Give Death the Finger
I had to look twice. The Burma shave style sign read: “Give Death the Finger.” I dismissed it as the work of some prankster for Halloween. But then I saw it again – further down the street. It didn’t look like a jokester’s sign - it looked like a city sign. I had been thinking about death and dying a lot lately – from the funeral this past Friday to the funeral this coming Friday and from a number of conversations that I had during the week… death was on my mind. So… even though I was a little apprehensive about what I would find… I googled it. And this is what I saw: (Smoke Detector).
Below it were these words:
It might sound too easy, but it’s true—five seconds and a single finger can save you and your entire family. Because most home fire deaths occur in properties without working smoke alarms, the Golden Valley Fire Department kicks off National Fire Prevention Week with a strong message: “Give death the finger” by checking your smoke alarms.
Save a life - - Prevent a death by making smart decisions: like check your fire alarms, get a flu shot, don’t smoke; if you do smoke – quit; don’t drink and drive; eat healthy foods, exercise. These are healthy lifestyle choices, choices we encourage ourselves, our children and one another to do. Although I’m not sure I want to agree with the latest health report… but they say you should beware of bacon. It can cause cancer. Oh well. I’m not ready to totally give up bacon – but I – like you --strive to live well.
But sometimes…. even when you – or someone you love does everything “right”…. things go wrong. Healthy people have heart attacks. Or accidents. Loved ones die – too soon. Maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they had an unknown health condition. But for whatever reason… or worse… lack of reason… they died.
It is at times like these that we often turn to God and ask: “Why?” Why them? This doesn’t look just or right or fair. We ask God for an accounting. We aren’t the only ones.
In today’s Gospel, Mary, in words that can be read simultaneously as words of faith and accusation, says to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Or as Martha said to Jesus earlier in our Gospel, “IF ONLY… If ONLY you had been here…If ONLY….
If… If Only… those words are full of pain, regret and unrealized hopes and dreams – for us, our community, our world. Examples come to mind far too easily…tragedy in the whole world...smart intelligent immigrants suffocating in a truck… or closer to home… Joseph Wetterling – back in the news as a potential abuser/killer comes to light… the grade schooler Barclay from Crystal, murdered. Christians – including pastors -- are not immune. Former Bishop Chilstrom and his wife Pastor Corrine wrote a book, Andrew You Died Too Soon, after their son committed suicide. Hopes and dreams and plans dashed. The list could go on and on.
Jesus looks at Mary and the mourners and it is as if he takes on their pain – and his own. Our translation says, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” which is to say that Jesus was filled with a grief that came from somewhere deep within, a grief touched with fury, erupting with tears. Jesus was not shedding the wise all-knowing yet sympathizing tear. Jesus felt the deep pain of grief and loss; Jesus was fully human… one of us.
When they come to the tomb, Jesus, fully human, again is overcome with grief…and compassion. Here Jesus, recognizing his unique power to actually change, transform this situation and bring life out of death, prays out loud so that others may come to believe. And then he does something that is really against his culture. He insists that they open the tomb. Martha, the practical one, objects. It’s going to smell! Yet, he insists and so they open the tomb – and he orders Lazarus to come out. And he does. Lazarus comes out all wrapped up in cloths.
It’s a miracle. That’s worth celebrating.
But… the story is not over. Notice what Jesus does – and doesn’t do. He does not snap his fingers or say magic words or wave his arms so that the clothes would drop away. Instead, he tells the people, the community: UNBIND HIM… and let him Go.
Jesus restored Lazarus to life – but also restored him to community. He called upon the people to do the work of unbinding Lazarus so that he could re-enter the community.
That is how God acts in the world. From the time in which we are baptized… remember how we gathered around this year around these babies and little ones whose names we read as our baptized saints? At their baptisms God adopted them as brothers and sisters of Christ and then we promised to pray for them and to be their COMMUNITY, a Community of Christ. But it goes beyond the day of the baptism. We are called to continue to walk with the whole family as they grow in faith.
That’s what we are called to do when people die too. However they die, expected or not, God wraps them in his arms and calls them home. And then God calls us, the Community of Christ, to surround those who mourn with love and care. But it goes beyond the day of the funeral. We are called to continue to walk with those who mourn.
Today, on All Saints Sunday, we remember ALL the baptized, those living and those who have died because they are ALL part of the COMMUNITY of CHRIST. God’s Community transcends the boundaries of time and space and includes all of God’s people, including YOU. As a baptized child of God, you have been called with mothering love by the Holy Spirit, adopted by God the Father and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.
And, as members of the Community of Christ, you have been given a job. Jesus calls you and me to UNBIND that which would keep those who once were dead or outcast or shunned or smelly (even if they smelled like Death like Lazarus) from participating fully in the community of Christ.
But what are the things that keep people bound in pain, shame, fear in our communities and in our world?
There are many – but imagine just a few examples of people who are “stuck” today. Imagine a migrant fleeing war wondering if she will find welcome or destitution. Imagine an HIV man wondering if Clare house in Robbinsdale could really be home. Imagine someone who looks like you…maybe IS you… wondering – doubting and yet hoping to find a safe community to belong.
God gave each one of these people life; Jesus offers new life.
But that is not all. Jesus also calls you – and me – to unbind the Lazarus’s of our world – and restore them to community, or, in other words to continue to walk with them.
So what does that look like? How can we be a part of God’s solution without being overwhelmed by the many needs? Responding to the needs of the immigrant may start with sharing a gift with ELCA hunger or Lutheran Disaster Response. We’ll be sharing more about Lutheran Disaster response next week, but 10% of the money raised from our elevator appeal will be matched by Prince of Peace Lutheran of Brooklyn Park. What’s different about the response of the ELCA is that, while other organizations respond to a crisis – the ELCA has people already there and we stay until the people are restored to community.
Responding to the needs of AIDS victims is not a simple task either. The Clare Terrace House, at the corner of 36th and France in Robbinsdale, is being built to respond to the needs of primarily homeless AIDS victims – who have nothing. As part of the WILDFIRE churches, we’ll be putting together a welcome housewarming basket for a new resident – and that will be a good start. However, Clare House is looking for other ways that we can welcome and invite the residents into the community. I’ll be looking for people who are interested and willing to be a part of that welcome.
These are worthwhile ways for us, as the community of Christ, to respond to Christ’s call to unbind those who are bound. But… if you also find yourself bound by fear, shame or anything else… I offer THIS Community of Christ at Faith-Lilac Way, a community of forgiven sinners made saints by the power of God. For, we are called by Christ to love and serve the neighbor.
The sign said, “Give death the Finger.” Jesus Christ has done better than that. Jesus has conquered the power of death and empowered the community of Christ – which includes you – to set God’s people free. Amen.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
November 1, 2015
All Saints Sunday