An Open Letter to Those Who Grieve: Sermon for November 5, 2023

To all the believers at Countryside Community Church: Grace to you, and peace and comfort, to all those who have lost someone they love. I write in order to offer an honest reflection about the nature of death and grief. Is there a more universal human experience we all share than facing the death of someone we love? Who among us is untouched by the sting of death?

Following the resurrection, Jesus spent a serendipitously sweet forty days with them. Then he mysteriously departed. But before he ascended into the heavens, he promised he would return. In the meantime, they were to “watch and pray.” That original band of followers committed themselves to the church believing Jesus was coming back and that they would be reunited with him. Only this time, Jesus would reappear not limited or bound by the power of death.

Their hope was challenged by the reality that death continued to take freely from their fellowship. One after another, members of the early church died when their time came and the survivors were forced to consider the meaning of death based on their belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. We who speak almost glibly about our fundamental belief in the power of God over death are rendered near silent when death strikes someone dear to us. Our grief over our loss and questions about what happens to us in death are the core issues Paul wanted to address in his letter to those early believers. Maybe the threat of death is one of our earliest and deepest fears.

When John Claypool was faced with preaching in the shadow of his 9-year-old daughter’s battle with leukemia, he was forced into speaking about the harsh personal realities of losing her. He was immersed in her illness, knowing he was helpless in stopping the sure certainty it would take her life. He knew he could no longer get by with repeating the typical Christian platitudes about death and grief. He knew he was being drug deeper into the mystery because he found those time-worn platitudes were empty as he stood in the shadow of the valley of death with his frail, afflicted daughter, Laura Lue.

Others encouraged him to share honestly what it meant for him and his daughter to face this daunting illness that eventually took her from him. His pastoral colleagues asked him, “Those of us who have not been there wonder what it is like in the Darkness. Can you tell us?” And so, Claypool accepted their invitation to honesty and shared with them. He described himself as their “burdened and broken brother limping back into the family circle to tell (them) something of what he (had) learned out there in the darkness.”[1] Claypool preached four sermons over the next year and a half about those experiences that were collected in a small book titled, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.

Grief is the soul’s response to any significant loss. It affects our emotions with the strong sense of sadness, despair, or even a non-feeling numbness. For a period of time, we feel like lost children and even the simplest tasks are overwhelming. Depression and deep sadness hover over us like a dark cloud and we feel cursed. Grief affects us in bodily form. We may feel we can’t get out of bed and we sleep for endless hours. Or, we may not be able to get more than a few moments of sleep and we spend long hours in bed swallowed by our loss. We may lose weight from having no appetite. Grief may attack our ability to think or reason. Simple tasks appear as Gordian knots we can’t unravel. Even our friends can add to our feeling like a snake out of our skin. They don’t know how to talk to us or they may even avoid us because our grief may be too hard for them to share. Or, they may act as if there’s been no loss at all by strangely never mentioning the name of our lost one. It may feel as if our loved one never existed in our conversations with friends.

But our grief is strangely tempered by a great hope centered in our deep faith in Christ. We find in the despair of our grief a mysterious power that is grounded in a faith that believes that even death is subject to God. The sting of death is overwhelmed by the power of God to reign over even the grave.

In 1925, Eugene O’Neill wrote a play about Lazarus. From his journals, we learn that O’Neill felt a drama centered on Lazarus might be of interest since he was “the man who had been dead for three days and returned to life, knowing the secret.”  What secret? What Lazarus discovered and proclaimed to the world upon his return is, “There is no death!” In his play, Lazarus stumbled out of the grave, having passed through the door of death on to the other side where the mystery lies, and like a discoverer returning from a strange, unknown world, he came back with the startling news “that death is only a doorway …(and) there’s a life on the other side of the door!”

Brought to the tomb of Lazarus, John tells us in the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept,” and O’Neill recognized Jesus’ sadness in realizing he had arrived too late and Lazarus had already left on the journey of death. Summoning all the courage he could muster, Jesus shouted into the gaping hole of the grave, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man stepped from the darkness into the bright sunshine of his previous earthly home. The great, simple truth of the mystery of death literally became for the resurrected Lazarus a fountain of youth, and in each scene, his age peels away one layer after another as the play progresses. Throughout the play, because he already knows the secret of what lies beyond the door of death, Lazarus lets loose a hearty laugh for all the threats the Roman government or the Jewish Priests of the Temple might offer him for his faith in Jesus.

O’Neill imagines Lazarus with an otherworldly confidence in life that takes a lighthearted look at how overinflated our fears of death can be. He understands death is merely a portal to the next existence and that death is not the ultimate victor. Death, in fact, is swallowed up in the victory of God who rules over even the sting of death. Lazarus moves back into the world of the living like a butterfly emerging wet and folded from its cocoon. In O’Neill’s creative imagination, he decided that Lazarus, free from the fear of death, “would rise radiant and full of laughter in joyous affirmation of unending life.” In effect, O’Neill was protesting against the wrongly placed emphasis we superimpose on this New Testament story centered on the grief that Jesus displayed at the death of his friend. And in his protest, O’Neill found the title for his wonderful play, “Lazarus Laughed.”

In the fullest expression of the incarnation, Jesus came to live among us. In that life, even he understood what it meant to stand before the grave and contemplate his grief. But Jesus also understood that death was not the final word. Jesus understood the pain of his grief was a momentary experience of loss that would soon be eclipsed by the joy of reunion.

I want to invite you, my sisters and brothers, to remember the power of our community as Christian believers. We stand together and share our tears with one another in honest grief over our loss. In our standing together, a new sense of power is released that is healing and comforting. In the pain of our deep feelings of loss … off in the distance a hearty laugh erupts reminding us that even death is absorbed in the life-giving power of God. And the Jesus who stood before the tomb of his dear friend shedding his own tears reaches out to us to embrace and hold us while whispering softly in our ear, “I have conquered the mystery of death. Have no fear.”

Have no fear, my fellow strugglers, have no fear. When that awful moment comes unbidden, we will stand together until the dawn of another resurrection day rises once again. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Your brother and fellow struggler,

Pastor Keith

© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] John Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, Word Books, Waco, 1974, 17, 26