By Rev. Joan Kessler
As I begin this reflection, I invite us to take a gentle moment to think about the last time you cried. Do you remember the situation, the experience, memory that had you feeling sad and caused the tears to flow?
I found myself wondering this past week about what are these droplets of moisture that run out of our eyes. I discovered that we have an organ in the upper portion of our eye area called the lacrimal gland or the tear gland. They create moisture and send tears down a tiny tube on the inside of the eyelid. This process allows the surface of the eye to remain moist and maintain optimal eye health. The tear droplet proceeds on down the tear ducts located at the sides of our nose to drain there. That’s why when you cry, you often have a runny nose.
But why we produce tears that run out of our eyes when we are sad is a great mystery. Science has not found an explanation for this. Animals produce tears: maybe you have noticed tears coming from your cat or your dog’s eyes at one time or another; elephants and crocodiles have tears for the same purpose as humans, to keep the eye from drying out. But tears as a sadness response are unique to the experience of being human. Perhaps they are a way of communicating with one another our inner emotions of feeling sad, or angry, or even overjoyed. Tears are a sign that we need friendship, or help, or some compassion.
Our story today is awash in tears. Jesus meets Mary and Martha with their lament over the death of their brother and Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus: Where have you been? Why didn’t you come when we called for you? If you had gotten here sooner, you could have saved our brother. And now we have buried him. He is gone forever. Jesus speaks of resurrection, of raising… a teaching familiar to Mary and Martha, but for them, it was an end of time experience. Jesus tells his grieving friends that there is no need to wait, for new life will rise up. It is here right now, among you. And Jesus asks to be taken to the place where they have laid Lazarus’ body. Jesus, moved to tears by his own grief, weeps openly, not afraid to show his vulnerability and feelings for this man he called friend.
There is strength in our tears. We weep with gratitude over amazing gifts of health, of family and friends. We weep for joy over when we share moments of great elation with others. Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and are an expression of our deepest feelings that go far beyond any words or thoughts convey on their own. Tears are a means to express what is on our hearts and are a testament to our love. They help us express our grief at endings and the loss of those who are precious to us. The desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth century monastic movement saw tears as a gift and crying as a spiritual practice. They remembered Jesus’ beatitude words that blessed are those who mourn and tears were seen as a means of starting again. Other religious traditions honor the gifts of tears. During the Passover Seder, Jews remember their escape from Egypt by bringing salt water to their lips to symbolize their tears of bondage. In ancient times, mourners would collect their tears in bottles and wear them around their necks. Crying in church is a bit a delicate undertaking for many of us; we are reluctant to let others see our vulnerability but what we are really doing is opening and softening our heart to let others in.
John’s gospel is about conveying the signs revealed in Jesus’ identity and his mission. The raising of Lazarus is his final sign in this gospel story, and I think John uses the concept of “sign” over “miracle” similarly employed in other gospel accounts of his life because a sign points to something else. They are to catch our attention and maybe give us pause to consider why we question, why we believe what we do. Like a road sign, these events refer to something beyond themselves to bigger, deeper questions and experiences – what happens to us when we die? It’s a question that has been asked since the dawn of human history.
This reflection today is not about testing the validity of resurrection and or answering the question of why Jesus chose to delay his response. Rather it is for me about wondering what happens after we die. It also demonstrates the hoped reality that caring people surround this momentous and mysterious event. Sisters, community members and Jesus himself exercise vulnerability in the releasing of their tears. Death is an opportunity for meaning-making. We shed our tears as a testament to the love we hold for another. It shows the support and holding up of one another during a time of immense grief and loss. Those things that we hold dearest about our loved ones who are no longer with us live on within us and our community; that Jesus devoted his short life to this message that love is stronger than death; that something happens when our physical bodies expire, we are unbound and set free.
As we continue our exploration of Lenten creativity and the power and capacity of opening our imaginations to something beyond ourselves, we consider clay, something you can hold in your hand and shape. Our children’s story this morning, Many Shapes of Clay, spoke to me of how we use our grief and our tears to make something new. A family who lost a father and a husband use clay to rework what brings meaning to their life. For the little girl, it was the shape of a lemon, bright yellow in color, that reminded her of her Dad and the things they used to do together. She takes her lemon with her everywhere and one day, she taps on it, causing it to break into pieces and fall all over the floor. The pieces are not discarded but rather picked up and made into a beautiful necklace that she could wear around her neck. Eisha learns to live with her loss and discovers the joyful power of making something new out of what is left behind.
There is strength in our tears. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life. But it is a community that rolls away the stone and unbinds him from the trappings of death and releases him. May we also be present to others in their tears, to lend our support in meaningful ways, and not be afraid to let our own tears flow. May we take the hope of these stories we have shared this morning with us into a world that feels full of chaos and destruction. May we be that community which is not afraid to weep together and help unbind those things that seem hopeless and call out new life.
May it be so and Amen.