If Only… the art of not seeing what is in front of our eyes

Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent  – Sunday 2 April 2017

John 11.1-45


‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  (John 11.21)

God give you peace my brothers and sisters.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, in her work with the terminally ill, did those who grieve a great service when in 1969 she pubilshed  her book ‘On Death and Dying.’  In it she postulates five stages of grief with which her terminally ill patients identified. These have also become indicators about our behaviour when we mourn and also when we experience other kinds of intense loss such as unemployment, the end of a relationship, retirement, and even the birth of a child.

Her five stages are:

  1. Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
  2. Anger – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”.
  3. Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. For instance: “I’d give anything to have him back.” Or: “If only he’d come back to life, I’d promise to be a better person!”
  4. Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”.  During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
  5. Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it; I may as well prepare for it.”  In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

Look again at the response of Martha of Bethany to the late, even intentionally late (see John 11.5-6), arrival of Jesus at her brother’s tomb.

                 ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  

Which stage of grief is she at? Bargaining (a case of the ‘if onlys’)?  Or perhaps Anger (Jesus, its your fault that he died)?  Perhaps she has a  touch of Depression  in her demeanour as well?

I think, in her devotion for Jesus, her care for her brother Lazarus and for her shell-shocked sister Mary at home, she is right in the middle of the bargaining stage.  Buzzing around her head are the old senseless arguments of ‘What If..? Perhaps I Should Have…, and If Only…’

She is not, I think, blaming Jesus, (though if people in grief find that blaming God helps them on the journey to Acceptance God is content and big enough for that), rather she is in the middle of the nightmare of the Mary Poppins character who likes everything to be ‘practically perfect in every way’ only to see her carefully planned life – she is the Martha who runs the home at Bethany after all – comes crashing down around her ears.

Inside she is crying and full of questions, ‘if only, I had not wasted so much time in the kitchen, If only I had paid a little more attention to Lazarus instead of the dishes, If only (like Mary) I had listened more closely to Jesus’ words then I might have known what to do, If only…’

So, turning to Jesus she finally gives up, trying to do things her way and asks for help:

                    ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  

…and what does Jesus do?  Instead of healing her pain and restoring Lazarus to life immediately (whihc seems to be his modus operandi in the other Gospels), he preaches a sermon about the life to come!  If I were her I think I might move on to Anger in my grief journey there and then.

Martha’s conundrum is that, lke many Christians since,  she hears the words of Jesus, believes the words of Jesus, but does not live according to the words of Jesus.

Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life’ not, once I have climbed a cross on a Friday noon and burst out of a tomb on Easter Sunday I will be the resurrection and the life’. But here and now, in front of you my beloved sister Martha, I am the resurrection and the life’.

Martha’s challenge was that she had not realised that it was not about, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’  but instead ‘His the resurrection and the life’. He never left her and he never leaves us either.

Sometimes, we falter in our journey between Good Friday and Easter.  We seem to be stuck in a endless feedback loop of Kübler-Ross’ five stages.  Most of us know about the death of Jesus so are past Denial, but few have moved on to Acceptance of the new life that the one who is the resurrection and the life holds out to us.

For this reason many conflicts between Christians and amongst churches can be described in terms of the stages of Anger, Bargaining, and Depression.  Like Martha of Bethany we believe in the Christ,  ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ but we have not turned our belief into reality and are unable to see that because, ‘His the resurrection and the life’. There is never a time when Jesus is not amongst us. 

There is never a time when he is not calling us back to life.  There is never a time when he is not healing our wounds.  Which is why at the beginning of the Eucharist the priest can proclaim, ‘The Lord is here!’ and the people respond ‘His spirit is with us!’

Of course we can choose to not go on this journey through the stages of grief.  Many of the church meetings I attend from Parish Councils to General Synod can be characterised by Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. But why on earth would we choose to live a life, which feels like dying a death, when we can proclaim the resurrection instead?

I suspect one of the reasons is we forget that to live the new life of Christ means we must first put to death the old life within us.  And, as with any death, there comes grief, and with any grief comes all the stages of grief. So we should not be surprised to find our sisters and brothers in Christ behaving in ‘worldly ways’ it is proof that they are busy dying.  It is a hard and difficult journey, to ‘live through a death’, to travel it we need each other’s support and care and with it a refusal to dish out our own Denial,  Anger, Bargaining, and Depression as we journey home together.

It is only when we let the light of Christ shine fully on us that we come to the journey’s end, which is in fact the beginning.  Only this way can we find in the great love of the Beloved the Acceptance we desire and the new life for which we were created.

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you (do we) believe this?’   (John 11.25-26)

© Andrew Dotchin 2017

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