04-30-17 EASTER 3A

There they are, these two disciples, as exhausted as they are discouraged as they trudge the seven miles from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. We don’t know why they have forsaken the company of their fellow disciples, only that they are now walking home. Perhaps it’s all they could think to do.


They knew Jesus, the one who they had followed, had counted on, was executed by the state. They know that some people came back, claiming that they the tomb was empty and there was an angel there. But they didn’t know for sure what had happened. All they really knew was that their time following Jesus from town to town, listening to his teachings had come to an end.


And then Jesus meets them on the way. He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them at home. He doesn’t expect them make some holy pilgrimage or undertake some pious feat. Rather, he meets them where they are: on the road, amid their journey, right smack in the middle of all the pain, frustration, and despondency that threatens to overwhelm them. Even though they don’t recognize him.


It’s hard to pay attention in the middle of crushed hopes, after all.


Jesus meets them and begins to talk to them and teach to them and gradually they perk up. Their “hearts catch fire” at his teachings and they come out of the dark place they had been.


But the thing that catches my eye in this passage is that little imperfect tense verb: “we had hoped.” Families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped … ,” they say, and then they go home alone. People use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away. The moment that catches me in this passage is that moment of deep disappointment, when only a painfully imperfect verb tense will express what needs to be said.


There are few things more tragic than a dead future. Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” It’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t.


The disciples had been hoping that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but the events of the past days had brought an end to that habit of hoping. The Messiah was supposed to clear out the Romans, was supposed to save their entire people from oppression and opposition. Jesus was supposed to save them all, not die a traitor’s death at the hands of the people he should have overthrown.


Even if that nonsense about his coming back was true, the future these disciples had hoped for, would never come true now.


“But we had hoped …” I love those heartbreaking words not because I enjoy wallowing in dark or sentimental emotions, but because they ring true to me. They are not the only truth, of course; there is much in  this life that is beautiful, daring, confident, inspiring, and more, all of which deserves our gratitude. But there is also disappointment, heartbreak, and failure.


We have a tendency to want to gloss over the disappointments, the heartbreaks, the failures. We want to skip to the end. That’s true with the church when we celebrate Palm Sunday and follow it with Easter while not paying attention to anything in between. But Easter only matters because we have Good Friday. Because Jesus really dies and that breaks hearts and destroys hopes and leaves people lost. Just because we know the end of the story, doesn’t mean that the people living through it did.


And it’s not just with the church. We want to do it with the rest of our lives, don’t we?’


A friend shares the news of a death of his sister, and we sympathize for a moment before changing the topic. Or a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting a promotion, and we remind her that at least she has a job. Or we see an acquaintance we know has just gone through a dreadful loss, and we avoid him or her altogether because we just don’t know what to say. We don’t mean to be callous or insensitive, we are just at such a loss with loss. We feel inadequate to the task of confronting the darkness of our lives and this world and so we flee to the light because it’s easier to deal with.


Not that there are right things to say all the time. Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge the loss and sit with other person in their pain. Sometimes we are called to walk along the road with them, and listen to the hopes that were dashed. Sometime after that loss is acknowledged, then we can start to point out the new thing that can come from it.  Not right away though.  First, people need time to know that the dark they are in is acknowledged, shared, accepted. And the time they need is different for everyone.


People need to be invited and allowed to grieve a future that will never be in order that they may possibly hear and receive the future God has created and prepared for them. Even if something new is coming, even if something better will come out of it, first you have to face the “We had hoped” moments.


The scene, to be sure, ends with joy and excitement. It ends with them thrilled to discover that death and resurrection are deeply rooted in both Jewish Scripture and Jewish tradition, so that Jesus’ crucifixion actually fits into a pattern that can arguably be seen throughout God’s dealings with the Jewish people. It ends with them recognizing that Jesus had been with them the entire time, walking with them as they grieved and showing them how even in the darkest places in their lives, God was at work.


The story of Easter, the story of the resurrection, is a story for those who “had hoped.” It’s a story for the disappointed and the broken. The story of Easter is not just a story for the people who have it all together. To the faithful women at the tomb, to the skeptics demanding proof, to the disappointed who are trudging home, Jesus shows up. That is the joy of the Easter message, it is for us all, no matter where we are at in our journey.


When Jesus spoke to the disciples on the road, the words that were being given weren’t entirely making sense to them, not until later. But because they had someone with them who was listening to their pain and  engaging with them in their grief, they invited him in for the night.  Not because they understood so much as because they were still curious or perhaps grateful for a new understanding of that life on which their hope was based. They went beyond their grief and reached out to another.


It’s okay to grieve over missed hopes. It’s okay to take the time to mourn, Jesus will walk with you as you do. And if you know someone who is grieving, take the time to walk with them, to listen to them, even if they can’t give much back yet.


As Christians, we are the people of the Resurrection. That means we all go through Good Friday. We all go through our own Holy Saturday when what we had hoped so hard for is buried in the tomb. Just like Jesus did, we are called to walk with one another in the dark times, listening to the stories and offering words of comfort when they will be heard.


And gradually we find ways to turn from “We had hoped” into “We hope” again.



John 20: 19-31


This month I have shared with my Bible Study groups why the old adage “seeing is believing” is not necessarily true. Last summer Mary Ann and I went to an illusionist show on a cruise ship. We were quite close to the stage and I was sure that, if I watched a trick closely that I might see how it was done. Like people from Missouri, “The Show Me State,” say “I’m from Missouri, so you’ll have to show me,” I tend to want to believe my eyes. Well the illusionist indicated he was about to saw a woman in two! My eyes were pealed! He had her climb into a long box. I saw her face and her feet the whole time: her face smiled and her feet wiggled-even as he cut the big long box in half!  Her face still smiled and winked; her feet still moved and toes still wiggled. He spun the boxes around, hooked them back together, opened the box, and brought out a full woman without a drop of blood on her! So did he cut her in half? If not, how did he do it? My eyes couldn’t tell me.


In New Testament times, many things were taken on sight and, as today, on the word of the best scholars that could be found. When Jesus gave the great commission found in Matthew 28, most who heard “go into all the world” had no idea how big the world was. There were Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks in basically what we now call the Middle East. Even wise men who came from the East to see the Christ Child came from Persia, not from China. When Paul went to Rome, and Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus among other places, Paul believed he was fulfilling that Great Commission.  But the world they knew was flat; no one yet believed the world was round. There were sea monsters at the edge of the world and in the depth of the ocean. People believed their eyes and often the stories that others told. The end of the earth was believed to be the sightline horizon beyond which a person could not see.  People believed in what they could see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.


In many ways, we are like those New Testament people. We may not call ourselves doubting, but we can be suspicious. I have noticed that some in our congregation answer the phone more harshly than before, perhaps because each phone call raises the suspicion that a telemarketer is on the other end of the phone. I suspect that, out of loneliness or the hunger for a relationship, they have gotten talked into revealing credit information or into paying for a product they didn’t need. Let’s not let ourselves off of the hook either: we have also been duped now and then by someone. Every time I’m approached by a person with a sad story about loss, my doubt rises.  I’ve heard so many of the stories before. And there are plenty of con artists amidst the homeless population of genuine need. So I try to tamp down my doubts.  In the days of Jesus, Thomas might have been fooled before by a huckster trying to take his land, a woman selling him the wrong herbs as medicine, or a man selling him sick animals for full price. Who knows? We can look in the mirror and see the reflections of a person who also doubts there. Then we strengthen our resolve and risk being rude to our friends and we declare that “we won’t get fooled again!”


Look at the traps we can fall into if we trust our senses rather than our faith: a person driving down I-95 along the east coast of Florida, one who never had a day in a geography class, might declare that the earth is flat. I-95 is one of the flattest spans of land this side of West Texas, another flat land!  Long after Jesus walked the earth—almost 1500 years in fact—Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal, after studying astronomy and navigation, proposed that he could sail west to get to the Spice Islands near the Philippines in a shorter time than sailing east around the tip of Africa.  His own king refused to fund such an experiment. He later when to Spain and convince Charles I to fund it. In 1419 he set out, but Magellan never completed his voyage. Before completing his voyage, he died in a conflict in the Philippines in 1521. But remnants of his crew did finish the trip, proving a person could get to land east by sailing west. The earth was indeed round! But it is almost imperceptible to the naked eye, which fooled the brain into thinking there was a drop-off at the end of our sight line.


We needn’t click our tongues or wag our heads at Thomas’s reaction to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. Thomas could be any one of us. We all need reassurances that what we believe are not lies and what we see are not tricks. And some have been so hurt by pranks at school, on teams, in fraternities, or in groups that their trust is very low. So many people, in a casual reading, cast dispersions on the one who doubts.  But doubts are natural aren’t they? Who before Jesus arose from the dead? Even Lazarus was still in the tomb. Plenty of people in our own day need to see the body of a deceased loved one to accept that she or he is dead. In our day there are fake Ids, fake Facebook posts, and fake claims online that a bank needs your information or they will close your account.  Yet people still want to see amazing sights with their own eyes. Why have people over the years poured into arenas to see Cirque du Solei shows, or gathered to watch Evel Knievel fly through the air over cars on a motorcycle, watch the Great Wallendas walk on a tight rope without a net? It’s because we have to see it for ourselves. Doubt Thomas is alive and well today.  He lives in me; doesn’t he live in you too, or in people you know?  But the beauty of doubt is that it leads to questions and searching. If doubt is not left to fester, it will produce a fire-tested faith instead of a fragile faith.  How many of us join the man who one approached Jesus and declared: “I believe! Help me with the things I have trouble believing!”

Harry Emerson Fosdick was the Pastor of the prominent Riverside Church in New York City. His most famous sermon on this subject was “The Importance of Doubting your Doubts” where he suggests if we are going to doubt most everything unbelievable that comes our way, then we should give the same scrutiny to our doubts. Always remember to doubt your doubts as well! In other words, what man could jump through the air on a motorcycle over dozens of cars? Who would believe that seven family members could walk across a tight rope together and make it safely to the other side?  At some point, people doubted that the sound barrier could be broken. At some point, people doubted that a plane could fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  And Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive again. But he was; and he is! God always tries to give us enough information and evidence to produce faith, without requiring proof. The principle I have followed for years is a restatement of Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The restatement is: Too much proof can make faith dissipate. It’s one thing to have faith that Jesus arose from the dead; it’s another to require evidence. There were plenty of people 1400 years after Jesus walked the earth that were taught that the earth was flat. Some might have believed that the earth was round, but not one had proved it. Today, God tries to give our faith enough undergirding to help us believe that, long ago, Jesus did what he needed to do to help Thomas believe: “Put your finger here” he said, “and see my hands. Reach out and put your hand in my side. Do not doubt, but believe!” I believe that today God is still giving us clues to reassure us. I also believe God is with us, though I can’t prove it. And I believe Jesus loves me, though I can prove it. I believe the sun will set tonight, though I can’t prove it. Much of my life is based on faith, and when new seemingly impossible news comes my way like “Jesus is back, just as he promised,” I would need to go and check it out!


Still I leave room for wonder, and for possibility. Time and time again, our loving God doesn’t want to leave us faithless nor cynical. For eyes that are open, God gives enough evidence to promote faith, but not turn it into proof.  That message is from God, who is immortal and invisible and yet present. Jesus longs to dispel doubts, and but also open shut doors. In the midst of doubting many things that cross your path, be sure to also doubt your doubts.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   April 24, 2017





Matthew 28: 1-10


The Rev Samuel Son, Co-Pastor at a new Presbyterian Worshipping Community in Raleigh, North Carolina, had these thoughts published in a journal last month:

If the church no longer seems to matter in the Western world, it is because Easter no longer matters to the church the way it should. The church doesn’t make the emperor’s knees knock any more—nor that of CEOs or anyone with institutional power—as the early church did, because resurrection has been shaved into a synonym for the spring return of flowers and birds. Easter Sunday is not much more than a Christianized spring festival with bunnies…and no longer a commitment of everything to the death-shattering event of the empty tomb. A shriveled grape doesn’t make good wine, and a mythological resurrection can’t sustain the church against the powers of the world. [Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 199, No. 5, p. 12]


I do not believe in a mythological resurrection; Jesus arose from the dead! But it’s food for thought, isn’t it? People most often hope the resurrection is real especially when they are facing the end of their life or the life of a loved one.  But had you considered the watershed, earth-shaking news and its effect our daily lives: that Christ’s birth changed the calendar because he arose from the dead? If that had not happened, no one would be marking his birth in our day. So Jesus rising from the dead did change the world! How much has it changed you and the way you live, and more particularly, how has it changed what you think about when facing a loved one’s death? One other person wrote this about the impact of Easter:

Resurrection was like the Big Bang of creation. The Big Bang theory  cannot provide explanation for its own initial condition. It is not repeatable…. The blast of the Big Bang is the galaxies, the stars, the earth. The blast of the resurrection is the miraculous and missional birth of the church: Galilean peasants venturing to neighboring Samaria, then as far as Spain and Syria.

Are there kernels of Christianity still planted in Syria? Yes. But the weeds of evil are growing and choking them. We face the Crucified Christ and the Risen Christ with the backdrop of an international chess game of power and destruction. Battles are being fought as a backdrop to our Easter services.


I am reminded of the 2 minute rendition that Simon and Garfunkel produced in 1966, when they began a song with actual snippets of news stories from August 3rd that year, that included racial aggression, deaths in Vietnam, drug overdoses, people stabbed and even strangled. The news reports start to fade into the background as Simon and Garfunkel offer their luscious harmonies singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  The song was called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night. We, in turn, hear the news that bombs are dropped and people are gassed as we sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”  What juxtapositions of reality and hope.


Carl Hopkins Elmore once told of a Jewish rabbi who was so moved and disturbed by the maltreatment of his race in certain sections of the world that he sent an appeal to all Christendom on the eve of another Easter: “I challenge the Christian world to measure itself by the standards of its Christ. As long as any group is judged by its creed or color or country in place of its character, Christianity is a sacrilege rather than a sanctity.  To this end I summon Christians everywhere to make this Easter to signify Christ realized and not merely Christ risen.” What did he mean exactly by this distinction between Christ risen and Christ realized? Christ realized means Christian faith is alive when it impacts our daily realities. It means we hope that Christ comes out from the annals of history to be a redeeming force for humanity because good Christian men and women are choosing to act: to do something instead of doing nothing, or letting others do something instead. Christ risen is a common chorus for all congregations on Easter, but Christ realized means that sleeves have to be rolled up, votes cast, and changes be made regarding injustice and forgottenness.

The Apostle Paul wrote it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Anyone who is in Christ becomes a new creation. The past is finished and gone. … And he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He did not give us the ministry of apathy or of annihilation. Do we then downplay the Risen Christ? By no means! Ours would be a hollow and groundless faith were we not able to say that once, in the pattern of history, a man appeared who was indeed “very God;” who also lived a human existence that reflected things never before seen or known on earth; who taught a way of life more original than any philosopher had been able to frame; who embraced the Will of God so completely that he himself was truth; and who shared our humanity to the extent that he took on death and overthrew the power of Satan. Plus, somehow after death, he appeared again to vindicate his claims! Through the centuries, Christ risen became the impulse and impetus behind the highest and best in our civilization and culture. It is evident in the art and sculpture of Raphael, DaVinci, and Michelangelo; in the music of Handel, Bach, And Beethoven. And it inspired the poetry of Dante, Milton, and Browning.

One of my professors from Princeton Seminary, the late Dr. Donald Macleod said this:

Who among us is happy over what we think and do on Easter Day? Is

that not enough? It becomes increasingly apparent that the fact of Christ risen is not enough. And it will continue to be so, until we turn a first century fact into a living twentieth century reality….This goes to the heart of our worship when we praise God on Sunday and cheat our brother or sister on Monday.”


Today, let’s connect the dots between actions during a fateful week in the first century, and actions we may choose to take, this week and later, in the twenty-first century. In the upper room that Passover week, on the day we now call Maundy Thursday, a new commandment was given—Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you,” and a new covenant was sealed. By Friday morning Jesus was on his way to the cross. God in Christ would suffer and die for us. Jesus breathed his last and died as the shofar was blown in the Temple announcing the sacrifice of the lamb for the sins of the Jews. At that specific time, Jesus: the Lamb of God, gave up his spirit just outside the walls of Jerusalem, paying the price for the sins of the whole world.  Jesus died at the traditional hour of lamb sacrifice: 3:00 p.m. A man moved to action—Joseph of Arimathea, asked for the body of Jesus after he died. He wanted to give him a proper burial.. He asked the authorities Jesus’ body and lovingly buried him in his family tomb. Jewish law said unequal things could not be yoked together, so no one in his family could  be buried in that family tomb since Jesus had been buried there first. Yet Joseph still offered his tomb—a very costly gift. Early in Jesus’ ministry, fisherman dropped their nets and chose to follow him, at great personal cost. What is the cost of following Christ for you? Have you counted the cost and said “Yes?” How can we show our gratitude for a God who loves us unconditionally, and a Savior who has unlocked the gates of Heaven? Christians remember the resurrected Christ around the world today saying: “Together we are the body of Christ, and individually members of Him.”  Let others see Jesus through you. And let his resurrection change your life.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           April 16, 2017



Psalm 118: 19-29; Luke 19: 29-40


Today we will get to the core of the Palm Sunday message as we begin what is called “Holy Week.” The message is about freedom and salvation. I am quite sure that some of you are here because you love Jesus; some are here to learn more about him; and some are here just for the pageantry and joy!  Today we began with the childhood understanding of Palm Sunday as a parade for Jesus.  We then will move to the reality that many adults in that procession were crying out for religious and political revolt. But it all started with celebration! Jesus entered Jerusalem, the disciples cheered, and the crowd was jubilant.


Psalm 118, the source of many of our Palm Sunday words, describe a person entering Jerusalem who was rejected by others, but who “has become the head of the corner.”  That is good news with ominous overtones! They used festal branches to celebrate.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is about to enter the city for Passover.


Perhaps you grew up, as I did, hearing the children’s song on Palm Sunday “Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear, things I would ask him to tell me if he were here! Scenes by the wayside, tells of the sea, stories of Jesus, tell them to me!” Perhaps you sang those jubilant words years ago. We’ll not take away from that joy! It was a jubilant time. Jesus, a man who might have been the Messiah, was coming into the city! Jesus, a man who might be their new King, was there! Caught up in the moment, people started to wave whatever they had, and to cheer. There were already crowds around. Now the crowds had a focus and Jesus gave people hope. We do not have any video footage of our Savior on the donkey, but I absolutely picture him smiling, glad to see children celebrating! Listen to his later comments to the Pharisees, “Even if my disciples were to quiet down their celebrating, the stones themselves would cry out!” That was the mood of Jesus as he, and others, came down the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem. Travelers on each of our Holy Land pilgrimages have joined me in traveling down the Palm Sunday path to Jerusalem. The gate into the city is different, but everything else is what Jesus surely saw on that fateful day.


But some clouds were forming over the celebration. Passover was a time of general unrest in crowded Jerusalem. Like Bike Weeks in Daytona, crowds were bigger and security was heightened. There was tension. Any sound of rioting and loud groups drew attention. Therefore as you heard in the passage from Luke today, Jesus came toward the city from the east, and on a donkey: two key descriptions of the messiah in the Old Testament! The people who gathered spread branches and garments on the ground. They started to cry out with joy and intensity. The Pharisees didn’t want Roman interference so they ask Jesus to quiet his disciples down. Jesus, caught up in the event, replies: “If they are silent, these very stones will cry out!” The time was right. The King was coming into the city!


According to John’s gospel, palm branches were waved as Jesus entered. Palm branches were the official symbol of the Jewish nation after their freedom had been obtained by a patriot named Judas Maccabaeus. Later that freedom was lost and they were back under Roman rule, oppressed and fed up by taxes. But the palm branch, like the American Eagle, was their symbol of national freedom! When the children waved the palms, it was for the fun of a parade. When the politically connected people waved the palm, it was a cry for upheaval and revolt! But Jesus had a different plan; a plan for salvation. Through the ages people have sometimes referred to him as the “Lamb of God.” That title began to be important on that first Palm Sunday. The Sunday before Passover in the time of Jesus was known as “lamb selection day.” Jesus entered Jerusalem deliberately on that day we call “Palm Sunday.” It was a day that an unblemished lamb was chosen for sacrifice in the Temple for Passover, a sacrifice that symbolically paid the price of the Jewish nation for that year. But on a hill, not too far away, on that terrible Friday, Jesus became the lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. His sacrifice offers us forgiveness, and access to God. When Jesus died on that day, which we will recall next Friday, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. People gained access to God like never before. Jesus did that for us. So in our church, we do not have an altar; we no longer need to offer animal sacrifices to honor or please God. The sacrifice God now accepts is a humble spirit and the proclamation that Jesus is our Lord. The Lamb of God was the sufficient payment for our sins.


Matthew’s gospel records that the people cried, “Hosanna!” That Hebrew word does not mean “hooray” or “We love you.” It was a cry of hope and desperation: “Save us!” they cried. “Save us, one who has come in the name of the Lord!” This is the start of that fateful week. A possible timeline is as follows. Jesus and his disciples, it seemed, rarely slept in the Jerusalem; they departed to nearby Bethany or the Mount of Olives. After his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some suggest that he drove the moneychangers from the Temple because they had set up their tables in the Court of the Gentiles. Jesus declared, “Is it not written that my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations?” [Mark 11:17]

That made the authorities take notice of him and consider him with disdain. Jesus likely returned to Bethany that night. On Tuesday he went to the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem. Along the way he taught his disciples the lesson of the withered fig tree. After visiting the city he returned to the Mount of Olives and prophesied about the destruction of Jerusalem. Scripture indicates that this was the day that Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus. The Bible does not record any specific event that happened on Wednesday of Holy Week. Perhaps Jesus and his disciples retired to Bethany to prepare for Passover the following day. On that Holy Thursday Jesus gathered his disciples in an Upper Room. He gave them a new commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” In Latin commandment is “Maundy” from which we get our word “mandate;” thus, we will have Maundy Thursday Communion and Tenebrae this week. John’s gospel says this was also the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. After the Passover meal that we call the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples retired to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knew what he was facing. There he prayed so hard that what was planned might be changed, that sweat dropped off of his forehead like great drops of blood. Later that night Judas arrived and betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The Sanhedrin arrested him and took Jesus away. This story will continue this Thursday night.


For now, we have had a procession to Jerusalem. Imagine being there with Jesus! What an honor! What excitement! And clearly what joy Jesus received by looking into the faces of children! Thank you for celebrating a special day, as ominous dark clouds begin to roll in this week. May God increase your faith, and keep you well anchored to Jesus Christ, even amid the most heinous week of his life. We need the valleys to appreciate the mountaintops! Sunday’s coming … but not yet! Take the journey with Jesus in your prayers and your activities this week. Along with those who raise the palms, people in our world also cry, “Hosanna! Save us!” Give them Jesus.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 9, 2017



John 11: 1-6; 17-27; 38-44



In the 2014, New York Times Bestselling author Dr. Atul Gawande, who is also a surgeon and a Harvard Professor, said this in his book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End:

I learned a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them…. Our textbooks had almost nothing on aging or frailty or dying….The way we saw it, and the way our professors saw it, the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not now to tend to their demise.


In our day I have heard both anger and grief from family members who have lost loved ones. The anger often comes when the medical community does what Dr. Gawande says it is trained to do: they do everything possible to save a life because they are hard-wired to do it. According to Gawande, doctors cannot easily let someone just comfortably pass away. The exception, of course is Hospice, designed to make death as peaceful and painless as possible. Back at the hospital, sometimes a doctor sees medical possibilities that families are reluctant to persue. Health issues in times are anguish are so difficult. A hundred years ago, most people died in their own bed at home.  A doctor would stop by with a black bag and a stethoscope to check a person, and then often give a prescription like, “keep him comfortable. It’s his heart.” But along with knowledge comes power; and along with power come choices. What do we want the end of our life to be like? What conversations could fruitfully take place when one is of sound mind and body instead of in a time of panic?  How often do doctors hear a family member say: “Do whatever you can for him,” or ”for her?” And so they do. Doctors know how to do that. But the vast majority of people in the 21st century now die in hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, or Hospice.


Here’s a story from the past. In Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan is “forty-five years old, and a midlevel St. Petersburg [Russia] magistrate whose life revolves mostly around petty concerns of social status. One day, he falls off a stepladder and develops a pain in his side. Instead of abating, the pain gets worse and he becomes unable to work. Formerly an ‘intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man,’ he grows depressed and enabled. Friends and colleagues avoid him. His wife calls in a series of more expensive doctors…. What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.’”  In the story, Ivan does die, but only while people around him didn’t do what he needed most: he someone t to comfort him, to listen to him, and to hold him. That’s what he needed; not what he got. Only at the very end did his torturous journey, after the fall from a ladder, end.


Most of the time we want our loved one to be alive and well, and not to die. The denial of death is prevalent in our country. But as I told the children, everything and everyone dies. What if the person is ready to die, or wants to die? Do they not get a part in the conversation? When those who are dying mention their readiness for it, how often do family members say “Don’t talk like that?” And yet those few who have slipped away from life and come back, those who might have had a glimpse of Heaven according to the accounts that have been published, seem to yearn for that next life. Being pulled back to this life sometime was not their first choice. It was the choice of family members who could not bear to say goodbye.


Today our Bibles transport us back to an actual small town just east of Jerusalem; Bethany. When Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem, from Galilee they, and others, would usually follow the Jordan River for water and direction, then cut over through Jericho. From there Bethany was nearby. Jesus and his disciples had made friend there- among them, two women named Mary and Martha, and their brother named Lazarus. We know, according to John 11:5, that Jesus loved all three of them.  We also know that Mary once used her hair and some ointment to wipe Jesus’ feet, and that she, according to Luke 10, once listened at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha tried to get some food ready with no help from her sister. We know nothing else about Lazarus except that, in John 11:3, he got sick. Was he sickly before? Was this some illness that was normally terminal? We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus is not concerned about the news, while Martha was seemingly wringing her hands with worry. Might Jesus have sensed her anxious nature? Jesus hears that Lazarus has “fallen asleep.” Perhaps that was first century code for unconsciousness. In the first century, the proven way to declare death was to watch a person for three days; if he showed no signs of life during that time, he was declared dead. On the second day of Lazarus’ condition, Jesus is told about him; he then waits two more days before going to see him! Jesus said he wanted God’s glory to be seen. But Lazarus: Lazarus was actually wrapped in his burial cloths for four days when Jesus came to Bethany.


We never really hear about Lazarus’ health before he falls ill. Likewise, we never really hear how much of his health returned once Jesus issued the command: “Lazarus, come out.” All we know is that a man who smelled like death came out like a horror film mummy, and Jesus told others to “Unbind him, and let him go.” Did he wander the countryside terrifying people? Could he speak again, and walk, and do chores? Did his mind function as before? The story does not take us there. The story is about glorifying God when Jesus calls a man (presumed dead) out of his tomb. You can still visit the tomb in Bethany where tradition says Lazarus came forth.


Most of the time we get a snapshot of a miracle in the Bible, and we wish Jesus would revive our loved one too. People think: “If Jesus could raise him from the dead, why didn’t he do that with the one I love?” Again, it’s a moment in time; an incident.  Let me give you an example: My daughter Jenny, and my daughter-in-law Vicki often post cute pictures of their children on Facebook. “You have such photogenic children!” one person commented to them. So they showed how they got the cute shot: it was by holding down the button on the camera and getting 45 photos of tears, squirming, faces, and screaming. But their snapshot made it look like their boys were angels! That’s what snapshots do! I’m suggesting that with Lazarus we also have something of a snapshot. A man gets sick, seems to die, and is brought back from death. How things were going before that, and how things went after that, we do not know. Perhaps, for the sake of glorifying God, Jesus did this to Lazarus, and he lived happily ever after. But Lazarus also could have lived out his days in constant agony or dementia. I know people who have come back from near death experiences and their health was irretrievably compromised. Life was difficult for them and for their caregivers, because doctors did what they were trained to do; and family members requested that their “Lazarus” be brought back from the brink of death.  We should all be careful what we ask for.


In England in 1902, author W. W. Jacobs published the story of “The Monkey’s Paw.”


The short story involved Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son, Herbert. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend who served with the British Army in India, introduces them to a mummified monkey’s paw. An old man had placed a spell on the paw; it would grant three wishes, but always with hellish consequences … for tampering with fate.

The White’s son Herbert leaves for work at a local factory. Later that day, word comes to the White home that Herbert has been killed in a terrible machinery accident. Ten days after their son’s death and a week after the funeral, Mrs. White, almost mad with grief, asks her husband to use the paw to wish Herbert back to life. Reluctantly, he does so. Shortly afterward there is a knock at the door. As Mrs. White fumbles at the locks in an attempt to open the door, Mr. White, who had to identify his son’s mutilated body and who knew the corpse had been buried for more than a week, realized that the thing outside is not the son he knew and loved. He makes his third wish.

The knocking suddenly stops. Mrs. White opens the door to find no one is there.


An event in the little town of Bethany was done to glorify God.

Everyone dies. For some, there are miracles; for some, eternal life. Could it be that sometimes the most merciful gift our Creator gives us is death? The Apostle Paul personified death saying: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Consider whether the snapshot at a tomb in Bethany is really your gold standard, for the “Lazarus” in your life.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          April 2, 2017