Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled vs. Jesus Wept
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
August 2, 2020 Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
John 11:25-36; 14:1-6a, 27
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here. This is the third in a series of three teachings on this topic in the August 2nd service.]
All we know about what comes after death is anecdotal. I have seen a ghost sitting before me, I have experienced mystical visions, I have sensed presences and received messages from dead friends and family, but even as I say this I doubt my own experiences. I live as if I am not a reliable narrator of my own story.
The book Life after Life by Dr. Raymond Moody recounts interviews with people around the world who have shared remarkably similar experiences and received remarkably similar messages about the meaning of life in the several minutes they have been technically dead.
The book Final Gifts written by two hospice nurses talks about the “nearing death awareness” that is common in people who approach death over a period of days. They see family or friends who have died as very real and helpful presences.
Cyrus Eaton was married to my cousin, Anne Kinder. They played an important role in American history, keeping open dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West during the worst of the Cold War. They were respected intellectuals, he was a hard-boiled industrialist and railway magnate and they were both atheists.
Eaton was in his 80s lying in his bathtub one evening when suddenly a woman who was a beloved relative poked her head in the bathroom door. Eaton was alarmed, but she smiled and said, “Cyrus, I just came by to say I’m going now.” Then she left.
It took him a minute to remember that she was in a hospital far away on life support. A minute later the phone rang to say that she had just died.
I can accept the possibility of the Holy Spirit and beings from another realm visiting ours, but Cyrus Eaton and my Cousin Anne did not accept those things. They were extremely reliable narrators and they told me this story, yet I live and act most of the time as if I did not believe them any more than I believe my own experience.
The fascinating thing is that Jesus seems to have had the same inner conflict. According to the Gospel Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet he wept along with Martha and Mary and all the mourners. He knew and believed more than anyone that death is not the end, that this realm is not the only one, and that love and life and light shine in the darkness and the darkness of death does not overcome them. He said repeatedly do not let your hearts be troubled by death, do not be afraid, and yet he wept at the tomb of Lazarus out of the grief that suffering and loss bring to all hearts that love.
An extremely popular poem used at funerals begins,
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
and it ends,
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
I appreciate the poem’s view of a oneness with all life that transcends death, in fact you will hear me profess it in today’s time with children and adults, but I would not tell you not to weep.
Our beloved congregation member Bill Burden died this week and I have been sobbing. If there is any good thing on the other side of death, if there is any realm of light and any loving spiritual being to greet us there, there is no question in my mind that Bill Burden is there, but we loved him and depended on him, he was a rock we stood on, a warmth we took shelter within, a wisdom that guided us, a kindness that comforted us, a patient deliberateness that held us steady in chaotic times, and we will miss all that terribly, and nothing that Jesus knew or said or did can take away from the grief we feel.
We have to feel it. We honor what we loved and we honor our own truth by weeping as Jesus wept.
One of the things that made Bill remarkable was the way he read the Bible. He did not attend our Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle, but he read the Bible like a contemplative. He entered deeply into a passage and listened to how it spoke to his immediate, practical need.
If we approach today’s passages from the Gospel of John the way Bill would, what do we find that can lead us through our grief and help us grow wiser and stronger, that can transform us so we are able to help transform the world around us?
The word that speaks to me today is “believe.” I am surprised because I have a strong prejudice against that word. Our entire complex ethical and spiritual tradition with its call to give our lives to the cause of establishing the realm of God’s love on earth has been reduced tragically by fundamentalism to the one question of whether we “believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.” That concept of belief has driven millions of wonderful people out of the church and its repository of western spiritual wisdom and culture.
Yet as my heart listens to these passages today I find the word “believe” rising for reconsideration. I hear it not as opening personal salvation to us in heaven, but opening the sacred way to us on earth, allowing us to enter the living stream of the Spirit and receive its comfort, guidance and strength. I think of it not as saying yes to a set of doctrines carved long ago in stone, but saying yes to a mystery flowing fresh in each moment through all beings.
The act of believing changes our vision. Rather than belief separating us, true belief opens our eyes to the oneness of all paths and lives and all the earth.
Walk through that door of belief and you will find yourself sitting on the deck of Bill and Dot’s home. In the chair next to you Bill will be immersed in the eternal life he found in the Bible through the door of his belief.
Believe enough to open your grieving heart and you will find yourself present to the love that nothing can separate you from, not even death. Believe, open your heart to that love and then go out into this grievously wounded world and rebuild it as a place where love unites and upholds us and brings the gifts of life to all people and all creatures. The light that was in Bill Burden and John Lewis and C. T. Vivian and all the saints will be in you. Believe, and the way of resurrected love cannot fail.
Let us open our hearts to the act of believing in silent prayer….