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All Saints' Sunday | November 4, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
All the Tears
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses. Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of these your servants, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at the last, with all your saints, we may attain to your eternal joy.
Book of Common Prayer
There is so much contained in this story about Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and we only heard the end of the story today. For example, we could talk about some of what we did not get to hear in this particular section—like, why did Jesus, after learning how sick Lazarus was, choose to wait so long, too long—before he showed up for his friend? Or we could focus on Jesus’ interaction with Martha, her confession of faith in Jesus, and his “I am the resurrection and the life” response.
But even if we wanted to confine ourselves to today’s section of the story, we could spend hours on Mary’s blunt truth: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died” and how that truth captures so much of our own human experience. And we have not even begun to discuss the oddness, the complete mystery, of Lazarus being brought back to life after having been dead a few days. There is so much contained in this story about Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—layer upon layer.
But today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, I want us to focus on the tears: not Martha’s, not Mary’s, but Jesus’ tears. “Jesus wept,” John writes. It is the shortest verse in the Bible, one memorized by Sunday School kids throughout the generations so they’d have a quick answer to the “what Bible verse have you memorized” question. “Jesus wept,” they could respond. Last week when I reflected on its brevity, I realized this is the kind of verse I would expect to find in the no-nonsense Gospel of Mark, but it stands out in John’s Gospel.
John portrays a very verbose Jesus—one whose last sermon with his disciples on the last night of his life extends for chapters, going on and on and on. I know I talk my way into being, but so does Jesus in this Gospel of John. He uses metaphors left and right, piling up image after image: I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am vine and you are the branches. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. And so on and so on.
But here, in the middle of this story of deep grief and loss, all we get are some verbs that describe Jesus as being greatly disturbed in his spirit, deeply moved down to the core of his being, alongside this succinct phrase, “Jesus wept.” Yet despite its brevity, whole theological universes are contained in those two words. Jesus wept.
Perhaps you feel this way too, but I feel like I’ve been a witness to many tears during this past week, including some of yours. For some of you, the tears have come because of what we celebrate and honor today: All Saints’ Sunday. It is the Sunday on which we proclaim our Reformed truth that we believe, in the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, that all those on whom “God has acted in baptism, sealing them, as Ephesians says, with the mark of the promised Holy Spirit” are saints. “We celebrate the fact that God creates faith in God’s people, and those people through ordinary acts of love, bring the Kingdom of Heaven closer to Earth . . . and that the faithful departed are as much the body of Christ as we are” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon for All Saints Sunday: Small Acts of Love,” 3 November 2013, www.patheos.com).
Thus later in this service we will read aloud the names of all Fourth Church members who have entered God’s Church Triumphant since last All Saints’ Day and give you some space to think of others in your life whose deaths you have marked this past year: those whose laughter you miss, those whose memories loom large in your lives. All Saints’ Sunday is often a Sunday of tears—tears of gratitude mixed up with tears of grief.
Yet the tears that have primarily captured me this past week have been the tears I have both expressed and witnessed at the vigils and services with our Jewish siblings. In a crowded ballroom at the Swissôtel last Thursday afternoon—a room full of Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of no faith, and people of other faiths—teenagers from a Chicago Jewish school read aloud the names of the Jews who were murdered in their Pittsburgh synagogue just one week ago. The students had each been given a name, and they had done some research on that person.
So as a community in mourning, we learned about one man’s favorite football team and his passion for the game. And we discovered that the family of the Holocaust survivor, the oldest victim, believed she knew all of her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids better than they knew themselves. Another man who was killed had always felt it was his personal responsibility to make sure each person at Shabbat understood exactly where they were in the prayer book. That detail caused gentle laughter from our Jewish friends who recognize that behavior in folks they know and love. There were other details, but those are the ones I remember. They are small details, details that would seem rather insignificant in a different setting, and yet in that space, on that day, after the horrific violence in a sanctuary, those small details elicited tears. Tears of anger. Tears of grief. Tears of fear. Tears of loss.
I experienced similar tears when Nanette and I were honored to represent you, the people of Fourth Presbyterian Church, at Chicago Sinai Congregation’s Shabbat service this past Friday night. As a symbol of our deep friendship with that congregation, the Reverend Randall Blakey from LaSalle Street Church and I were invited to sit with the Sinai rabbis up on the bimah, a space like our chancel. Though our rabbi friends wanted to make sure it was a regular Shabbat service—one in which they would do what they always do on Friday evenings, following the service as outlined in the prayer book—their sanctuary space was full beyond capacity, no more prayer books left. And it was full primarily with folks from their own congregation—Jewish men, women, and children who knew they had to be together, reclaim sanctuary space by praying their prayers, reciting their scriptures, singing their songs, and crying their tears.
In a brief reflection, Rabbi Limmer said something like they, the American Jewish community, thought the days of anti-Semitic violence were in their past; they thought it would certainly not emerge in this day and time and in their country—not in a place and among a people who had received so many of their own Jewish relatives as refugees fleeing violence. But last Friday’s terrorism had reminded them of the truth that they, as a people, are still seen by some as “other,” as threat. Rabbi Limmer’s naming of that reality out loud in that sanctuary made space for tears of anger. Tears of grief. Tears of fear. Tears of loss.
In just a little over seven weeks, we Christians will celebrate the gift of the Incarnation of the Word of God in the full personhood of Jesus. God’s love made flesh. We will come into this sanctuary in order to imaginatively look into the manger-made-crib and remind ourselves once again of the amazing promise that, out of total and pure love, our God so desired to be in relationship with us, so desired to let us know how deeply God values all creation, so desired to show us up close and personal how God feels about us, that God became flesh and blood, chose to become weak in power in order to be strong in love. On that Christmas Eve night we will sing carols and light candles and thank God for the baby Jesus, a baby who was, as we remember, born into a Middle Eastern refugee family fleeing from violence, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
But the truth is that the Christmas story, the story of the power of incarnation, really just begins with that story of the stable and the manger. The story of the incarnation really just begins when the angels appear to the shepherds and tell them “be not afraid.” It really just begins when the magi come to see the baby king, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Furthermore, the whole story, the whole power of the incarnation, would be incomplete if we stopped there on Christmas Eve night, solely focusing on the baby Jesus.
Frankly, these two words in today’s text, the words “Jesus wept,” are just as central to the Christmas story as the words about his birth, for Jesus’ tears are as much a part of our salvation as his healings. Jesus’ tears are as much a part of our God healing us and making us whole as his miracles. Jesus’ tears are as much a part of God making the world new as his teachings. Jesus’ tears are as much a part of the way God destroys the power of death as the empty tomb.
The story of incarnation is not only a story about Jesus coming as a baby, but it is primarily a story about Jesus being fully one of us, one with us. And that with-ness means that as Jesus stands with his friends, deeply disturbed in spirit, deeply moved in compassion down to the core of his soul, tears running down his face—tears of anger over not being seen as who he is; tears of grief over the death of his beloved friend; tears of fear over what he knows looms on the horizon of his own life; tears of loss on behalf of Lazarus’s sisters—as those tears run down his face, because of Christmas, we realize those tears are actually the tears of God running down the face of the human Jesus.
Indeed, the words “Jesus wept” are one part of what we believe. But our deeper theological truth is that God in Jesus wept. God in Jesus felt all of that anger, grief, fear, and loss. God in Jesus plunged fully into the human experience. God in Jesus felt deeply disturbed in spirit, deeply moved in compassion. And because we believe God in Jesus wept, we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed that “he descended into hell.” That phrase is not a spatial one; it is not one about a particular place. Rather, that phrase is a theological one. Jesus “descended into hell” means we believe, we trust, we lean into the conviction that through Jesus all the tears that stream down our faces, all of our brokenness, all of our pain, all of our loss, all of our tragedy, all of our grief, all of what it means to be human—fully and completely—all of that is forever a part of God’s memory. God’s tears were what flowed down the human face of Jesus.
And I would argue that God’s tears undoubtedly flowed a week ago Friday as violence was unleashed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And God’s tears have undoubtedly been flowing at every vigil that has occurred across our country this past week and at every Shabbat service that happened on Friday when our Jewish siblings once again had to face the truth our siblings of color always have to face: that hate still exists as a part of our country’s fabric and some still see them as other and as threat. I promise you that breaks God’s heart and God’s tears continue to flow.
Our own tears need to keep flowing, too, because when we open ourselves up to feeling that anger, that grief, that fear and that loss, we open ourselves up to then act in ways that can respond to those expressions of hate, that can respond to those feelings of fear, that can respond to both the grief felt by others and the grief carried by us.
It is not that we stay in a perpetual state of flowing tears, but by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to both our pain and the pain of our world, we are living more deeply in the way of Jesus. We are opening ourselves up to receive the power of our vulnerable God—the God who, in Jesus, after weeping then shouted out for life to begin again and for the gathered community to get to work unbinding all that kept Lazarus from being who he could be.
Indeed, in this story Jesus shows us it is not a binary choice between tears or action. It is a both/and. You can go into the voting booth with tears running down your face. You can send a note of condolence to the people of the Tree of Life Synagogue or to our neighbors down the street at Chicago Sinai or make a contribution to the Jewish refugee relief agency of HIAS with tears running down your face. You can challenge statements of division and rancor made by a coworker or a family member with tears running down your face. You can do your best to stop seeing everything and everyone through a partisan lens or refuse to adopt the outlook of you’re either for us or against us with tears running down your face. You can welcome someone new into this sanctuary, sit by someone you don’t know, start a conversation with a stranger at Coffee Hour, just be kind with tears running down your face.
For what we learn from this story of Jesus weeping, what we learn from the story of Incarnation with angels singing, what we will learn later when Mary and Martha are keeping vigil with Jesus at the foot of his cross—all of this is a part of our salvation. All of this weeping and acting, singing and accompanying, loving and laughing—all of it is the way our God has chosen to save us, to heal us, to make us whole, to repair the world. The verse “Jesus wept” might be a verse of brevity, but whole theological universes are contained in those two words. Our salvation is illuminated by those two words.
So friends, our call on this day and in the days to come is to let our tears flow and to be the saints that we are—not allowing ourselves to rest in a state of resignation or of cynicism, but actively weeping and working until that day comes when all the tears are wiped away and the shroud that has covered all of creation is finally destroyed by our loving and weeping God—forever. Amen.