Visiting Graves

John 11:32-44

I am a big Star Trek fan. As a pastor and preacher, I am aware others may not share my love of these shows, so I put severe limits on how often I reference Star Trek in conversation, and certainly, in my sermons. I don’t want people’s first thought about their pastor to be, “What a geek!”

That said, I decided to use one of my Star Trek reference rations today. I recently was watching an episode from 1994, the last season of “The Next Generation” Star Trek series, the one with the bald-headed captain with the English accent. A scene brought to mind what we are doing as we gather here on this All Saints’ Sunday.

We are, of course, considering what it means to remember those who have passed on. And frankly, I was disappointed as I watched this episode with pastor’s eyes for the first time. If this episode were to truly represent the future, the future would be a bleaker time than what we experience now.

Oddly enough, this is one of the few episodes with at least an oblique reference to Christianity. It opens with a graveside service for the grandmother of the ship’s doctor. As the service concludes, the character filling the role a minister would normally play says, “And so, we now commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope that her memory will be kept alive within us all.”

Pretty words, largely because they are rooted in a prayer that goes back centuries from our own time. But ultimately, they are hollow words. The prayer has been changed in one key way. That alteration represents a devastating shift in thinking and a loss of hope. (Odd for a show that is beloved because it so often projects hope.)

As we see in our Bible text today, Jesus confronted a similar loss of hope. From this text we get our shortest Bible verse, “Jesus wept.” I provided it in the King James Version so this one verse would come out the way people raised on childhood Bible drills in Sunday school would remember.

Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He made that clear before he ever headed for Bethany. And yet, before performing this great miracle, he cried in solidarity with the grieving people around him.

Jesus understood the deep pain we experience when we feel we have lost all hope. He shared that pain with his friends, even knowing the great healing he was about to perform. I take great comfort in knowing God doesn’t watch our pain from a distance and impassively; instead, as Jesus, God understands his creation’s suffering intimately. And when Jesus called, “Lazarus, come forth,” he replaced pain with hope.

Now, as spectacular as the event was, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead was a short-term fix, a microcosm of what was and is to come. We have no reason to believe Lazarus did not eventually experience death again, although I think probably at a ripe old age. Jesus’ greatest work remained.

Death met its resounding defeat in Christ’s resurrection from the grave—at that point, death lost any real grip on us. We are promised that through our belief in Jesus Christ, we will experience resurrection and eternal joy, too, even if our physical death comes before Christ’s return.

That truth should color our view of life, even when we do inherently sad activities like visit our loved ones’ graves. Some might find it strange, but I actually enjoy walking through cemeteries. The headstones (sometimes, you have to study them together as a family) often tell little stories. It is possible to imagine the broad outline of people’s lives—their loves, their relationships, their pain.

And so often, in the midst of one of those stories, you see evidence of Christ at work. Bible verses on tombstones tell us a lot. I particularly enjoy little inscriptions referencing the resurrection. They can be as short as “Rest in Peace,” an acknowledgement a person is in a physical and spiritual state that will result in renewed, eternal activity one day.

That’s why I didn’t like that alteration of the prayer in Star Trek. Just one clause was changed, but it is critical. How long can we truly live on in the memory of others? A couple of generations, maybe three at most?

The proper prayer, the prayer you can still hear at many funeral services today, goes this way: “And so, we now commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

As Christians, that is the prayer of hope we bring to the world.

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