“Good night, sweet Prince. And angels sing thee to thy rest.”
~ Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii
When I first arrived at Trinity, I offered a series of interactive Bible studies to the congregation to help us get acquainted. Arlyn always typed his responses to my questions on separate sheets of paper, as many of them were quite lengthy and detailed. (I know—hard to imagine.) One of my questions was borrowed from the TV interviewer James Lipton: “If heaven exists, what do you want to hear God say when you enter the pearly gates?” Arlyn’s answer was this: “How about ‘Welcome, you’ll find your parents and family over there; the organists and choirs are over there, but you’ll have to walk past the guitar players on the way. You can find your friends, teachers, pastors, and colleagues in these various locations. In time, your spouse and family will join you.’” I trust he heard something very much like that when he entered his heavenly home. And I am sure he is now directing one of those choirs, playing one of those organs, and—who knows—maybe taking guitar lessons?
In any case, he was positive heaven existed. He loved life, but was sure that going to heaven would be like going from one stage in life to the next. When we were planning this service one of the most touching things he said was, “I’m not afraid to die, but I still have so much more I want to do.” Arlyn would have lined up right next to Martha in today’s Gospel lesson, insisting in the face of all evidence to the contrary, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God coming into the world.” Cancer may have taken many things away from him—his physical strength, his hair—and even, at the last, his life. But it never took away his faith. He was absolutely certain of God’s goodness and grace.
But you all know that, from having listened to him, travelled with him, worked with him, or lived with him. Arlyn recognized that he was unusually blessed—possibly unique among church workers I’ve known—in that he never had a serious crisis of faith. He was baptized as an infant, and knew early on that he was called to a life of church service. Even if you never met him, you could learn all you needed to know about his faith from the musical pieces and most of the readings he selected for this service.
The only reading Arlyn did not pick was the Gospel lesson, which I suggested, as I’ve often referred to him as ‘Lazarus.’ When he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), he was told the average life span was another eight years. He lived nearly 12. He went in and out of the hospital, tried this treatment and that, over and over, continuing to come back and fight the disease, again and again, to the surprise of many specialists and hospital workers. Like Lazarus in today’s story from John’s Gospel, you just couldn’t keep him down!
But I didn’t just select the Lazarus reading for Arlyn. I picked it for all of you. Because here’s the thing: The story is called the Raising of Lazarus in most Bible commentaries, but the main characters in the story are Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, the townspeople who gathered to be with them in their grief, and Jesus. Arlyn, our Lazarus, is in the tomb, where we all know—as he knew—that Jesus will once again call him to life. But what about the rest of us? What about those who weep for the loss of one they loved? Both Mary and Martha begin their conversations with Jesus saying, “If you’d been here, our brother would not have died.” The townspeople mutter to each other, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” In other words, “Where were you when we needed you? Why weren’t you here?” I know that some of you have asked variations of that question over the past 12 or so years when Arlyn was suffering the worst. Possibly many times. I know that some of you may wonder it now. Why did God let this man suffer and die?
Truly, I do not know why. What I do know is that just as Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb with Mary and Martha, he weeps now with all of us. And I know that Jesus will raise Arlyn to life again, just as surely as he raised Lazarus. And I know that we will also be invited into the process. When Lazarus came out of the tomb, tightly wrapped in his grave clothes, Jesus stepped back and told the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” He could have done it all himself, but Jesus tells the church to take part in the resurrection process. We gather not only to weep together, but also to free one another from whatever binds us and keeps us down. I’ve heard that Michelangelo believed that the shapes of his statues were already present in the marble before he began to carve them. His job, he thought, was simply to free them from the stone that held them captive. I think that is what Jesus is asking us to do too—to release the captives from whatever keeps them (us) from full, authentic living.
About a month ago, right after Arlyn learned that no other treatments would be feasible, and he decided to begin receiving care from hospice, a few of us gathered for a special healing service. It was hard and sad. But it was also beautiful. And I think what we most needed was to acknowledge to one another that we all needed healing too. We all have broken parts, some related to the pain of losing Arlyn, and some unrelated. We sang together, prayed together, and took turns anointing one another with healing oil. It was a form of unbinding one another and letting each other go.
I think we can trust Arlyn to be safely in the arms of the angels now, no longer in need of our healing prayers. But there are others here who continue to need unbinding. Carolyn and Paul and Stephen and Michael and their spouses and kids will need our help to unbind them from the powerful weight of loss and grief. We can’t take away their pain—it’s the cost of loving someone deeply—but we can join with them in it so that they are not alone, so that sadness does not suffocate them. We can partner with them in weeping by the tomb, releasing our tears and our worries into the care of our gracious God. We can uphold them and each other when anger or disbelief or any of the other confusing feelings grief releases threaten to choke the very life out of us.
Jesus knows that he alone can raise the dead, but he asks those who stand beside him to take care of one another. And Arlyn, as a faithful church man, teacher, and musician, knew that it was his job to inspire people to do exactly that. It is why he so loved the hymn writer Phillip Niccolai. Niccolai was a pastor in Germany during the bubonic plague, which killed 1,300 of his parishioners. Niccolai wrote “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” and “Wake, Awake” among other pieces between 1596 and 1598 to comfort his remaining parishioners, to unbind them and let them go. Consider this line from “O Morning Star,” for example:
“What joy to know, when life is past, the Lord we love is first and last, the end and the beginning. He will one day, oh, glorious grace, transport us to that happy place, beyond all tears and sinning!”
To put those words, along with beautiful music, into the mouths of grieving people is to unbind them and let them go. To promote hope in the face of despair. To make faith a living experience. It is the kind of thing Arlyn did his whole life long. It is, in the end, what it means to be the Church. And, by God’s grace and with God’s help, that is who we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider