Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Lazarus Heart: Sermon for the observance of All Saints'/All Souls' Day

Today we celebrate and commemorate the combined feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. We remember the faithful departed-- those who have witnessed to us the love of God in our lives and in the world.

So, today, I want to tell you three love stories.

The first is the love story of Naomi and Gladys.

Naomi Feil is a Jewish social worker and therapist who works with patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementia that causes loss of communication. She visited 87-year-old Gladys Wilson to try to help Gladys communicate, because Gladys had late stage Alzheimer’s disease, and was mostly non-verbal after a stroke as well.

Gladys spent most of her days moving her left hand repetitively, unable to speak. Naomi uses gentle touch and music to connect with people with these illnesses. There is a video of her visiting with Gladys—have any of you seen this?

Naomi starts by sitting in front of Gladys at eye level and speaking gently with her. Eventually Gladys focuses on Naomi and Naomi starts to sing to her, songs of Gladys’s childhood in the African American church tradition. Apparently Gladys had been a devout churchgoer from the time she was an infant, and so Naomi starts singing “Jesus loves me” in rhythm to Gladys’s movements. 

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.

As the song begins, Gladys changes from shaking her arm back and forth to tapping in beat to the music on the arm of her chair and then on Naomi’s arm, and Naomi sings in rhythm to the tapping, so that Gladys is now taking the lead in the speed of the song.

Yes, Jesus loves me;
Yes, Jesus loves me;
Yes, Jesus loves me--
the Bible tells me so.

Gladys’s eyes are closed at first, but when Naomi asks her, Gladys opens them and looks straight at Naomi. Naomi then asks Gladys if she feels safe with Naomi and safe with Jesus, and Gladys replies “yes.”

Naomi then begins to sing “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” and Gladys begins singing along, sharing the song—Naomi sings “He’s got the whole world…” and Gladys whispers forcefully “in his hands.”

He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the whole world in his hands!

Together, they sing the entire verse of the song together. Even though Naomi is Jewish, she sings Christian children’s songs to Gladys, and gives Gladys the gift of communication back, if only for a moment. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, and I’ve probably watched it dozens of times since I first saw it. I've cried every time I've seen it too-- and not just because I'm a sap, although I am, but because something this beautiful should be worthy of our tears of appreciation and wonder.

It is obvious that Naomi has learned and sings this song to Gladys out of the love, respect, and empathy that fuels her work with the elderly and disabled, people who are often locked into their own worlds. In that moment Naomi is Jesus to Gladys.

I was thinking about that video of Naomi and Gladys as I was thinking about our scriptures today. Here we are at the beginning of November, and there’s a lot of change that happens in November. Baseball season is bitterly over. The clocks change. The nights get longer. Thanksgiving is coming up, and the day after Thanksgiving, most Americans rampage out to buy more stuff mere hours after they have commemorated thankfulness and gratitude.

The days get colder, and there’s usually a lot of rain here in St. Louis. There’s usually an election of some kind, and this year’s especially is fraught with anxiety, nastiness, and fear. We liturgical Christians are coming to the end of the liturgical year. In other words, it’s dark, cold, damp, and tense.

And somehow, this is the season when we inevitably have stewardship campaigns. Because, why not? Awesome, right?

Our readings today are meant to remind us of God’s constant presence and love in our lives—a love that extends even beyond the grave. We commemorate the saints in our lives who have shown us the way of God, and as I was thinking about saints right now, one of the saints I thought of was Naomi singing to Gladys and making her feel safe, restoring to her a sense of security, peace, and connection, but most of all the assurance that she was known, valued and especially loved, even in the grip of an illness that causes confusion, frustration, and anxiety. I thought of the doctor at Tree of Life Synagogue and all the first responders who ran TOWARD the sound of shooting. Those are some of my saints right now, the righteous ones leading us to see the love of God.

Watching Gladys reconnect, reawaken, and respond to the call of love was like watching someone literally come to life again. It was a kind of resurrection.

This bring me to my second love story.

 Of all the people in scripture, there are only a few of which it is said that Jesus loved them. We all know that Jesus LOVES us, just as Naomi sang to Gladys, and Jesus had disciples and apostles and a mother and brother and sisters, but there are very few people singled out as Jesus’s friends. Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany are three of those people. John’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus loved this family especially, as his friends.

Yet even as much as Jesus loved his friends Lazarus and Martha and Mary, Lazarus still dies, leaving Martha and Mary potentially destitute in the culture of that time. And Jesus weeps over the loss of his friend. He feels the sorrow of that parting and the bitterness of death as much as any of us do.

So one thing I think this reminds us is that loving and being loved by God does not mean that we will be protected from bad things happening to us, even pain, suffering, illness, and death. Even Jesus is not protected from loss, and from mourning the losses he encounters. As we have recently heard in the letter to the Hebrews, the fact that Jesus has experienced everything we have, sorrow and loss as well as joy, makes him our great high priest.

That’s part of the assurance we have in Christ. If you live long enough, there are many losses you will experience. Yet even through those losses, Jesus’s actions in this story remind us that God’s love is always with us. As the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us, even in death we are never separated from the love of God, and that is the third love story we hear today.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster, 
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace. 
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.

Love never dies, even when our bodies wear out and our earthly lives here end. Love doesn’t protect us from loss—some, in the throes of heartbreak are despairing enough to think that if they don’t love, they will never experience the pain of loss again.

Yet, even this is not so. For love is what carries us through loss. Love is what, over time, dulls the sharp edges of loss and sweetens the ache of memory until we move to being grateful for the blessing of love in the first place.

Just like Lazarus, the call of love calls us out of the tomb of our lives of fear, anxiety, loss, and despair. Just like Lazarus, the call of God to us to new life through faith and resurrection restarts and reawakens our cold hearts of stone, calling them to beat anew in our chests. God calls us to wakefulness, calls us to stumble out of the desperate darkness that enshrouds us, to pull the veil from our eyes, so that we may truly see, truly love, truly be free.

Through the love of God, calling to us through even the deepest darkness, we stumble into life and are restored to hope. The abundant, generous, unfailing love of God in our lives gives us the courage, the heart, to carry on whatever may come, sure in the knowledge that we are never alone, that we are one in the Spirit and one in the Lord, as the song of my childhood goes.

The heart of Lazarus beats again to the call of love. Oh, that we could all welcome the Lazarus heart to beat anew within us! God calls us through love to awaken, to be set free from the bandages of fear, hatred, suspicion, anger, and resentment that keep us dead to the full humanity implanted within us and within each other.

God calls us to be unbound, and be set free, just like Lazarus, through love.

The love of Naomi in calling to Gladys through song, the love of Jesus calling to Lazarus from the grave, the love of God in calling us to resurrection and new hope, new faith. There’s freedom there—true freedom. Freedom rooted in hope and community, bound up in love and empathy for one another.

Love calls us to walk from the darkness to the light, and it is the darkness that helps us see how precious the light is. Love that is perceived not by just the eye, but by the resurrected, Lazarus heart.


Preached at the 505 on November 3, and at the 8:00 and 10:15 am services on November 4, 2018, at St. Martin's Church, Ellisville. MO.

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

Notes and Images:
1) The Unbinding of Lazarus
2) Video from Youtube. Naomi Feil is one of the founders of Validation Training, a compassionate and empathetic method to use with patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimers, etc. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Validation Breakthrough.
3) Jesus singing with Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
4) Jesus weeping
5) Icon of the Souls of the Departed in the Hand of God.
6) The Empty Tomb
7) Giotto's depiction of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus.

1 comment:

  1. This sermon touched my heart today. I am so glad I saw it. Thank you for posting it so that I can share this gift too.