When I was in seminary in Chicago, I had the opportunity to take classes with other students from several different denominational backgrounds, because there are so many different seminaries in the city. This week, I’ve been remembering a seminarian I got to know in one of my classes who was studying at the Catholic Theological Union. He was preparing to be a parish priest, but once he was ordained he would also be living as a monk with the brothers at the monastery who had helped him go to seminary. Even before seminary, he had gotten to know these brothers and the monastery well – and he shared stories with us in class about what it’s like to live there, and what the monastery itself is like. It sounded like a beautiful, if challenging, way to live.
But the one thing that stuck with me most from his stories was his description of the main sanctuary at the monastery. Their chancel had a raised platform with the table on it, much like ours here. But they also had a long communion rail; it was made of polished wood and it ran all the way around the chancel in a big semi-circle. All the brothers could fit around it together as they gathered to receive communion. But that circle didn’t stop at the wall. Outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the wall, the railing continued on around in stone, forming one big ring around the table. On the stone side of the circle was the monastery’s cemetery. Every single time they gathered for communion, that one big circle reminded the monastery’s living brothers that they were still connected to the brothers who had gone before them. They were reminded that God’s love and mercy and provision aren’t only for the living – that we belong to God forever, in our life and in our death.
I’ve mentioned this monastery communion rail before in my sermons – it’s such a powerful image. But it’s been on my mind again this week – because today, we actually have something kind of similar set up here in our sanctuary. This table where we have photos and memories of our loved ones who have died, today will also be the table where we take communion together. Like the monastery communion rail, continuing around into the cemetery, today this table is a reminder that we are still connected to those who have gone before us. Together with them, we are all still part of the one communion of saints.
And together we share the one hope of life in Christ that God has promised us. We share the faith in God’s promises that death will not have the last word. Today we hear those promises abundantly in all our scripture readings. In fact, today is one of those Sundays where all the texts are so good that instead of trying to preach something, I almost just want to stand up, read the readings again, say “Amen,” and sit back down. There’s just so much goodness here.
In our first reading, Isaiah promises that God “will destroy… the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And then our second reading, from Revelation, takes this vision from Isaiah and runs with it: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples… God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
These are the promises in which we place our hope. These are the promises that give us hope that we will one day be reunited with God’s beloved people all around the circle. And in this context, I read the story of Lazarus in our gospel reading as a kind of foretaste of the feast to come. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a sign that Christ is not only willing to raise us to new life; he actually has the power to do so. Christ shows that he truly is Lord of the living and the dead.
Yet as I read this gospel passage today, what I find myself most drawn to – even more than God’s promises – is the deep compassion of Christ. By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead and buried for several days. Mary and Martha and their friends are already deep in grief when Jesus shows up; and both of the sisters say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died!” Jesus asks to be shown where Lazarus is buried, and he starts weeping along with Martha and Mary. When the other mourners gathered see Jesus weeping, some of them say to each other, “See how he loved him!” They assume that, like Mary and Martha and the others, Jesus is mourning for the loss of a friend and brother, for someone who has died and can’t come back.
But I don’t read this passage as Jesus weeping for Lazarus. I read this as Jesus weeping for Martha and Mary – as Jesus weeping with Martha and Mary. Jesus isn’t worried about Lazarus. Even before he rolls into Bethany, Jesus already knows what he is about to do for Lazarus – he knows that he has the power to defeat death itself. But even when he is only moments away from raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus sees his friends grieving. He knows they don’t fully understand yet who Jesus is and what he can do – and I imagine that somewhere in the back of his head, Jesus also knows that this is what it’s going to be like for his friends when he himself is killed on the cross. Jesus sees their suffering, and he weeps with them. Even as he is about to bring forth new life, Jesus notices and cares for the people around him who are hurting.
This is still true for us. Even as we read these words of good news today and remind ourselves of all that God has promised us, Jesus notices and cares for us in our own hurting. Sometimes it is very difficult and painful for us to be on this side of the circle. We long to be with those who have gone over to the other side. And no matter how deep our faith may be in God’s promises of life beyond death, we still struggle with the challenges and the separations and the losses of this life we’re living now. But we don’t suffer these things alone. Christ is with us; he sees our hurting, and he weeps with us as he walks with us.
This is our God – the Lord and Savior who loves us now and loves us always. Whether we live or whether we die, God lifts us up in hope with promises of new life. In the end, no matter where we might stand around the circle, we are forever encircled by the love of God.