Sermon preached November 4, 2012
Texts: John 11:32-44; Revelation 21:1-6a
New translations of the Bible bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages. The most recent translation is getting quite a bit of use in The Untied Methodist Church, it is known as “The Common English Bible.” In the Common English Bible, John 11:35 is translated “Jesus began to cry.” In the version I read, the New Revised Standard Version, that verse reads, “Jesus began to weep.” Cry is more contemporary to be sure, but both these translations have a distinct disadvantage when compared to the good old King James Version. There John 11:35 read simply – “Jesus wept.” That made John 11:35 the most memorized Bible passage among students required to memorize a Bible passage! Now we are adding words and that complicates things, doesn’t it?
Years ago, during my time as a District Superintendent, I was invited to preach during a chapel service at Luther Theological Seminary. The services were brief, and I was told I had about ten minutes. I chose the passage “Jesus wept” and preached how I thought the whole of the gospel could be found in those two words. Given all that we have going in this morning’s worship service, I don’t want to take much more than about ten minutes, and so I better keep this moving along.
“Jesus began weeping” and he was weeping because he was moved by the death of his friend Lazarus and moved by the grief of Lazarus’ friends and families. This is a story about tears of sorrow.
Fast forward to the end of the story, not the end of the story of Lazarus, but the end of the Biblical story in the Book of Revelation. After pages of haunting twists and turns, cryptic symbols and hideous beasts, we arrive at a vision of joy and peace. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; the will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Cue Eric Clapton, “And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.” But maybe that’s not just quite right. Maybe there will be tears of joy in heaven.
Today is All Saints Sunday – a day when we remember and celebrate the saints in our communities of faith and the saints in our lives. We will be reading the names of those from our church community who have died since last we marked All Saints Sunday, and we sincerely hope we have the list right. I know there have been other losses suffered by persons in our community of faith. Today is a day for tears of sorrow and for tears of joy. We weep because of our loss. The sadness of our loss touches us still. We also recall with joy moments shared with these persons. We are grateful for laughter shared, and for lessons of love we learned from and with these persons we remember today.
“Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days. A world without saints forgets how to praise.” So the song goes. Does a world without saints also forget how to cry – tears of sorrow, tears of joy? I think so. The temptation is great to close our hearts a little, to become hard, cold, cynical. Bombarded with images of hunger, pain, suffering and disaster, it can be overwhelming and we seek to solve the problem by closing off and closing down. The election season can be especially hard on our hearts. Words that might touch us are thrown about so often for narrow political purposes that it is difficult to listen, to keep an open heart. Nastiness is offered in the service of winning an election. We are tempted to close our hearts and let our tear ducts dry up.
The saints in our lives remind us of the importance of keeping our hearts soft and open, open to beauty and to God’s dreams, open to pain and tragedy. They remind us of the importance of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Our saints can be poets and painters, writers and philosophers, parents and friends and people who sit in pews in churches with us.
Wendy Lesser, in a passage I know I have quoted before, but whose lesson I continue to learn, offers saintly advice (New American Spirituality, 180): We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart…. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
A heart open to the world, to its beauty and its tragedy, is a heart that is capable of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Such an open heart is also a heart open to God and to God’s dream for the world. Our saints help us keep our hearts open and our tears flowing.
Tears are also a prelude to healing. They are a part of the healing of our own hearts and souls. We cannot heal what we cannot feel. Our saints are those who’ve walked the healing road with us. Tears of sorrow and of joy are a part of the work of healing the world. We cannot heal what we refuse to see – hunger, injustice, homelessness, humiliation. The work of healing is inspired by a vision of joy, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and we celebrate with joyful tears the small victories that seem to make the new heaven and new earth a little more real here and now. Our saints are those who work for a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus began to weep – tears of sorrow, ending with the healing of Lazarus – tears of joy. God will wipe every tear from their eyes – tears of sorrow gone in a new heaven and a new earth, only tears of joy. Thanks be to God for saints. A world without saints forgets how to cry tears of sorrow, tears of joy. Amen.