On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
Gospel: John 11:32–44
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;
God will swallow up death forever.
There’s a beautiful concept within Celtic thought called the Thin Places. These are places where the veil between heaven and earth, human and divine, temporal and eternal, the now and the not yet is especially thin Where we experience that which is beyond linear time and the limits of our 5 senses. A thin place can be an actual place like the mountain tops and deserts of the biblical prophets or it can be an event like the birth of a child or the death of a loved one or for myself, the 4-part harmonic a capella singing of Amazing Grace. These are the moments when we who live this Earthly life catch a glimpse of God’s promised future which is actually already happening for those who have passed on. These are moments that feel as if we can actually taste the rich food and well aged wine of the prophet Isaiah’s vision. The feast of God which offers us not only a killer menu but the promise of having the shroud of tears and suffering lifted when God swallows up death forever. This is the kingdom of God which Jesus ushered in and while we are yet to experience it in it’s fullness, it’s breaking in all around us. But it doesn’t always feel like that. Like when we experience the very real and inevitable pain of death.When Jesus himself experienced the very real pain of death we read that Jesus wept. God cried. God became man, made friends and then those friends died and he cried. Jesus friend Lazarus was dead. And not just kinda dead. In the Jewish tradition the soul hangs out near the body for 3 days and Lazarus has been dead for 4. So he’s dead dead. And his distraught sister says to Jesus “if you were here my brother would not have died”. I love how honest and maybe a little angry she is as she looks at her so called friend this so called messiah and says thanks for nothing. We are dying here are where were you? She’s right though because who hasn’t felt that? …where is God when our brothers are dying? Where is God when we hurt so bad from the sting of death that the loss of it all fills up spaces we used to be able to breath in. Grief sucking up oxygen like a vacuum. leaving us breathless and vacant. If Jesus were here my people wouldn’t die.
So, greatly disturbed in spirit, Jesus asks where they had lain his friend and they say “come and see” and it’s then….then he cries. “Come and see” is exactly what he had said to them. At the very beginning of John’s Gospel he had called to his would-be followers and said to them “come and see” and so much had happened since then. So they say to Jesus the very thing he had said to them like a thin place between the beginning of his ministry and this moment. But they are telling him to come and see death. Come, Jesus, and see the thing that ends life. Jesus’ friends say Come and See…this is what being human looks like God. He was for that moment their disciple as he follows them to the grave and the very stench of death - the shroud that covers everything temporal. For to be a living being in history is to be characterized by death and separation. And for this Jesus weeps and later for this Jesus dies. He dies. As in dead, dead. and in three days he rises. he lives. as in lives, lives. In his own resurrection Christ defeats death and separation but here in the raising of Lazarus before he defeats death for good he just gives it a really good slap in the face. As though God saying here’s what I think of you death. As though God is saying here’s what I think of separation. As though God is saying “Death will not separate you from me because I will not for even a moment live without you.” This event was nothing if not a thin place. God lifting the sheet between the worlds. God reaching into the stench of death to claim us as God’s own. This resurrection event was a glimpse of God’s death swallowing future. And that’s why I started thinking of this Lazarus story as the first liturgy.
See, reading this passage this week I was reminded of a story I’ve told you before of what my worship professor at Luther seminary said about liturgy. He asked on the very first day of class “what is it that happens in worship” “We pray for the whole world” one guy said “we praise God” answered someone else. And when we had exhausted the obvious Dr. Teig looked at us and said. “Actually, we raise the dead.”
So that day in Bethany was perhaps the first worship service. The living wounded gathered in love and expectancy as the people pray, hear Christ preached and are raised from the dead in a glimpse of what is to come in the fullness of God’s time. This was the first worship service. It takes 11 more verses in John until they get to the meal part though… I guess the passing of the peace and the announcements took a long time….but the fact is that when they gathered to mourn their dead that day in Bethany they glimpsed the time of God in which all things are made new. The shroud was lifted enough for them to see God’s future in which death is swallowed up forever. That day as Jesus slapped death in the face they got a sneak peek at God’s time slipping into our time. Like a thin place between the now and the not yet. Like a thin place between us and our dead. And then Jesus commanded Lazarus’ community to unbind him.
The community was commanded to unbind the death garment from their brother As God is saying “Death will not separate you from me because I will not for even a moment live without you.”And we too participate in this thin place between our time and God’s time, between us and our dead through Word, Sacrament, Community, because in all these we are joined to the whole Body of Christ regardless of whether or not they are historically present. But that’s the way it is within the mystical body of Christ where all times are present at all times. Today as we sing hymns are hear the Word and receive the Eucharist we stand with Mary Magdalen and Frances of Assisi as real as we stand with Stuart Sanks and Victoria Shotwell and as real as we stand with those who are not yet even born. All the saints of all times join in the heavenly chorus singing the glory of God. We acknowledge this every week as we sing the sanctus. When with all the choirs of angels, with the church on Earth and the hosts of heaven we praise God’s name as holy holy holy. We like Lazarus need this word of God to call us out of the tomb daily to live as resurrected people, maybe still stinky from the grave, in this perverse hope of a God who dies only to be raised, who weeps for our suffering while offering provision of God’s own self for our wholeness. We are all the Mystical body of Christ gathering as the saints always have to sing the glory of God to hear Christ preached and to eat at God’s Feast that is now and is also yet to come.
This, my friends, is the thin place called the communion of Saints where with all the faithful of all time we tell of the death defeating God who will not for a moment live without you. So as the funeral liturgy says, even as we go down to the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia