Christian Complaining

John 11:32-44

Said one pastor, “Confronted by death, we don’t know what to do with our hands.”1 Some gesture aimlessly in broken circles and jagged lines, attempting to say that which can’t be said. Some conceal them in coat pockets since trembling fingers disclose more emotions than quivering lips. And some get to rolling out dough and chopping vegetables, certain that homemade casserole is always on the menu of the bereaved.

Graveside, we don’t know what to do with our words either. Of all the things to express after a loss, “God must have needed another angel” is arguably the most said. Not because it’s true, only the Creator knows, or scriptural, the Bible makes no mention of an empty chair in the heavenly chorus, but because the void of silence is so unbearable it is often filled immediately with something. Platitudes usually.

In Bethany, a poor village two miles east of Jerusalem, the undertaker finishes up preparations: a bouquet of purple lupines and white lilies, neat rows of plastic chairs near the tomb, stacked stones for a temporary altar, a mourner’s tent erected for the sisters to cry out. Mary and Martha, along with women and men dressed in black, circle the lifeless body of their brother Lazarus.

And rather than trade religious cliches, the gathered do something very different. At this service of burial, what’s the faithful response to death?

John 11:32-44 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Congregational Responses: 

To express our grief, however messy.

Ignore the pressure to quickly get over a loss.

Demand Jesus to do something.

The symptoms started after she arrived home from Washington, D.C. Just days before, Aimee Wallis Buchanan, a beloved Presbyterian minister, weaved in and out of the parade route, cheering her drum major daughter on as Asheville High School marched through our nation’s capital. The fever, fatigue, aches, and soreness initiated a routine trip to the doctor. A penicillin prescription should do; only another bout of seasonal crud. But hours turned into days, and a common cold turned into severe complications from double pneumonia. Shockingly, she never left the hospital and died on Feb. 4, 2013. Gathered in Anderson Auditorium at the Montreat Conference Center, thousands swapped Aimee stories: remember how she co-created a summer camp for young people at the intersection of poverty and mission, justice and recreation; how she walked the streets of downtown disarming people with that transfigured smile; how she handed out truckloads of popsicles to strangers as if they were honored guests; how her obituary made the front page and quickly became one of the most read articles in the history of the Citizen-Times newspaper. When the memorial service finally began, Mark Ramsey stood up to deliver the eulogy, informed by the wishes of a devastated widower and two motherless teenagers, and said, to paraphrase, “God didn’t intend Aimee’s funeral; this was not part of the Divine plan.”

In John’s Gospel, everything is foretold.  A clairvoyant Jesus knows the boy has a barley loaf and a tin of sardines before the feeding of the five thousand begins; the Samaritan woman is offered living water before realizing her thirst; the marauding wolf gets thwarted before snatching the lamb; even that Judas will betray, and Peter will deny. The story unfolds without interruption, all according to God’s providence.

Except for untimely and unjust death. While the text tells us very little about Lazarus’ biography, we know he spent his adult life in squalor. Every day outside the stone gate of an opulent palace, he begged on a discarded pizza box as the foot traffic passed by, clanking a cup for mercy by the penny, scratching at the open sores covering his skin, starving on the rich man’s crumbs.

Until the lack of stable housing, adequate nutrition, and access to medical care killed him. Witnessing her homeless brother deteriorate and finally succumb to the streets, Mary erupts in verse one. Brian’s translation reads, “Furiously searching for Jesus, she finds him late arriving. Throwing her grief-stricken body down at his feet, she screams, ‘IF ONLY YOU HAD BEEN HERE…’”

Further unleashing her fury, Mary continues: my brother’s death was entirely preventable; the social safety net failed our family; I refuse to sign over the body; Jesus, I demand a miracle NOW! Part unhinged prayer, part organized protest, part angry directive, Mary’s faithful response to death is to file a Christian complaint.

Abandoning polite restraint and Sunday School decorum, we too are called to vocalize our outrage. According to an article in The Guardian, homelessness decreases your life expectancy by 25%, the mortality rate over the past five years among the unhoused increased by 77%, and an estimated 40,000 Americans die annually without a permanent address.3

In response to such staggering statistics beginning with Lazarus, God wants to hear our complaining. As long as death continues to make a mockery out of Thy Will Be Done, we are encouraged to talk back with a raised voice. Only after we have registered our complaint- an expression of fierce piety- can we fully put our hands to work rolling back the stones and unbinding our brothers.




Ashley-Anne Masters, date and location unknown.

Mark Ramsey, Eulogy for Aimee Wallis Buchanan, Feb. 16, 2013, Anderson Auditorium, Montreat, NC.

Erin McCormick, “Homelessness is lethal: U.S. deaths among those without house are surging,” The Guardian. Cited Feb. 7, 2022. Online: