June 5, 2014
Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
“Jesus wept.” As a child and teenager, it is the one verse of scripture I knew by heart. Over time, things have changed. Verses of scripture longer than two words have been learned. More importantly, I learned “Jesus Wept” had to do with the unexpected death of Lazarus. Most importantly, “Jesus Wept” held wonderful insights for families wrestling with the death of loved ones. Three insights have compelled me to say more. Consider the power of presence, the power of empathy and the power of resurrection.
Mary and Martha waste no time making clear the power of presence in the Lazarus story. When their brother falls critically ill, Mary and Martha send for Jesus. His sisters need the Messiah at his bedside. Better than the ER, RX and OR put together, Jesus’ care for the sick, dead and dying is impeccable. It does not hurt that Lazarus is Jesus’ BFF (best friend forever). In good and bad times, Mary and Martha can expect our Lord to make a beeline for Bethany. He comforts, strengthens and supports Lazarus in ways they cannot. It’s true. The presence of a best friend availeth much.
Jesus’ late arrival in Bethany dramatizes the power of presence even more. In separate conversations, Mary and Martha tell our Lord that his presence would have kept their brother from dying. Yes, the sisters are in pain. First, their brother sleeps in the bosom of Abraham. He’s not coming back. Second, the very one who had the power to make him well arrives late. Jesus’ reputation about always coming on time seems at risk. Third, Mary and Martha cannot mask their disappointment. Their best friend, not some stranger, has let them down. Quite frankly, the sisters intimate that Jesus is responsible for the death of Lazarus.
Why are they so certain? The sisters have first-hand knowledge of Lazarus’ friend changing water into wine, feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Jesus heals a woman with an issue of blood of twelve years. He makes the blind to see and the lame to walk. Any kind of sickness, he dispatches with words like “Go, your faith has made you well.” But this does not happen with his BFF a.k.a. best friend forever. If Jesus had just shown up on time, they have no doubt that their brother Lazarus would be alive and well. Better than that, Jesus would be coming to dinner. Instead, our Lord arrives in Bethany for a funeral or Memorial Service; so it seems.
Over the years, some of my parishioners dared to tell me that they were not happy with God. Like Mary and Martha, they called upon God. They pleaded with God. They prayed the prayer of faith. They knew what God had done for others. They knew what God could do for them. Nothing happened. Their loved one died anyway. Feelings of being abandoned by God went from sorrow to anger to questions. Where was the Lily of the Valley, the Fairest of Ten Thousand, the bright and Morning Star? How did the home going of a love one fit in the plan of God’s love? Questions were raised. And I had no good or satisfactory answers.
When our Lord finally arrived at the outskirts of Bethany, Martha rushed out to meet him. There they stood toe to toe engaged in passionate conversation. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, she said. Even as Martha took our Lord to task, she believed that Jesus could resurrect her brother on the spot if he chose to ask his Father. But Christ refused. Instead, Jesus promised that her brother would rise again. Martha agreed but remained disappointed. She wanted her brother resurrected that day not on the Last Day. If Martha’s loss or disappointment had not been so deep, she could have fully grasped Jesus’ claim to be “the resurrection and the life…that those who believe in him shall never die eternally.” She did grasp that Christ wanted an affirmation of faith. So Martha complied declaring, “You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.” Left with more questions than answers, Martha went home. Projecting her angst, Martha informed Mary that the Teacher was calling her, not Lazarus’ best friend or their good friend.
Still, there is good news. Jews and other acquaintances from Jerusalem and Bethany pour into the house of Mary and Martha. They console the sisters and spend time with them. They listen to the words and feelings of both sisters about their brother. Undoubtedly, the sisters are assured that their sorrow will cease or be less severe someday. Perhaps, some of their friends put a good face on Jesus’ absence. Only for good reasons would Jesus miss an opportunity to help Lazarus
The Lazarus story shows us that the power of presence is real. While there is no substitute for the absence of a best friend or family member, God sends other folk. To repeat, friends pour into Bethany from Jerusalem and surrounding towns upon hearing of Lazarus’ death. They represent synagogue and community. In a way, caring for you, and being with you today, is one of the most important acts of kindness in our Memorial Service. Liturgy and presence hold hands. Hence, we celebrate the years your beloved served. We honor all your beloved did in the service of Jesus Christ. Most importantly, we care and love you, however limited our ability to do so. May our presence and prayers in this Memorial Service be an outward and visible sign of God’s love and care expressed by this body of Christ for days to come!!
The Power of Empathy
On Oct. 10, 2013, a video went viral on YouTube. 21 million viewers had seen it by January 2014. A baby weeping on social media was a sensation. Why the baby wept sparked interest, not the fact that she cried. Approaching her smiling, giggling 10 month old daughter named Mary Lynn Leroux, a Canadian mother said, “Mommies’ gonna sing you a song…Let me know how you feel about the song, okay?”
She began singing Rod Stewart’s lyrics, “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” Fifteen seconds later, tears welled up in the baby’s eyes. Soon after, tears began rolling down her rosy cheeks like the mighty Mississippi. As if praising God, the baby girl lifted her left arm toward heaven. Then, her little mouth quivered. Sadness radiated from her face. Weeping audibly now, her mother stopped singing immediately. Then, the baby’s mother posed a question her baby couldn’t answer with words, “Aw-you feel the pain of the song?” The mother’s question intimated that the baby’s reactions demonstrated the power of empathy. Was it possible? How could a ten month old baby know anything about a love relationship gone awry, a broken heart, or the challenge of facing a brand new day without the one they love?
One analyst says the baby’s cry has two foci. One is emotional contagion. People have the capacity to absorb or reflect the emotions of those around them. Apparently, babies are no exception. Second, parents and babies learn to mimic and/or match each other’s emotions. Such imitation or getting in step together, fits the concept of emotional synchrony.
At a retreat held for active Bishops of the Council of Bishops in Georgia, emotional contagion and synchrony were at work. Bishop Khegay, of Russia, reflected on the threat of civil war between Russia and Ukraine. Soldiers and civilians are dying needlessly. Hunger, disease, the homeless and war injuries continue to rise. Then, the Bishop of Nigeria recounted the tale of woe regarding over 200 kidnapped schoolgirls. Like flight MH370, they have disappeared without a trace. Nobody has found them. Pent up rage, anger and frustration is tearing families and the country apart. Both Bishops struggled with how to minister in such calamity. And both Bishops wore the travail and tragedy of their country on their faces, in their body language and their personal testimony. All of us were touched by their riveting and painful accounts. Emotional contagion and emotional synchrony reigned among the Bishops. Quite frankly, emotional contagion and synchrony may be a way of understanding the notion, “Jesus Wept.”
Perhaps, Jesus’ heart skipped a beat when Mary and Martha sent for him. Maybe, he wanted to get to Bethany immediately but couldn’t. Why? The Jews had already threatened to stone him if he returned. Nevertheless, Jesus set out for Bethany accompanied by his disciples. Two issues set the stage for his tears. First, for a second time, Jesus heard that his lateness led to Lazarus death from sister Mary. Undeniable regret filled his spirit.
Second, instead of Mary confronting Jesus with the Lazarus question toe to toe, she knelt at his feet looking up into his face crying her eyes out.
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews that came with her weeping, it got to him. No longer could he stand apart or remain stoic. Emotional contagion and synchrony that was upon them transferred itself to him. And Jesus, the rock in a weary land, began to erode emotionally under the drumbeat of tears from Mary and the Jews who came to console her. “Where have you laid him?” he said. “Come and see,” they said. When Jesus saw the grave of his best friend, personal loss hit him like a sledgehammer. His legs got weak. His heart started pounding. His eyes filled up. Greatly disturbed; our Lord groaned. And then; Jesus wept. What a startling unusual picture of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!! No, “Peace be still.” No, “Go, your faith has made you well.” No, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In the sounds of silence, “Jesus Wept.”
Jesus joins us in our grief. He knows pain and loss. He knows regret. He knows precious memories. He knows how you feel. He knows the rebuke from loved ones emerging when a family member dies. His visits to Bethany will be forever changed. Mary and Martha will be there but not Lazarus. Our Lord cannot shake the deepest hurt of all. The one whom he loves is gone. No wonder “Jesus Wept”.
Jesus’ love for Lazarus tells me something about your loved ones. Our Lord has the same love for your loved one as he had for Lazarus. Jesus’ love for Lazarus is but one expression of his love for the world expressed in John 3:16-17. God comes not to condemn the world but to save it through his redemptive love. Weep Jesus, weep on till we learn again and again, till we see again and again that you love us with a perfect love, a “love that will not let us go.”
The Power of Resurrection
When Beverly and I received the news we were going to have our first child, we rejoiced. A healthy baby was on the way. Better still, we had health insurance. Soon, our joy turned to sorrow. The insurance company refused to pay the expenses of her pregnancy and hospital costs of having our first baby. Why? My wife’s pregnancy was a pre-existing condition. Because of this experience, my mind has zoned in on circumstances or issues defined by pre-existing conditions.
Two observations by the crowd made it clear. One group concluded that Jesus’ tears truly demonstrated the close relationship between the two. “See how he loved him,” they said. Death cut off their relationship. It ended good times at the house with Lazarus, Mary and Martha. And death took away a best friend our Lord leaned on as he pursued his difficult mission of loving and saving the world.
A comment by other Jews helped bring the pre-existing condition to light. When our Lord wept, they questioned why a man “who had the power to make a blind man see could not also keep Lazarus from dying.” In the face of death, why had Jesus functioned as if he were powerless, helpless or impotent? Hearing that, our Lord stopped crying immediately. He was disturbed. Again, he groaned because the crowd’s commentary produced a haunting realization. His response to Lazarus’ sudden death and the pain of his two sisters had temporarily set aside his main reason for coming to Bethany. And what was that? Our Lord had been sent to Bethany for one reason, namely “to glorify God by raising Lazarus from the grave.” Before Lazarus got sick and died, God had already created a pre-existing condition. He said it before he went to Jerusalem for his own death and resurrection. He said to his disciple and Martha before he raised Lazarus from the dead.
To the disciples Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (he is dead), but I am going there to awaken him.” (John 11:11). To Martha, Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha agrees saying, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” After prayer, the Master shows the crowd his belief in the pre-existing condition by raising Lazarus from the grave. Bottom line, Resurrection was the pre-existing condition of Jesus’ sojourn to Bethany. Death could not checkmate the journey to life everlasting.
In 2011 and 2012 respectively, I eulogized my Bishop and his wife. I loved Bishop Sheldon Duecker and his wife Marge Duecker. I wept over their homegoing. Without saying don’t weep, Bishop Duecker asked me to dry my tears in a letter addressed to me about death, resurrection and his last wishes. “Jonathan, tell them, we’re Easter people…health issues aren’t the full story of our days of sickness…our faith is being renewed every day.”
Then, he wrote this about his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s. Jonathan, “tell them that Marge’s death and dying is not the full story of today. Tell them she’ll rise again and that the family will be together after the resurrection.” I leave you with these words based on God given reflections of “Jesus Wept”.
Before your loved one died, there was already a pre-existing condition waiting to be activated. “They will rise again.” As death gives life to a Will; so death triggers resurrection. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way. “For every Good Friday; there is an Easter.” On the Last Day, “death will be swallowed up in victory.” And “weeping that endured for the night” will give way “to joy in the morning.” Amen.