“Take Away the Stone…”

John 11:32-44

I usually start with the ritual as I approach All Saints Sunday, so precious is it to me and to so many.

  • I begin by imagining the candles lit, one after another after another.
  • With the names spoken and the bell tolled, doubled this time through for last year we could not do this all together in one place.
  • With the faces of adults and children, so focused as they lean in to catch a flame, doubling and tripling the light.

I usually start there for this is where the promise of All Saints Sunday comes home, it seems, for those among whom I serve. In the remembering. The honoring. And that is always beautiful.

This year, though, I am more caught by the story which is ours to receive in John’s Gospel now.  This familiar one about two sisters and their grief and Jesus who wept and Lazarus who had been dead and was no longer.

Indeed, this year I am standing still in this moment here when Jesus says to “Take away the stone.”

And I wonder now what must have gone through the minds of those gathered to grieve and to offer support to others in their grieving. Those who were close enough to hear his words must have been shocked, don’t you think? Powerfully skeptical even.  And those at the outer edges who just saw some moving towards a stone large enough to cover the grave of a grown man? They must have been stunned in their confusion.

But they did it anyway, of course.

Some among them stepped forward and with all that they had, removed what had been theirs to carefully place just a few days before.

And the rest stood by, holding their breaths, I imagine, in anticipation, or outrage, OR just to avoid taking in the ‘inevitable stench’ which Martha so clearly pointed out in her protest.

And yet, against all human logic, they did it anyway. They took that stone away. And in taking the stone away it made room for all that would follow. For one dead four days to come stumbling out, alive again.

And then they did this, too. At Jesus’ command, they unwrapped Lazarus from his burial clothes and set him free.

And I find myself thinking now of how you and I are often, maybe always, called to participate in the Gospel, the Good News itself.

I mean to say that it is not as though this wondrous miracle could not have happened without a handful stepping forward to take that stone away and without the others — perhaps Mary and Martha themselves — rushing to the side of Lazarus and removing all that had bound him then.

Oh, if not this way then Jesus would have found another, but how much more powerful must it have been for those who shoved that stone aside, for those who peeled back the cloths, for those who even just suspended their own skepticism at what was possible and allowed themselves to stand still in the wonder of that moment where before their eyes, life won over death!

And yes, this All Saints Sunday as we look back and name the names and toll the bells and light the candles, I wonder what this means for us even now.  I wonder:

  • What stones are we now called to shove aside?
  • What strips of cloth are we called to unbind at Jesus’ own command?
  • What skepticism or doubt or fear are we called now to suspend so that the world, and yes, you and I, might more fully encounter the amazing gifts of God even now?

And this as well, this Sunday, beyond the powerful remembering of precious loved ones who have died, what more are we called to remember now?

And how is even this remembering an act of hopeful resistance in a world which would say that the stones must stay where they are, that there is no point in removing the ‘grave clothes’ from those already dead, that skepticism and doubt and fear do, in fact, have the last word?

For oh, what does it mean to remember now that we stand in a line of countless ones who have one by one by one together and apart simply shoved aside the stones making room for God to work once more?

I don’t know about where you live and serve, but this seems to be the call for us here.

For we have buried so much in the last few years, haven’t we? And not only the bodies of many whom we had to grieve in ways unfamiliar, without the gathering close, the meals shared, the unthinking hugs offered.

Yes, so many of these, of course, but even more than this, than these.

Indeed, at times as the world has shifted and we cannot quite find our very feet beneath us, perhaps we have also found ourselves burying our hope. Our long assumed joy. Maybe even our confidence that God can still work.

Am I extreme in how I say this? Perhaps. But I am seeing the fallout in congregations, in leaders, in pastoral leaders all around. For as surely as Lazarus died, it seems as though some things have literally died and we have had to bury them and in our sometimes faltering, sometimes screaming grief, we cannot yet see what is next and our grief is compounded all the more.  And all of this is leaving us changed in ways — and in ways not always for the good, it seems.

And maybe it is ours to grieve it all out loud at first. As Martha did as she ran to meet Jesus on the road. As Mary did as she knelt at his feet. Maybe this is where we are and no doubt we do best no matter what to name it and to live into it as we live through it.

But soon, very soon, I expect if not already, we will hear the urging of Jesus, too, to take the stone away. To suspend what we thought was possible and to put our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our souls, into shoving aside that which is getting in the way of our seeing what God is doing, what God can surely do. And if not precisely that, then at least to suspend our sometimes too much calcifying doubt that God is still at work in the world bringing life again to unexpected places. Which is just another ‘stone’ that stands in the way, isn’t it?

And no, I don’t expect that the ‘life’ which follows now will simply replicate what was. Like Lazarus and Mary and Martha, we have seen and experienced far too much to simply return to what was. For don’t you imagine that for the rest of their days they lived with a deeper awareness of the gifts of God? And oh, how might that have changed every encounter they shared after that? Every morning greeted? Every day given thanks for at the end?

  • And for you and me as well?
  • As we stand this side of all that has been so far (even not knowing what will come next) and are still able somehow to see God at work in small things if not always large?
  • Don’t you suppose that we, like them, will be called to more than we ever before imagined? A deeper awareness? A truer way of being — one which reflects God’s intent for life for all of us, all the time?

And  yes, for many we are not there yet, I know.

  • We may still be in the midst of the grief.
  • Or maybe we are just inching towards that massive stone which stands between us and hope again.
  • Or maybe we are standing back, just willing ourselves to set our skepticism aside and begin to believe once more in what God can do, in what God will do once more.

Wherever we find ourselves today, it is worth remembering the story before us now and to try to find ourselves within it.

For today we hear about the very way of Jesus, inviting us to be part of what God can do, what God always does.

And so I pray these gifts for you this All Saints Sunday:

May your remembering this year also be marked by the call to recognize once more that God is even now bringing life to unexpected places.

No doubt, even where you are.

Indeed, may you be among those who hear and answer the call to ‘take away the stone.’

  • In light of all that has been, how do you hear the story of Lazarus and Mary and Martha this year?
  • Do you see yourself among those jumping up to ‘take away the stone’ or ‘stones,’ to unravel the grave clothes, or are you standing back, holding your breath, doing all you can to set your doubt, your fear, your skepticism aside?
  • How will this All Saints Sunday be different from the past? How will it be the same? What do you need it to be for you where you are?

 

4 comments

  1. Janet-Thank you again for your words of encouragement and hope in this time that is still very dark for many of us. May God continue to use your ministry to open the tombs that Jesus bids us open that we may see the life he will draw forth from them.

  2. Frank Berman says:

    Thank you, Janet for once again helping this long retired pastor to see things from a fresh perspective. May God continue to bless you and those to whom you minister.

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