Several weeks ago, I attended a funeral for the husband of one of the members of the Nuer congregation. Pastor John came into my office a few days before and told me there would be a funeral on Sunday afternoon for this man who had died in South Sudan. While the fighting continues in South Sudan and many members have lost loved ones, or are waiting to hear from them, my first thought went to that. It turns out that he died from natural causes related to high blood pressure, which is still very sad. Death is sad, no matter the circumstances.
His wife is one of the women who regularly attends the Bible study, and one of the first women I met when I started working with the Nuer women. She has a wonderful sense of humor and is fiercely proud of her eight children. When the day of the funeral came, she sat in the front row, with tears running down her cheeks and her shoulders slumped. There were several eulogies and a powerful sermon. All through these, she cried and cried.
And then the youth choir came forward to sing. I don’t remember the words exactly, but they were something along the lines of “At the name of Jesus, there will be life.” And there was life, indeed. It wasn’t long before she was standing up, with a huge smile across her face, singing along and dancing with the members of the community who were moved by the Spirit at work through the song of their children. I felt like I was watching resurrection play out right in front of me. Her grief was still raw and real, but the hope that she clings to was resurrected and made plainly clear before her, and before the packed congregation of people–from several tribes and congregations–who had come to pay their respects and show their support for her.
I’ve been working through the lectionary texts for this week. David Lose’s commentary on John 11 lends an interesting perspective to this familiar text. In it, he writes,
I think it’s significant that after Jesus calls Lazarus by name to come out, and even after Lazarus does indeed hear Jesus’ voice and come out (note the similarity of action to Jesus’ promises in the previous chapter), the miracle – or, in John, sign – is not over. For after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd as well: ‘unbind him and let him go.’ The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act.
He goes on to write,
Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
There is no question that the promise of resurrection was clear in the eulogies and in the sermon that day. Jesus’ promise to raise James, and all of us, from death to life was clear and that message was proclaimed loudly and clearly. But it was also clear that day that the community–particularly in the form of twenty or so 8-18 year olds and the gathered community who joined in their singing–was invited to participate and what they did was essential, meaningful, and important, not just for the grieving wife, but for this pastor, and for all who gathered that day.
Grief is still real and raw. But the promise of resurrection, along with the work of a community coming together to do the important work of lifting up and supporting those who grieve, was also very real that day. It’s the strange paradox of the promise of resurrection in Christ. It’s the strange paradox we’re preparing to proclaim in just a few short weeks. Death will not and does not get the final say. The last word is life, proclaimed in Jesus’ name.
PS The meal served after the funeral was fried chicken. It was delicious. It turns out that comfort food is comfort food. And there’s grace in that, too.