- be weeping because Death is the Enemy of God.
But the promise of the Gospel:
God is not content to leave him there.
God is determined to raise him up
So that Lisa can hold, touch, and kiss him again.
God plans to restore him, restore THIS world. Resurrect him and us all. 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.
God doesn’t forget anything but our sins. Otherwise, why on earth would God go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? 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 Fort Hunt baseball game, every evening hanging out at a West Po football game or around a fire pit, every rope swim and flip into the water.
It all matters.
Every ‘I love you’ and every moment spent driving around in the cart at the golf course and every popsicle. The first girlfriend and the first YouTube inspired rabbit snare.
All of it matters. Every bit of it. All of Peter 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, that our lives lived together aren’t always easy.
It forces us to pretend that if Peter were here with you he wouldn’t apologize- he would.
He’d say he’s sorry to cause you this pain.
He’d asked for your forgiveness.
And he’d 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 has promised and is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.
Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener.
He still bears the holes in his hands.
Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation.
God doesn’t throw things out.
God doesn’t let us throw anything 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.
Nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken.
One day, by God, everything broken will be mended.
Every tear will be dried and every reason for all those tears will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, no matter their length, 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 compassion 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.
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, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.
To Todd and Lisa, to Catherine and Sydney, to Peter…
Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.