Good evening, St. Brigid’s. Today is the feast of All Saints, and at this time of year, we talk about death. I just wanted to preface with that, in case you’re feeling raw. If you need to take a break, it’s okay.
Seven years ago, on a Wednesday in early April, my father got up, made coffee, went downstairs to warm up his wife’s car, and dropped dead of a massive heart attack. He was sixty-four years old.
It was about three weeks before I was scheduled to go to ACPO, where prospective candidates to ordained ministry are interviewed by ordained and lay members of the church. It was about five weeks before I was due to graduate with my Master of Divinity. The time passed in a whirlwind. I would have saved myself a lot of heartbreak if I’d taken time off to grieve, but I didn’t.
In September of that year, I was sent to St. Philip’s in Dunbar Heights to begin a parish internship. Our current bishop, John Stephens, was rector there at the time, and we sat down to decide some of the duties I would be given. One of my first ones was to give the Gospel reading at a midweek service in November.
On that day, I went up to the front of the chapel and opened the Bible.
A passage from Matthew’s eighth chapter. I didn’t look at it ahead of time.
Everything was fine until I got to verse 21.
“Another of his disciples said to Jesus, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”
I lost it. Not copiously, but enough that everybody noticed and it felt super awkward. By the way, in case you’re wondering, our soon-to-be Bishop John hadn’t checked it either and he was mortified. So don’t send him any hate mail; he’s a good egg, I promise.
Now I find it funny – both the circumstance and the memory of John’s face. But at the time, it really wasn’t. Not only because it hit so close to home, but because it felt so effing cruel. Let the dead bury their own dead.
It felt like Jesus telling me I could be Clare Morgan, child of Moira and Richard, or Clare Elisabeth, Christian and would-be priest in God’s Church, and I had to choose. It felt like a total denial of the howling abyss of my loss. And we seem to constantly be called to deny the reality of death and loss, both by our wider society but also often in the church. It happens among a lot of evangelicals and Fundamentalists who act as though expressing grief is a denial of heaven and God’s plan. It also happens among the conspiracy theorists we see on the news and online – people who deny COVID, genocides, and climate crisis, who try to convince other people that terrible acts of terrorism like mass shootings are just “false flag” operations for…what purpose exactly? Who knows? So many of us don’t want to confront the depths of human depravity or even the far more mundane reality of mortality.
But no matter how hard we try, we can’t deny death. You have known it in your own life, surely. I’ve buried many of Christ’s beloved as a priest, and in May of 2014 my stepmother and I set free my father’s ashes in the mountains of Squamish. I watched them blowing up the side of those mountains and knew he was not coming back, ever. He may endure in the winds and the trees there, and I’ve felt his presence keenly, but it was not in any way I had known it before. He had occupied a space in time with a body. Now, that body, which I loved, which had a smell and a physical solidity, no longer exists. The living are the only ones who can bury the dead.
In the beautiful book Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Qur’an with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources, the former Episcopal priest Anne Holmes Redding writes:
“God alone is timeless, without beginning or end. …The rest of us must deal with time and the confines it imposes, the most dramatic and mysterious of which is death. Death appears in many guises and at several levels of existence: for individual beings; for relationships; for societies and other groups; and eventually, according to the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions, for the cosmos itself.”
Jesus, far too late, comes back to Bethany, and meets Martha and Mary, grieving the loss of their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus loved. Martha manages a profession of faith when she sees Jesus, but not Mary. All she can say is, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
This is true. And now it’s too late.
We don’t get any sense of tone here, of course, but we are told that Jesus becomes disturbed. There are actually many arguments about what is the cause of his disturbance and his tears. Dr. Harry Maier, my New Testament professor in seminary, argues that what makes Jesus disturbed is actually the unbelief and misunderstanding of those around him, rather than the death itself – particularly the crowd’s use of the theologically loaded phrase, “Come and see,” a phrase Jesus uses to welcome people into new life which is repurposed here to lead him to the dead. Why would Jesus be sad when he knows what he is going to do, even before he got to Bethany at all? It doesn’t make sense.
This is a solid and scholarly argument, and honestly, between you and me, it used to be very important to me, as a scholar of John.
But now? Not so much.
I just want a God who sees those who mourn, and cries.
After losing my dad, I want a God who cries.
After nearly two years and 5 million deaths from COVID, I want a God who cries.
And then, I want a God who, in the face of that slammed door, in the face of, “Where were you?” in the face of, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days,” says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? Remember what I told you. Remember what I showed you.”
And then shows us nurse logs; the depth of solstice followed by springtime, year after year; stars exploding outward to create more nebulae, more worlds, more galaxies, on and on until time has no more meaning than a baby’s babbling; shows us the oppressed rising up, refusing to be silent, refusing to stay wrapped up in their shrouds, refusing to ignore the call, “Lazarus, come out!”; shows us resurrection.
Continuing her reflection, Anne Holmes Redding, who is African-American, writes,
“On a pilgrimage in 2006, I had a lesson about this mysterious interrelationship of death, sacrifice, and new life. Our group was in a little boat on a rainy day, returning from Skellig Michael, a stony island off the west coast of Ireland, where medieval monks had built a monastery high on a cliff. As I sat thinking about my ancestors who had crossed the North Atlantic Ocean centuries ago never to return to their African homeland, the air seemed full of a presence. I had always had great respect for those enslaved Africans who had jumped overboard rather than continue on the ocean journey of oppression. But that day I heard a chorus of voices telling me, “Daughter, we are the ones who did not jump overboard. And you are the reason we didn’t.”’
Subsumed with joy, Anne writes, “I felt resurrected.”
God calls to us – calls us to burst forth from tombs of self-loathing, suffering, and death, calls us to come out (yeah, children, hear that call), but does not deny the reality of what we risk to come out of these tombs, does not deny that we don’t always choose them, and we can’t always skip forth as easily as Lazarus did, and cries.
And when we do burst forth, God turns to those who witness our exodus, and gruffly says, “Unbind them and let them go.”