8 min read

Where are you, God?

In many ways, the earth has become a tomb of its own, and the stench of death is strong. And it’s highly likely that more than one person — a widow, a grieving parent, a friend left behind, a child without a mother — has asked, “Where were you, God? Where are you?”
Where are you, God?
Photo by Sebbi Strauch / Unsplash

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
Sunday, November 7, 2021 • All Saints' Sunday
Scripture: John 11:32–44

I once heard an interview with Kate Braestrup, a chaplain in Maine with a pretty unique gig. She’s a chaplain to game wardens in the parks and forests there. Game wardens are basically law enforcement officers who can do anything from protecting wildlife and caring for the land to responding to accidents or assisting with search and rescue efforts.

And Kate, the chaplain, told this story in the interview that just gutted me. It was a story we hear all too often — this one about a woman named Christine who had been abducted and beaten and left for dead there in the woods of Maine many years ago. As the chaplain, Kate was called to help with the search — providing spiritual care to those who were searching. Those who recovered the body. Those who searched for evidence. Those who would work to find the person responsible.

And even though she’s the one tasked with pointing to hope in such a horrific situation, she described how this incident raised all kinds of questions within her. Questions like, “What if she had chosen a different day to drive out to the park? What if she got stuck in traffic on the way that morning? Would things have turned out differently?”

But there were bigger questions, too. In the interview, she said:

“It was one of those events that test our sense of what it means to live in Maine, of whether our children are safe or whether we are safe. What do you do about evil that swoops down completely at random?”

And as she continued with these questions, there was another question lingering beneath these questions: Where’s God in this?

Maybe it’s a question you’ve asked from time to time, too.

God, where were you? Where are you?

That’s a question we can hear beneath Mary’s words in the passage Vanessa read for us this morning — a question that rings in the wake of a loved one’s death as we’re trying to make sense of it all. At once looking back and working hard to cling to the memories before they fade — while also looking ahead and trying to imagine how you’re could possibly move forward into this new future that you didn’t ask for and didn’t want.

This is Mary’s reality as she falls to her knees in front of Jesus — four days after her brother Lazarus’s death there in Bethany. Lazarus who was a friend to Jesus. Lazarus who Jesus loved. You can hear the grief and heartache in Mary’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” An unspoken question there, “Where are you? Where were you?”

Here’s a little context to catch us up. Jesus actually had been there in Bethany where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived. But he had fled the region after narrowly escaping an arrest and stoning. After he’s gone, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus — Jesus’ friend — is sick and close to death.

But instead of dropping everything and rushing back, Jesus waits. He tarries. He stays two days longer where he was — two days after he receives the message — before he decides to return to Bethany. But he can’t win. Because just as soon as he announces where he’s headed, his disciples protest. They’re like, “Woah — what? I don’t know if you remember, Jesus, but they just tried to kill you. And you want to go back there?”

Thomas proclaims, “If he’s going, let’s all go — and die with him.” That line alone gives you a sense of how real the threat was. How much was at stake. What they thought would be awaiting them there.

So they arrive back in Bethany, and Jesus is getting it from all sides. From Martha first and then Mary, there’s incredulity that he’d wait so long to come — as if to say, “I thought you loved him! I thought he was your friend! This is not what friends do.” And some of those who had gathered to care for Mary and Martha in their grief were piling it on, too. You heard it in the passage. They asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

But Jesus is there now. Four days later. Which is also significant. Because a traditional belief in those days was that the soul lingered in the body for three days after death — but by the fourth, the thinking was that the soul had left the body for good. In other words, there was no possibility of Lazarus coming back to life. That ship had sailed.

And as Jesus stands there — that question lingered beneath the surface: “Where were you?” — he’s overcome, himself, with grief — as he sees Mary weeping. And as he sees the Jews who were with Mary weeping. With them, Jesus begins to weep, too.

And so Jesus walks to the tomb, and commands that they roll away the stone at the entrance. But Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, protests. She’s basically like, “Don’t do that. It’s going to stink so bad. He’s been in there four days.” And what you can’t help but hear in that protest is resignation. That sense of defeat. That hopelessness.

But Jesus responds, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you’d see the glory of God?” And with that, they roll away the stone. And Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And he does. His hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, stumbling out. His face wrapped, too. And Jesus looks at them and said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

This is such a poignant passage for All Saints’ Sunday which is today. It’s a day we mark on the first Sunday of November each year, and we set it aside to remember and give thanks for the saints of our lives — those we cherish and hold dear who have died in the past year — who taught us something about who God is and who we’re called to be. We give thanks for their life, but also recognize that their story isn’t over — that their lives live on in God’s love that never ends.

And it’s important to note that how we think about saint is different from that of our Catholic siblings. The word saint comes from the same word that means holy — but to us, it doesn’t just mean a special holy person like St. Francis or St. Oscar Romero. The title of saint is for anyone and everyone who is a part of Christ’s body, the church — past, present, and future.

And, in particular, on All Saints’ Day, we spend intentional time to name and lift up and give thanks for those we know — the saints of our lives — who have died in the past year. We’ll do that in just a little while during a special time of prayer.

But this year, especially, we know death, don’t we? I mean just in the last few weeks, we’ve seen the deaths from COVID in the US top 750,000 people. And globally, that number is now over 5,000,000. That’s 5 million mothers, fathers, siblings, children. 5 million spouses and partners. 5 million empty chairs at dinner tables.

In many ways, the earth has become a tomb of its own, and the stench of death is strong. And it’s highly likely that more than one person — a widow, a grieving parent, a friend left behind, a child without a mother — has asked, “Where were you, God? Where are you?”

Maybe it’s a question you’ve asked, too.

And this passage on this All Saints’ Sunday gives us space and permission to ask that question — with the incredulity of Mary and Martha and with the countless others who have raged at God in the midst of hard things. Last week we talked about authenticity and bringing our full selves into this time and this space, and maybe if we’re being really honest, that question is all we have to offer this morning.

And as much as the world tries to pacify our grief, distract us from it, tries to convince us we need to pull ourselves together and move on, this passage on this day invites us to linger with it. To stay a while — even as uncomfortable as it might be. It beckons us not to look away.

Because if we do, we might miss where God is.

We might miss that even though it may not have been on Martha and Mary’s timeframe, Jesus does show up. And when he does, he weeps, too. Jesus doesn’t avoid grief by coming to the rescue, but instead Jesus enters into it.

In whatever grief you feel, in whatever heartbreak you hold, in whatever loss you carry — whether it’s a person, a relationship, a dream — Jesus weeps with you. He’s not standing far off. He’s not just hanging around waiting for you to get over it. He’s right there in the thick of it with you. Just as he wept with Mary and Martha and the others who’d gathered there.

But grief won’t have the last word. That’s the promise of this passage — the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus which literally means, “God is my help.” Where is God? From those places of grief and heartache, God is also calling out to us — just as Jesus calls to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Jesus calls to us when we find ourselves in places of death, trapped and entombed. He calls to us for our liberation, for our healing, for our restoration.

Maybe he’s calling your name out of the tomb of a dead-end job into a meaningful and life-giving vocation. Maybe he’s whispering your name, “Beloved,” when the voices of inadequacy and insecurity and fear awaken you in the middle of the night. Maybe he’s calling you out of the tomb of a future that you want to control — that has to happen a certain way, and is instead inviting you to risk surrendering yourself, your future, your life to God’s promise and God’s future and discover the life that really is life. Maybe God’s calling you beyond the tomb of a self-image you might be trying to cling to into the light of who you really are. How might Jesus be calling your name — calling you out of whatever tomb you find yourself?

Where is God? God’s in those standing by as Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, bound in cloth. Notice that Jesus’ last words in this passage aren’t to Lazarus. Aren’t to Mary or Martha. Instead, Jesus’ words are directed at those who’d gathered to keep watch — to the saints surrounding the tomb: “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus says to them, “You unbind him.”

Which takes us back to Maine and Chaplain Kate. As she recounts the heavy and harrowing days in the wake of Christine’s death, she ends up answering the question that had been lingering beneath the surface, “Where are you, God?”

In her interview, Chaplain Kate said:

“I don’t look for God or God’s work in magic or in tricks or in, you know, “this is what I want” and then I get it. I look for God’s work always in how people love each other, in just the acts of love that I see around me. This event tested that for me… So to look for where love was in this situation, the very obvious place to look would be in the hearts and the hands of the guys who did their best to find her and to make things right for her and for her family.”

Where’s God? In the ones who searched. In the ones who supported the family. In the ones who cared and lingered and didn’t say a word but showed up.

The saints — those who got to work unbinding.

And in the same way, the saints for us are those who have worked to loosen the wrappings that have bound us. They’re the ones who have called something out of us that we couldn’t see, ourselves. The ones who’ve encouraged us on hard days. Rejoiced with us in the good ones. Who’ve prayed for us without our even knowing. They’re the ones whose trusted correction has turned us from cynicism to hope. The ones who embody the presence of God and lead us to freedom — whatever that might mean for you.

Who are these saints for you?

They’re the ones we remember and give thanks for on this All Saints’ Sunday. And it’s because of them and by God’s grace, that we, too, can then do the work of unbinding. So that when others ask, “Where are you, God,” we might be ready to respond with our words and actions — pointing to the resurrection — to the love of God made visible, the love made local all around us.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.