John had been poorly for some time. I arrived at his house just before midnight. The family told me it wouldn`t be long now and looking back I suppose we would describe it as a `good death`. I think that`s what we mean by `He was at home… the drugs weren`t so severe that he was unconscious for too long… the family were all there… We held his hand… we held one another`s hands… and we prayed for him…. And the nurse came and kindly tended to his body….` But it`s what happened next that I remember so vividly. Someone said “I`ll put the kettle on”.
And so we went down to the kitchen table and that simple act of putting the kettle on seemed to me to create a space in which into the small hours stories were told; tears were shed. There were jokes and laughter- and I mean `legless` laughter; there was appreciation and gratitude…. and again it was all because someone offered to make a pot of tea.
It`s such a simple thing really isn’t` it? We just do it day in and day out but on that occasion it had a particular significance. It made me appreciate that in that `tea-time space` there is hospitality and welcome. “I`m sorry, I never offered you a cup of tea” we say; and we know this is more than a cultural thing – it says something about welcome and openness to someone. And I think it`s that sense of space that I`d like us to hold in mind as we engage in this worship today. Yes, there will actually be a cup of tea later and do hope you`ll be able to stay but this time we share is also about creating a hospitable space. There is something here about creating a space in which these loved ones of ours and their abiding influence in our lives is acknowledged and given it`s true significance. They continue to matter.
But it`s also a space in which we recognise that we… and all of us here are under the gaze of the hospitable Christ. He draws us to himself… he draws us together. And so it`s also a space in which we might for a moment appreciate that we welcome one another as those who also known the pain and vulnerability which death and grief can bring.
So Christ draws us to himself: This I think was the first thing that stood out for me in the Gospel reading we just heard a few moments ago. We heard how Martha says to Mary, “The teacher is here and he`s calling for you”. So Mary gets up quickly because she knows that (in the midst of all the crowds around them) Jesus wants some time just with her.
I other words he was creating an intimate space; a space in which there was a sharing. And just that so we don`t come over all sentimental it helps to remember that this wasn`t really a space filled with jokes and laughter like that time around the kitchen table. When Mary met Jesus it was a space filled with searing honesty and raw emotion. And maybe that`s how it is for us today. But it helps to notice that time and again Jesus is described in that passage as not only observing the grief of all of them –and especially Mary- but he is himself crying and deeply disturbed by it all. On top of that they even blame him for the death. Clearly Martha and Mary had shared their sense of dismay because they both complain, “Lord, if you`d been here my brother would not have died”.
My point is that it`s at moments such as these, when such extreme emotions are expressed that we`re given a glimpse of how Christ looks upon us in this space, just now. In other words, this same Christ shares and understands our grief and even more he can bear with our complaints and disappointments. We can have no fear or hesitation in sharing with him all that we are no matter how confused or ill-thought through.
But what also stood out for me was how when Mary makes her way to Jesus St. John tells us that those who were there to console her decided to follow “because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there”. And at first glance you think, “Well you would, wouldn`t you?” The graveside is one place most of us have gone to try to gain some sense of closeness to our loved one. But they were wrong weren’t they? I mean, Mary wasn`t going to the tomb to weep. She did eventually of course, but she was actually going to be with Jesus. To be with him in the space he had created for her. Again, it`s that which made the difference.
St. Paul once wrote to some bereaved Christians, “I would not have you grieve as those who have no hope”. (I Thess. 4.13) He knew there was more than just sitting by a grave in tears…. and this is what Mary discovers. What I`m saying is that she accepted Jesus` call into that hospitable space; and shared with him her grief, her dismay and her disappointment …. And let`s face it so did the other mourners were at it as well. They said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” I mean, if we are disappointed in God then frankly, we`re in good company! But it was then- perhaps only then – that Mary, having got it out of her system; began to see through her tears that things were not as they seemed. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus told her.
Now, this is where it gets difficult. I mean what do we do with a man who says things like this? The story tells us that he brought a dead man back to life and it`s told with a startling realism….”Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days”. And just to pile on the incredulity, the point is of course that Jesus does for Lazarus what he promises to do for us all. He raises him to life and it`s just so hard to grasp. It`s the kind of hope that yes, seems incredible and worthy of the scorn the family and friends of Lazarus poured onto Jesus. It`s the kind of hope that seems to come and go like sunlight behind the clouds. A promise we might find ourselves clinging to by our finger nails. Until we realise that all of this is quite natural when the truths of faith are stated in those terms- as propositions to be mulled over. So, don`t beat yourself up. The Gospel reading gives us permission to feel and experience and embrace this scepticism and the sense of amazement. It was, if you remember, exactly the same on Easter morning.
But that`s why we need the space. In grief it`s common not to know what we`re doing half the time. One minute we want to keep busy; next minute we need friends around…. Next we just want to be alone but I would suggest that space is the key. “The teacher is here and he is calling for you”. That`s what Mary heard. That`s what I hope we will all hear this morning. Because today it`s we who are invited into that welcoming, open and healing space in which we are present to Jesus and he to us.
It`s the kind of space where, sharing his company and learning to see through His eyes perhaps unexpected and unanticipated things may begin to happen; where the truth of who Jesus is and all that he has done will find a bit more of a place in our hearts, lives and memories. It`s a space in which we deal not in propositions or theories but in company with one who says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.