Sermon: March 29, 2020

Trinity has suspended in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been broadcasting video worship services via Facebook and YouTube. Here is Pastor Andy’s sermon for March 29. For a brief order of worship, including prayers, the Gospel text, and this sermon, click here (PDF).

Grief and Resurrection

by Pastor Andy Twiton

Grace and peace, friends, from God who is our refuge and from Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.

Whenever we read the Scriptures, we expect something to happen. We expect God to work transformation in our lives whenever the word is proclaimed, is preached, is shared in Christian community.

The purpose of the Word in a sense is to help us see and experience the presence and activity of God now—in the present. The Word of God is so much more than a book with old stories—although beginning with the historical context is crucial for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. But more than that, the Word of God contains a Living Word—a Word that speaks to our present reality now. It’s like our friends in the United Church of Christ say in their tagline: “God is still speaking.”

That’s one of our core convictions as people of faith: that God continues to speak into our world. You could think of it in this way: the Scriptures act like a pair of glasses that bring God’s present activity into clearer focus. The God that we meet in the witness of the Bible is the God we expect to meet in our life and in our world.

Now, these convictions about God’s ongoing activity in the world can lead to some difficult questions. Perhaps the most difficult question for us today is: Where is God in all of this? Where is God in the midst of a global pandemic? Where is God in unemployment? Where is God in isolation and loneliness? Where is God when the future is uncertain?

I’d like to suggest that our Gospel reading for today from the Gospel of John helps us to look for and discern God’s activity in this time. One of the things that I love about this story is the way that it holds together both grief and resurrection. It’s not one without the other. They’re not separate. They seem to be held together as one in this story. If we’re wondering where God is today, this story seems to suggest to us to look to those people and places that are grieving. And to look for signs of resurrection. Likewise, Christian witness—the witness that you and I share—is one that holds together both grief and the promise of resurrection.

Grief seems to be in the air today. David Kessler, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on grief, gave an interview to the Harvard business review a few days ago. Kessler worked with Elizabeth Kubler Ross—who came up with the five stages of grief. Perhaps you’ve heard of those. The first stage is denial. Then there’s anger, and then bargaining. Then sadness, and – finally—acceptance.

Kubler Ross believed that when we experience a loss we seem to work through these five stages. Or we experience these five stages at different points in our journey. And so David Kessler worked with her in the development of this framework and has continued to write about grief after Kubler Ross’s death.

In this interview Kessler describes the grief we feel in the midst of this pandemic.

Kessler says:

“We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”[1]

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

Later on in the interview, he goes on to describe how we might address this grief and cope in the midst of it. He says that understanding the five stages of grief might be a place to start. Sometimes being able to name an experience accurately helps us to move through it.

He goes on:

“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

One of the things I like about this understanding is that it gives us a sense that this all takes time. This is unknown territory, and we can’t rush our emotional experience of it. That grief hits us in unexpected ways and continues to evolve and change over time. These stages give us a language for understanding our experience.

In a similar way, our reading from the Gospel of John seems to have a variety of characters experiencing grief in different ways.

There’s a sense of denial: at first when the disciples are confused about Jesus saying that Lazarus is “asleep.” There’s a sense of anger and bargaining in the voices of Mary and Martha: “If you had been here, Lord, our brother would not have died.” There’s a deep sense of sadness and confusion: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

We see in these characters almost all the five stages of grief. Then we reach what I think is one of the most powerful moments in all of scripture. Our text says, “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus – even though Gospel describes Jesus as God incarnate—begins to weep.

Where is God now? God is with us in our grief. Jesus is weeping alongside us.

I’ve been to many funerals in my life. I remember a pastor in my past who invited the family to think of their tears as prayers. He said that on days like this it is hard to know what to say. But God is with us in our tears. Our tears can be prayers. Our tears can be holy.

When we weep, we trust that Jesus is alongside us, that God is close to the brokenhearted (see Psalm 34:18). Likewise, in the letter to the Romans, Paul describes Christian community as “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep” (see Romans 12:15). If we are to be the people of God in this moment, we should find ourselves weeping alongside those who are weeping. If we are part of the body of Christ in the world and Jesus weeps alongside us, we should be the presence of Christ for others. And we need each other. We need others to come alongside us in our grief too.

Jesus weeps with us. But this story also holds the mysterious promise of resurrection, and we need that word of hope too.

In a way, resurrection allows us to grieve fully. Resurrection allows us to live with courage and to live with hope, because we know that death does not get the last word on us or on our world.

If we are looking for signs of God’s presence, we look for those places of grief, but we also look for the ways God will bring new life out of that grief. We need both.

Where is God in all of this?

God is with you. Jesus weeps alongside us. And Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Amen.

[1] Scott Berinato. “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020.

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