MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER
Mark and Susan were leaders in the first congregation the Rev. Robert Henderson pastored. Mark had been raised a Presbyterian, “a tradition which honors the Bible but is concerned with other things, like social justice. Susan had been raised a Southern Baptist and had gotten her perfect attendance Sunday School pin and excelled at sword drills — a fierce Bible trivia elimination contest.”
Henderson preached at the 9 a.m. Tuesday, July 20 worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “One Step at a Time.” The Scripture reading was John 11:33-37.
One Christmas, Susan and Mark visited Susan’s family in their little town in West Virginia. There was no preacher, but the deacon of the church conducted the service. When it came time for the sermon, he asked Susan’s father for a verse. He quoted a verse of Scripture and then the deacon went on to the next person.
“There were only two pews in this little church, all filled with Susan’s family,” Henderson said. “Mark realized that he was going to have to come up with a verse. When Susan used the verse he was going to give, Mark searched around for another verse.”
Henderson continued, “Mark said, ‘Jesus wept.’ Then Mark continued, ‘And he wept and he wept and he wept because he was really sad.’ ”
“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible. “It may be the shortest, but it is emotionally and theologically suggestive,” Henderson said. “Jesus experienced grief over the death of a loved one. This is a minor detail in a much longer story.”
Lazarus, Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus and they hosted him at their house in Bethany. One day they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, but Jesus waited several days before going to visit, and Lazarus died.
When Jesus arrived, he wept and then he ordered the stone over Lazarus’ tomb to be rolled away. He called into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out of there.” Lazarus came out and Jesus ordered the people watching to unbind his hands and feet.
“Any modern reading of this story raises a lot of questions,” Henderson said. “In our experience, dead people stay dead. Some people try to explain it as a diabetic coma or a near-death experience. Others try to explain it away with doctrinal precision — Jesus was God incarnate and could do what he wanted, like break the rules of biology and physics.”
Henderson told the congregation, “I think there is a more important road. What is the will of God here? Where is God calling us to walk away from death into life?”
In the early years of life, we experience little loss, he said, “but as we get into our fourth decade, we begin to experience the loss of parents, friends and spouses. A parishioner told me, after holding the hand of her husband until he died, ‘Walking out of that room for the last time was the hardest thing I ever had to do.’ ”
In the song “Golden Embers,” Andrew Marlin wrote, “Loss has no end, it binds to our connection / We don’t speak of it, we don’t even try …”
Henderson said, “Jesus seems insensitive. If I had been there, I would have advised him to be more empathetic, hold hands, and pray with people. Instead he just shouts at Lazarus and orders the people to unbind him.”
He continued, “I wonder where Lazarus went. Did he live out the rest of his life differently? Did he appreciate life every day? When my father and grandfather died, I vowed not to be so mad at other people. The poet Mary Oliver said, ‘It’s morning, and again I am that lucky person who is in it.’ ”
God equips us to take the next faithful step, Henderson told the congregation. “If loss binds us tightly, we allow misfortune to define our lives. Jesus Christ is always on the side of life. He gives us the strength and courage to walk away from what holds us back.”
Henderson ended his sermon by telling the story of the murder of the Lesslie family in Charlotte, North Carolina, in April this year. Robert Lesslie, his wife Barbara and two of their grandchildren, Adah and Noah, along with two men who were working at the house, James Lewis and Robert Shook, were shot by Phillip Adams, a native of Charlotte and former NFL player. Adams died by suicide shortly after.
“Within 24 hours, in the midst of their unimaginable grief, the family issued a statement,” Henderson said. “They said they had no answer for why this had happened, but they did not grieve as ones without hope because their hope was in Jesus Christ.”
He continued, “Their hearts were bent toward forgiveness and peace. They asked people to pray for the Shook and Lewis families and for the family of Adams, who was a son and father.”
Henderson said, “Death is powerful, but there is nothing more powerful than God’s love for us. We can’t be separated from the love of God. If we are going to walk away from death, we have to do something. The Lesslie family said that if people wanted to remember Adah and Noah, they should stock a food pantry. If they wanted to remember Robert and Barbara, they should be good stewards of the world.”
Live life unbound by the power of death, Henderson urged the congregation. “Live your one, wonderful, wild life, changed but not bound by tragedy. Jesus wept over Lazarus, but sent him into the future, free to walk the road that God has set us all on.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson presided. The Rev. John Rodgers, chaplain administrator for the Chautauqua United Church of Christ Society, read the scripture. The prelude was “Folk Tune,” by Percy Whitlock, played by Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music. Members of the Motet Choir sang “A Litany,” music by William Walton and words by Phineas Fletcher, for the anthem. The postlude was “Allegro” from the Concerto in D minor (RV565/BWV 596) by Antonio Vivaldi, transcribed by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy and the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services and chaplain.