Grateful for Resurrection Life

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, November 7, 2021
John 11:32-44

    It’s November, the month we focus on thankfulness!  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, this month, I’m looking at our scripture readings in worship through the lens of gratitude.  A feeling of gratitude might not be the first emotion you feel on All Saints Sunday, as we come together to remember loved ones who have gone before us.  In some ways, even while we may feel that we are not particularly in a stage of grief right now, we are all enduring some kind of grief and loss in what has been a difficult pandemic time for all of us.  Those of you who have lost loved ones over the last two years especially know how hard it has been – when you couldn’t travel or have family travel and gather to celebrate the life of your loved one, not even being able to say goodbye in the nursing home or hospital, or have a funeral as you had planned.  Around the globe, we mourn 5 million COVID deaths, 750,000 in the United States alone, and of course the loss of so many other things not necessarily COVID related but still feeling the impact.  We’re supposed to be thankful?  For what?!  Maybe first we need to sit with the anger, the sadness, the pain of the loss and bring these raw emotions before God.  God can take it.  The story of Lazarus’ death reminds us God can take it.
    After the death of their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha come to Jesus.  They are sad and angry, partly because Jesus knew Lazarus was dying and waited two days before coming.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  They say the words we want to say to Jesus sometimes.  “Lord, if things had gone my way, if you would’ve just listened to my prayers, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened!”  Jesus’ first response is not to dismiss these sisters’ anger and grief – Jesus weeps with them.  Death is hard.  Loss is difficult!  Even Jesus himself cries in the midst of pain, suffering, and death.  We can take comfort in knowing Jesus weeps with us and identifies with our sorrows.  He knows dealing with death’s aftermath is difficult!
But thankfully, the story of how Jesus ministers to Lazarus’s family doesn’t stop here.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and calls the community gathered to unbind him and let him go.  Jesus points us to the hope we have in resurrection life, even in the midst of our grief.  Jesus shows us that gratitude and hope is possible, even when we are grieving.  And Jesus promises us that on the cross, his death is the death of death itself!  Let me say that one more time, Jesus’ death is the death of death.  The end of our story is not death but life.  Lazarus’s resurrection helps us look forward to not only Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning but also our OWN resurrection, “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” as we’ll say in our creed in just a little bit.  Lazarus’s resurrection will be ours.  Jesus’ power to defeat death is not just for Lazarus, but for all of us.  What an amazing gift to be thankful to God for today, as we move forward from grief to gratitude – God’s ending for us is life, not death, and God gives us the gift of life itself, here on earth and in the hereafter.
    It’s not always easy when we are in the midst of grieving a loss to “snap out of it,” as others may want us to do.  The interesting thing is, many different studies have shown that our ancient Christian practice of giving thanks in all circumstances can help!  Science is catching up to what we’ve known for a long time.  Social psychologists Davidai and Gilovich have discovered, for example, that people have a tendency to focus on difficulties in life rather than the blessings or advantages we are given.  I notice this in my own life – my kids come home having a great day in school, I might have a great day at church and then something goes wrong – I mess up the recipe I’m cooking for dinner, or something breaks, and the story in my head is that my whole day was a bad day!  These researchers also found, though, the more we intentionally practice gratitude – simply counting our blessings, keeping a “thank you” journal or praying prayers of thanks to God throughout the day, the less angry, resentful, and envious we are.  Giving thanks can help us work through grief and loss.
It strikes me that even in the midst of grief, at the death of a loved one, for example, we can be thankful.  Thankful for the time we have had with the person who has died.  Thankful for the qualities in that person we see in ourselves, or the wisdom or particular talents and skills they have passed down to us.  Thankful for happy memories and perhaps for relief from pain and suffering that our loved one may have experienced at the end of his or her life.  All Saints’ Sunday is not another funeral or memorial service for our loved ones.  It is a service of thanksgiving, a celebration of those who have gone before us and a reminder to us that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are living saints. We are called by Jesus to unbind those who are bound by fear, misunderstandings, anger, grief and so on – to unwrap the gifts of God’s grace and resurrection life that Lazarus shares with us for others to see.  And when the story in our heads bends toward focusing on what’s wrong, we tell a story of thanksgiving for resurrection life to focus on God’s blessings, which far outweigh the difficulties.
    I was watching a nature show recently on TV about the connection between monarch butterflies and milkweed, the plant monarchs need to survive.  Every fall, monarchs travel from Canada to Mexico for the winter, about 3000 miles.  And of course, every spring then the monarchs return to Canada for the summer.  What’s amazing is, this migration takes four to five generations of butterflies to complete the journey.  Yet, the great-great-great-grandchildren of the first butterflies who started the trip south somehow know how to return to the very same milkweed patch in the same ditch on the same farm in Canada!  Wow!  In God’s creation itself we see God’s intention for life and passing on memory in butterflies from one generation to the next!  What have we received from the saints who have gone before us, through our genes or through what was passed down to us, that helps us remember God’s kingdom is our destination?  Lazarus is God’s promise to all of us that our resurrected bodies will have the muscle memory to find our way home, back to God!  Even when life brings headwinds which are difficult, we ride on the tailwinds of God’s blessings, thankful for each day of life as a gift.  And we live thankful for what we have learned from the saints who have gone before us, both famous like the disciples, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and the people who are known only to us.
    This All Saints Day, we give thanks for the promise of resurrection life that those who have gone before us enjoy, and the hope that we will join them one day at the feast that has no end. We give thanks for God wiping every tear from our eyes so that mourning, crying, and pain will be no more.  We give thanks for the witness of the saints who have passed down the faith and hope in Christ’s resurrection down to us, like butterflies sharing the instinctive memory of trust in God’s promises from one generation to the next.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.