Lift Up Your Heads – Jerusalem Sermon

Text of a sermon delivered on November 1, 2015 at the Church of Scotland in Jerusalem, Israel. By Jessica Lowe, Individual Volunteer in Mission for 1 year at the Methodist Liaison Office:

John 11:32-44 & Psalm 24:7-10

Today is the first Sunday in November, and also the day that we celebrate All Saints Day. In the Protestant Church, we tend to view all humanity as having the capacity to achieve sainthood, through right and holy living. Therefore, on All Saints Day we celebrate loved ones and family members who have passed away in the year prior, rather than recognizing saints that have been canonized and documented historically. We remember the contributions of those who have come before us and rejoice in the fact that one day we shall meet them again; that death does not have the final say.

I had a difficult time writing this sermon. Though I have been fortunate enough this last year to not have experienced the death of any close loved one, living here in Jerusalem for these last four months – especially this most recent one – has been extremely challenging. For those of you also living here, or even visiting during this difficult time, I’m sure you can relate. In the last 31 days, just in the month of October, over 80 people have been killed in Israel/Palestine. At least 70 of those being Palestinians and 11 Israelis. Thousands more have suffered injuries.

With statistics as bleak as this, even for me, a clergy person, it has been difficult to come to church this last month. It has been difficult to talk to God – difficult to have hope for peace in the midst of what feels like war. And now today, All Saints Day, we are called to remember those lives that have been lost, and rather than despairing over their deaths, we are called to have faith that all will be made right in the end.

It’s a tall order.

The Lazarus text is a great one for times like these, though. I find myself in the same position as Martha in this story: a bit angry, frustrated; confused as to why Jesus took so long to show up. Her brother, Lazarus, was sick and dying, so she did as any good and faithful person would do – she sent word to Jesus to come immediately, to help. But he didn’t. He waited. And so Lazarus died.

So then, when Jesus finally shows up, four days later, her words to him are simple, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died;” and she begins to weep. Though this is only one short, factual statement, so much is hidden beneath it. Like the painful question, “God, where were you?”

Sometimes we feel like, as Christians, we aren’t allowed to question God. We aren’t allowed to doubt, or wonder, or not understand. But here is Martha, one of Jesus’ closest companions, expressing the depths of her despair and disappointment. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Others also begin to question Jesus’ tardiness in helping to save Lazarus’s life: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” they ask. It’s what happens sometimes when people of faith are faced with tragedy and suffering – we get angry at the injustice all around us, and ask, “God, where were you?” In these recent weeks, I have found myself asking this as well. Asking, “God, where were you when children were being stabbed by other children? God where were you, when stones were being met with bullets? God where were you, when an 8 month old baby, died of tear gas inhalation? God, where were you?”

At some point though, when faced with violence and tragedy, the initial anger we feel begins to dissipate, and in its place comes a deep sense of hopelessness. The accusations and questions turn instead into resignation and despair. We read the news every day and hear about more stabbings, more shootings, more injustices being done. It all gets so, so heavy.

I have a new puppy at home. She’s almost 4 months old now, and growing bigger every day. I went to go buy her some more dog food the other day, and, since I have no car here, I went by bus and then walked a half mile or so to the pet store. I brought my back pack with me, and put the 3kg bag of food in it to walk and ride back home. 3kg might not sound like too much – that’s about 6.5 pounds. But after a couple half mile walks to and from different buses, it feels pretty heavy – the straps were digging into my shoulders, and my back was tensing to try and handle the weight.

Even once I got home, and took the backpack off, I could still feel the pull of it – my muscles were tight and sore, shoulders stiff. This is the same thing that happens to me when I turn off the news at night and crawl into bed: even though I’m no longer hearing new information, the weight of it all is still there, heavy on my back, digging in. When you’re living in the midst of a conflict as heated and historical as this one, it becomes hard to make the tension go away.

The death toll rises. The fear rises. We get to where we feel like, maybe this is all there is. Like maybe we are powerless to stop it. This is what I hear in Martha’s voice, when Jesus asks her to take away the stone. She appeals to his common sense, “Lord,” she says, “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Again, I hear what is underneath her words, “Jesus, you’re too late. Not only is he dead, but the life that once was is so far gone, that his physical body has begun to decay. Give it up. It’s finished. It’s done.”

And, don’t we find ourselves sometimes saying these things too? “God, you’re too late. The peace accords are null and void. The hatred has grown too deep. The wall has been built, lives have been lost. It’s finished. It’s done.”

And yet, even when things look the darkest – even when Christ has been crucified; it is not the end. We believe in a God who does not let death and destruction have the final say. We believe in a God who can bring light out of darkness, who can bring life out of death. Jesus goes to the tomb and commands, “Lazarus, come out!” And he comes. Even after four days, even after being stinky and smelly and decomposing, he is alive again. Because suffering and death don’t get to win.

But what do we do then? We believe in a God who can triumph over evil, who can set all wrongs to right, who can raise the dead to life again – and yet, here we are. Over 80 people killed in the month of October. Lazarus has been dead four days. And hope seems hard to come by.

The Psalm we read this morning may provide an answer: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of Glory may come in.” This Psalm calls us to action. Lift up your heads! In spite of the weight on our shoulders, we are called to look out – to open our eyes to see God working in our midst.

We get so bogged down with despair and sadness, it becomes hard to see the glimmers of hope all around us. The Psalm tells us to “lift up our heads” so that we will then “be lifted up.” We are called first to action – to change our own outlook, our own posture – and then after doing so, we will be acted upon. God is working beautiful, amazing things right in front of us every day – we just have to open our eyes enough to see them. Lift our heads up enough to notice them.

For me, these moments happen when I’m going for a run. When I’m forced to look around me and see the little things I normally just pass over: the olive trees, some harvested, some still waiting. Sunsets with purple clouds that remind me of cotton candy. Children playing in the park. Kittens chasing one another down the street. These small, simple things that remind us that life is still going on around us. They remind us that God is so much bigger than we can ever imagine.

In the midst of pain and suffering and defeat, it is an act of resistance to insist upon continuing to see God in our day to day lives. An act of resistance to keep looking for God’s presence as it breaks in through every day ordinary events and circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to the existence of suffering. It isn’t about turning our heads to look the other way, but rather about lifting our heads up to see hope through the sadness all around. We are told that when Jesus hears of Lazarus’s death, and sees the sadness and despair of those who loved him so well, he weeps with them. The passage says that he was, “greatly disturbed” as he approached the tomb where Lazarus’s body lay. Even though Jesus knew that Lazarus would live again, he still felt the pain of his present death.

So we, too are called to mourn the injustice that takes place, to stand against it and help those who are hurting – and at the same time to not forget that the ultimate battle has already been won. We must hold the reality of the present suffering in tension with the expectant hope of a future peace.

We are called to lift our heads up and to have faith that our God can bring the dead back to life, even after four days of waiting. Even after all negotiations have failed, even after it seems like a line has been crossed that can never be undone. We are called to look outwards and upwards, not down. To trust in a God who can bring good out of the utmost bad. To trust in a God who weeps alongside us, and who refuses to let death have the final say.

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