Our Empathetic God
All Saints Day
November 4, 2018
I love All Saints’ Day. I love the hymns, I love the texts, I love the memories. Every pastor I know, present company included, says they’d rather preach a funeral than a wedding, because we get to preach the hope of resurrection – and All Saints Day is sort of a big, annual funeral, because it is all about the life and comfort we find in the resurrection promise, especially in the midst of the various losses we experience.
Just look at these texts. Each is written to and for a community experiencing a difficult time, and each of them holds in tension the extremes of human emotion: the deep sadness, grief, and fear we feel when we’ve lost, or are losing, someone or something important to us, and the hope we find in a God who keeps promises. As you listen to each one, listen for those emotions. As these texts mention death, think not only about the ultimate sort of death, but also about the mundane deaths we experience every day – people moving away, job change or loss, losing your faculties and abilities, realizing you can’t be as active anymore as you once were, any sort of meaningful change to what you have come to understand as “normal,” whether the change is good or bad. Recall the feelings you have in those experiences of death and change, and listen in these texts to God’s words of hope and new life for you. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I read through the texts for today, I noticed a common image across all three: tears. Both Isaiah and Revelation talk about God wiping away tears from the eyes of people who are surrounded by death, grief and fear. And the Gospel text, this famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, is full of mourning and sadness, even expressed by Jesus himself. This is of course the story in which what is famously the shortest verse in the Bible appears: Jesus began to weep. So much pain. So much grief. So many tears.
Yet these texts are also full of hope! They all contain good news! So why would I notice not the hope, but the tears? Perhaps because these past couple of weeks in our country have echoed some of the same pain, grief and sadness. First there were the fourteen homemade pipe bombs sent to, among other political leaders, two former presidents. Then, eleven worshipers shot dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh on the Sabbath, during a baby’s naming ceremony. Another attempt at a mass shooting in a predominantly black church, but when the shooter couldn’t get in, he killed two African Americans at a Kroger’s grocery store instead, while he told a white man nearby that he was safe because, “Whites don’t shoot whites.” Each report more chilling, maddening, and heart-breaking than the last. So much pain. So much grief. So many tears.
What a time to be celebrating All Saints Day, this day in the church year that is a sort of memorial service for all who have died, for those saints who have gone before us. It is a day we celebrate the eternal feast, the promise of resurrection, the ways that God turned death into life for so many of our loved ones before us and still does and will for us. It should be a joyous day! And yet… in weeks like the ones we have just been through, I don’t always want to jump straight to the hope and joy of the resurrection. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want to get there eventually, but sometimes, I just need a little more time to lament.
Lament. It is a central but all-too-often overlooked piece of the biblical narrative, but one that I have been returning to more and more lately. Lament is the expression of deep sorrow or grief about something or someone, like the loss of a person. It is the Psalmist’s cry in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the Israelites who sat down and wept by the waters of Babylon, because they could not find it in themselves to sing their song of faith while they were forced to live in a strange land. Lament is the “sighs too deep for words,” that Paul refers to in Romans. It is the deep sadness of Mary weeping inside the empty the tomb, believing as she did that they had taken away her lord’s body. Lament.
I have lamented. I have lamented in the past two weeks for sure, and also at many other times over the course of my life. I resonate with those in the Bible who have also lamented. And so that is why I am so drawn to the tears in our passages today, and in particular, to Jesus’ tears. It might seem strange that Jesus is crying at this particular moment. When he first found out that his friend Lazarus was sick, Jesus intentionally delayed departure, seemingly waiting until it would be too late to save him. So this situation is, kind of, his own doing! At least he could have prevented it. And then once he gets there, he knows resurrection is just around the corner – both the raising of Lazarus, and not too long after, Jesus’ own resurrection. So why, then, is Jesus crying? What’s he got to cry about?
As I have let myself feel an assortment of feelings this week, and recalled other times when I have, in my life, lamented, or sat with people who are, I have begun to see that what Jesus does on that day in Bethany when he cries, is make time and space for empathy. In his willingness to cry for the death of Lazarus, Jesus in essence says to Lazarus’ grieving sisters, “Your brother is worth grieving for. You are worth grieving for.” He doesn’t jump to paint a silver lining around it, or say, “Who are you talking to here? I can fix this for you!” Though he does eventually say, “Didn’t I say you would see the glory of God?” he doesn’t go there first. The first thing he does, is lament with them. He weeps. He lets himself feel their pain, and he cries with them.
That can be incredibly healing in times of lament! I can think of times in my life when I have been having a really rough time, and I keep trying to tell myself, “It’s not so bad, Johanna. Get over it. Things could be so much worse.” And then when I complain to someone else, and they say, “Boy, that’s really rough,” I feel relieved! “Yes! Yes, it is rough! Thank you for saying that, and making it okay for me to feel cruddy about it!” In times when this has happened, that mere acknowledgement of my pain always feels like a step toward healing.
I have found this in my interactions with other people, too. In my family growing up, I was often the peacemaker. I was always trying to paint silver linings and make people feel better. As I grew up, I found this was my inclination in my adult interactions, too… often to poor results. When someone expressed a concern to me, I first wanted to say, “Let me break this down with you and show you why this is not something to be concerned about. I think if you just understand, you’ll feel better.” Turns out, that approach seldom works to diffuse conflict or heal hearts. Maybe eventually, yes, but not at first. Because what people want most of all when they’re in pain is to be heard, to know that their feelings are valid, to feel like they are not alone. Once we have taken the time to lament together, to empathize, to sit together in the pain for a little while – only then can healing begin. Only then are we in a place where we see and hear the good news of the resurrection.
When Jesus cries, the bystanders say, “See how he loved him!” I think it would be more accurate to say, “See how he loves us!” Because empathy is an act of love. Lamenting together is an act of love. It puts aside pretense and judgment and policy and even our own fears and baggage, and dwells for a moment in the heart and needs and longings of another. To do that, is to love.
Back at the beginning of John’s Gospel, which we always read at Christmastime, we hear that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” What a beautiful promise – that God would dwell with us, sit with us in our joy and more importantly, in our pain. I know this is good news. I was amazed this past week when our confirmation students gave their presentations of their capstone projects, which end up being a sort of statement of what is important to them about their faith and their relationship with Jesus. I think every last one of them said that what is important to them about their faith is that they know God will be with them through good times and bad, especially bad. These wise teenagers know and have internalized this essential message. They know the importance of someone being present with you in your hour of need, and of acknowledging your pain.
My prayer for them and for all of us, is that we would know not only this abiding, empathetic presence that is willing to sit and cry with us, lament with us… but that we would also know that this ability to lament is the first step toward hope and healing, and ultimately, transformation. That it is right after this that the people Jesus knew, got their first glimpse of resurrection and new life. And that it is right after this, the last of Jesus’ miracles, that he walks his own agonizing path to the cross, and then, into resurrected glory.
The story of our faith is one that moves through the cycles of emotions: from pain and sorrow and lament, to hope and healing and transformation. Over and over again we see this cycle – lament to hope to new life, lament to hope to new life – and every time, we can see that the God who came to dwell among us, also dwells with us, cries with us, laments with us in our pain. And then God wipes our tears and his own, takes our hand, and assures us of what comes next: we see the glory of God. We see new life come about. Maybe, just like the people standing there to whom Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go,” calling them into the work of bringing about new life, we even find a way that we, too, are called to participate in bringing about that new life. We don’t forget about the pain we felt, and neither does God, but we are assured that with Christ that pain and death is never the last thing. Because God is always the last thing, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God always wins.
Let us pray… Abiding God, when we are lost, rejected, suffering and afflicted, we thank you for being with us, crying empathetic tears. Make us aware of your presence, and bring us into the everlasting hope made possible by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.