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Isaiah 43:1-7, adapted from the Common English Bible
John 11:17-44, from the Common English Bible
On a foggy mid-July morning we gathered, many of the youth still rubbing sleep from their eyes, to set out on a journey that would change us in ways we couldn’t predict. There in the South Church parking lot, we collected sleeping bags and cots, suitcases and tool belts, and loaded them onto the three vans that would take us to Craigsville, West Virginia, to work with the Appalachian Service Project to make a few homes a little warmer, safer, and drier.
Before we left town, we circled up. It was a large, happy circle; youth and adults, parents and supportive church members stood hand-in-hand as we talked and prayed and sang ourselves into the unknown. Some of us were also unknown to each other; looking at the photos now, I can see that Charlie Read was the boy across the circle from me wearing a gray Red Sox T-short, long green shorts, and the brightest orange sneakers I had ever seen.
Six days and what seemed like a month’s worth of experiences later, we gathered in another circle. It was our last night in Craigsville, and it was time for each of the 84 of us who had been sharing sleeping and showering quarters, eating and praying together, and renovating bathrooms, putting on roofs, learning new skills, and getting to know our homeowners to share one “God moment” from the week. So powerful had our experiences been that even our kids who aren’t so sure about God were eager to share a moment that had touched their hearts.
One by one we went around the circle. By the time we got to the 83rd person, it seemed that everything had been said and there really was no need to hear it again. Everyone would have understood if the final two people had just said some version of “me too.” Besides, we wanted to finish up before the local ice cream stand closed for the night. But Charlie, like most of us, had had an amazing week, and he wanted to give us a glimpse of it through his eyes.
And so he told of sitting across the table from Francis, the older woman who owned the tumbledown house his team had worked on all week. Charlie spoke of listening to Francis’ stories about her life experiences, and of learning what an amazing person she was. His articulate and moving “testimony,” if I may call it that, left some of us in tears.
Three and a half weeks later—last Wednesday evening—many of us sat in still another circle, down in the Hawley Room. There were about 30 of us in all: parents and leaders, youth group members, and 15- and 16-year-old friends of Charlie’s. Some of the kids came into the circle bright-eyed, others bleary-eyed; and a few didn’t look anywhere but down. They were bereft.
Our circle, see you, had been broken.
Charlie, a 16-year-old who loved sports and friends and becoming increasingly independent, had died in his sleep two days earlier, probably from a seizure caused by an underlying neurological condition.
Charlie is survived by his parents, Arleen, who also went on the ASP trip, and Clif, as well as his older sister, Susan. Please keep them, and all of Charlie’s young friends, in your prayers.
On Tuesday morning, about an hour after John Aierstuck called to tell me of Charlie’s death, I got another phone call. Our beloved Ginny Kendall, who would do anything for anybody at any time, had died of ovarian cancer at age 86. Please keep Nick and their daughters, Susie and Cyn, and their five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Please keep all of them in your prayers.
The circle of First Church elders, the circles of parents and grandparents and friends, have been broken.
Either one of those deaths, especially Charlie’s sudden and totally unexpected death, would have been enough to leave us saddened and shaken. But the almost simultaneous endings of two lives of such grace, generosity, promise, and joy has hit some of us particularly hard. And to that the unexpected news that Sally Lemaire’s life is coming to an end, and it is just too much. Suddenly we are more acutely aware of life’s finitude and fragility—more aware than most of us would like to be. It is only natural to prefer numbness to unbearable heartache.
The world has been diminished by the loss of these shining ones, and we wonder if we and our lives—and the world—will ever be the same. We wonder if the sadness in our hearts will ever go away, and if and how we can keep memories of our loved ones alive.
In the words of the old hymn—older even than Johnny Cash or the Carter Family versions—we wonder if the great circle of life and love can ever be restored.
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
Is a better home awaiting,
In the sky, Lord, in the sky?
It is a song of deep grief and great hope. The adapted version some of us know is a statement of faith, declaring that there is a better home awaiting us all. The original is more of a question, an expression of that human longing most of us feel after a loved one dies: to sometime, somewhere, somehow meet them again. That they will be restored to the circle of life. That we will all be together again in one great joy-filled, unbroken circle.
But what I like most about that song is not the longing or the hope, but the implication that death’s heartbreaking separation is not, and was not ever, God’s intention.
The final verses of the hymn written in 1907 say:
You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.
One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?
Will the circle be unbroken . . . ?
(It has become fashionable to think of death as a normal part of life—and certainly it has become so. One could argue that we would do well to accept death when it comes, and to live as if it is coming—because it surely will. We might as well make peace with it. But the ancients did not think of it that way; they believed death came into the world through sin. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a new creation in which a 100-year-old would be considered a youth.)
Whatever we do or don’t believe about death, life after life and heavily reunion, the unnaturally “natural death” of a 16-year-old frames the reality in stark terms: That kind of death, at least, is an aberration. Death is an interruption of the life force. Death is a breakdown of the way things are supposed to be.
And it seems to me that no one hated it more than Jesus, who would show us how to overcome it.
Time and again in the gospels we see Jesus acting to repair and restore the broken circle. Jesus walks into a house full of people weeping and wailing loudly, mourning the death of Jairus’, the synagogue leader’s, daughter. He puts the mourners outside and, with the girl’s parents looking on, takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!” And she does.
We see Jesus encounter the funeral procession of a widow’s only son. Seeing her grief, he touches the funeral bier and says, “Young man, rise!” And he does.
But nowhere is Jesus’ own grief and his hatred of death’s pain clearer than in the story of his friend Lazarus. And nowhere else are our scriptures clearer in portraying our permission to rail at death and to rage at God. Mary and Martha yell at Jesus and blame him for their brother’s death. In their time and culture it was absolutely forbidden for women to address a man in this way. It’s likely than any other man would have punished a woman for challenging him like this.
But not in this story. Not only does Jesus not scold Martha or Mary, he doesn’t even defend himself. Instead, we see that Jesus’ heart is broken too, by Mary and Martha’s grief and by his own loss. Jesus is upset to the point of almost getting sick to his stomach. He weeps. He rails.
This story tells me not only that God can take all my grief and anger and blame, but also that God shares my grief and anger. That when I weep, God weeps with me; that when I’m grieving a loss, God grieves too. My loss is also God’s loss. When my circle is broken, God’s is, too.
But Jesus came to raise the dead. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus came to raise the dead—and he calls us to raise the dead and restore them to the fullness of life and the circle of community.
After he calls four-days-dead Lazarus out of the tomb, after Lazarus comes stumbling forth, blinded by the light and still bound by his burial cloth, Jesus tells the community to unbind him and let him go.
Jesus came to raise the dead. Jesus came to repair the broken circle. Jesus came to restore the fullness of life, that we might all have and share life abundant. And Jesus calls us to do the same.
Now if the story is our guide, we will first need to grieve for a time. We will need to scream and yell and rage. We will need to stand together at the tomb; we will need to keep together what’s left of the circle, all the while remembering our loved ones together, raising them up together, releasing them from all the pain and disease and death that binds, and together letting them go into new life.
It can be a long process, but this loving act of keeping alive and restoring-to-life is one of life’s great tasks. It is one of the ways we allow the God of life, the God who is Love, to walk with us and live through us.
I’ve begun to think of our gathering last Wednesday evening as the Charlie Circle. As his friends shared stories of their times with Charlie and what Charlie was like, there was a lot of laughter amid the deep sadness. There were many recollections of Charlie’s smile, Charlie’s kindness, Charlie’s determination, Charlie’s compassion.
Early in the evening, we had lit a candle to represent Charlie’s still shining, ever-burning spirit, and later we heard the story of Charlie’s reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela: that he wanted his mom to light a candle and put it in the window, that he wanted everyone to light a candle. On Friday evening, the Mill River baseball field was aglow with candles as some 200 people gathered to remember Charlie.
As the Charlie Circle was breaking up on Wednesday, I watched his friends hug one another. Let me tell you: These were not your typical I’m-too-cool-for-this teenager hugs. These were hanging-on-for-dear-life hugs. These were don’t-let-the-circle-be-broken-any-more hugs. They were the kinds of hugs we all need in times like these. Hugs that, in the unspeakable pain of heart-shattering loss, remind us whose we are, that God will never let us go, and that even in death we all live in the grand circle of love that is God’s heart.
I am told that after returning from the ASP trip, Charlie set out to build some sort of shelter in the field near his house. At the time, some laughed it off as a quixotic project. But now his friends are promising to finish it—to honor Charlie and repair, at least, his broken circle.
May we all find ways to honor Charlie and Ginny and all those whose lives have blessed ours, that we might all truly and fully live. May we all find ways to raise the dead and keep the circle of life unbroken.