Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2021
Wisdom 3:1-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11:32-44
A husband and wife met another couple at a restaurant. After lunch, the women decided to go shopping, and the men decided to go sailing. While they were out on the water, a storm blew up. The tide had gone out, and they were downwind, trying to work their way back through a narrow channel. At one point, the boat grounded, and they had to climb overboard and shove with all their might to get it back in deeper water. As the new friend stood there, ankle deep in mud, the wind blowing his hair wildly, rain streaming down his face, he grinned at his friend, and with unmistakable sincerity said, “Sure beats shopping.”
A friendship is emerging. These two men don’t want to spend their time doing something they don’t enjoy. They prefer the demands and difficulties of sailing. The new friend is authentic in his sincerity as he shares delight in coping with sailing rather than shopping. Sincerity is good; it is in the moment when a real person shines through and a deeper relationship is made possible. Jesus and Lazarus had that kind of relationship.
This amazing drama of the raising of Lazarus unfolds after Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. We envision him wrapped in cloths and the smell of death coming from his body. This image is horrible, even around Halloween. It carries with it an image worth a thousand words, words conveying hope, promise and fulfillment. This very moment reminds the faithful of what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel, “Very truly I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who will hear will live.”
Today, we are celebrating All Saints’ Sunday as we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, some of them wrapped in funeral clothing, standing where faith intersects with both the words and the gift of life. First, come the words of life, because woven throughout the Gospel of John is the message that anyone who hears the words of Jesus and believes in the one who sent him has eternal life. Second, comes the gift of life, because the figure that stands in the tomb is an affirmation of life, of eternal life, of the words of Jesus, and of the one who sent him.
We are reminded that the story begins with the assurances and remembrances of love. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are members of a family that Jesus loves. Lazarus is described as the one whom Jesus loves. Mary is remembered as the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Toward the end of the story, love is publicly displayed as Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus and weeps. The Jews who have come from Jerusalem to console the family are weeping with Mary. Jesus joins in the weeping, so that the observing Jews remark on his love: “See how he loved him.”
When Jesus wept over the dead body of his friend Lazarus, many things seem to be at work in him. He wept because his friend was dead and he loved him very much. He wept because he had not been present. Beneath that grief, he wept because if only he had been present then Lazarus would have lived. Beneath that, it is as if his grief goes so deep that it is for the whole world that Jesus is weeping and the tragedy of the human condition. Jesus shreds his tears at the visible absence of God in the world where the good and the bad alike go down to defeat and death.
Jesus had not come when they sent for him. Jesus’ love for this family is superseded by his work of making God known. We hear this work in terms of daylight and night, sleeping and waking, life and death. The figure in the shadow of the cave is called forth into light and life. The work of Jesus has its own time and purpose. Jesus chooses his own time, and so he stays two more days in the place where he is. Jesus chooses to return to the region of Judea where some had recently tried to stone him. The disciples begin to understand Jesus’ actions in terms of certain death.
This setting has the signs and smell of death: mourners, weeping, a tomb in a cave with a stone laid across the entrance, and grave clothes. In the midst of it, Jesus is visibly shaken. Yet his words are about life, and his actions convey life. He gives instructions to take the stone away. He calls out in a loud voice for Lazarus to come out from the tomb. He instructs those watching to unravel the grave clothes and set Lazarus free.
As the miracle of life unfolds, the glory of God is revealed for those who desire to see. What is revealed here is the life-giving activity of God in the person of Jesus. The followers of Jesus are invited to see the new life that Jesus represents. The story of Lazarus is no longer about sickness or death, but about resurrection and life and hope and the glory of God. In the same way, the disciples are invited to recognize that when they follow Jesus they are being invited into life.
The gospel presents Jesus as deeply moved and troubled as he is surrounded by genuine human sorrow and pain. Jesus doesn’t stand outside of the moment as an observer. He participates in the moment and takes within himself the experience of loss that shapes and clothes the moment. In taking upon himself the sorrow and pain of those he loves, Jesus reveals the promise available to all of us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Ultimately, his act of love will reveal the glory of God, the one who sent him.
Jesus invites those around him to recognize that divine love and life are revealed in his words and actions. In conversation with the disciples at the beginning of the story, Jesus points to the glory of God as the primary outcome of Lazarus’ condition. At the end of the story, in his conversation with Martha, the sister of the dead man, Jesus makes the glory of God the promised response to her faith. Then Jesus publicly lifts his head in a prayer that imitates his desire to lead the crowd standing there before the tomb in the ultimate praise to God.
The final act, in which the dead man responds to the words of Jesus, reflects a very significant moment of revelation of the glory of God. However, as the glory of God is revealed, the invitations to believe that God is working in and through Jesus is presented to all. The words of Jesus to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed…”, echo through the centuries to remind us of the faith of Mary and Martha who experience firsthand the glory of God. Today, those words also invite us to believe and to become witnesses to God’s glory.
Jesus is an example to us. His willingness to respond to pain, to misfortune, to suffering, enables us to participate in the divine compassion that changes us. Sorrow does not get stuck in despair, but moves to discover comfort. On All Hallows Eve and All Saints Sunday, we celebrate the impact on our lives by our loved ones who have departed. We give ourselves permission to mourn for them and to feel the loss in our lives. It is in that place that God meets us, comforts us and encourages us to use those feelings, to use our experience to touch another who may be in the same place. Those who weep over the pains of life can be confident of God’s healing and comfort.
The disciples continue on their sharp learning curve. We see growth in their walk of faith. Those who work behind the scenes in any group are working for the common good, are living a life of conviction and compassion. They are living a life in the shadow of God, not in their own spotlight. We see it in those who work behind the scenes at church – the Altar Guild, the Sacks for Saturday folks and the Vestry. We see it in folks who show up to help with cleanup from the Holy Ghost Weenie Roast, we see it with people who willingly show up early and stay late to help. Living a life in God’s shadow…
On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers. We should remember the ones in our lives who have acted as our mothers and fathers and saints. We remember those whom we loved without knowing that we loved them. We remember those who have helped us to see more of God within ourselves and to have hope, and dreams and to embrace the promises of God. In the lives of the saints, we see the light of Christ’s love and the hope expressed in John - the hope for our blessedness.
We don’t hear much about Lazarus after his being raised from the dead. We do know that the authorities wanted to kill him because he was such a visible reminder of the power of Jesus. I picture Lazarus as being the poster child for Jesus’ ministry. Look at me…new life……new hope…new possibilities - isn’t that what we all get when we give our hearts to Jesus.
I believe Mary and Martha and Lazarus knew this and spent the rest of their lives telling their stories. They were very aware of God’s presence and power among them and wanted the world to know. They celebrated the gifts given to them – gifts that they can give for the glory of God. What is our story – what gifts are we celebrating and thanking God for? Amen.