Wednesday, November 11, 2015

All Saints Day

All Saints Day.--one member of the congregation said to me yesterday, it’s one of my favorite days. I didn’t have a chance to ask why, but I got thinking about why this is a favorite Holy Day for many of us. 

I think there is something about the intimacy that we have with death.  This is a day when we come to know God’s power as we experience our powerlessness over death.   Death is something that looms large in our lives, it shapes our human existence.  We live temporally—from birth to death, beginning to end.  We know ourselves by our age.  We know our place by the people who have come before us.  There is an age when our grandparents die, when our parents are gone, when our siblings and spouses and friends leave us.  Our own bodies age—we grow from infancy to childhood, through adolescence to adulthood, from parenthood to becoming seniors.    Death is something we know is coming.  Sometimes we fear it, we resist it, we cheat it.  Other times we accept and live through it—caring for people we love as they die, mourning their passing.    We know death in intimate ways, and we know death in public ways—mourning violent deaths, or accidental deaths.  We suffer the deaths of public figures, we protest deaths that come unnecessarily or without justice.  We admire members of the armed forces who face death for their country, and we hate those who would kill for an unholy ideal.

While death is a huge thing in our lives, it is not straightforward.  Our emotions about death are complex.  Even people of deep faith, have complex feelings about losing people we love.  Even people who believe that this life is not the end, but a new beginning of life in Christ will mourn the loss of people we care about. If there is a way through the complexity our relationship with death and dying, it is with God.  

Today,  All Saints Day is the day when we focus on God’s power over death.  Tomorrow,  All Soul’s Day, also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed is a day when we focus on God’s presence with those who have died and their resurrected life with God.  These days are central to our Christian faith.  Our God, Jesus Christ knows our human experience of death, and is resurrected offering to us new life, a triumph over death.   In a few minutes, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant.   We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and we are called to live differently as Christians who await his coming in glory.

So let’s dig into the readings for today.  What do they offer us as we enter into the complexity of our relationship with death.  I hear in our Hebrew Bible reading, the comfort that God is more powerful than death.  God will remove the shroud, wipe away the tears, prepare a feast for us.  Death is not the end,  God will prevail and good things are in store for us. 

In our Psalm we sing God’s praises, celebrating God’s power.  The King of glory, the LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.  What is the battle?  It is triumph over death.  This is the battle that God wins for us.   Likewise, in our reading from Revelation we hear about the new Jerusalem.  God’s place where death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things have passed away.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  The author of Revelation, the Apostle John of Patmos defines God as the all creative force that makes this from the beginning through the end. The promise of new life ensures that this is not just a spark that will burn itself out, it is a continuous process by which all things are made and live and are made new.

For me, these images of God are awesome, glorious, and rather distant.  These are images that support a high Christology, God’s power triumphs over death.  God in God’s eminence, will provide for us.  We are mortal and human, and God is great and superior.  These images are helpful in that they provide me with hope.  When we are weak, it may be comforting to know that God is stronger than all of us.  Maybe this is a stereotypically masculine theology.  God who triumphs in battle, provides a banquet for God’s people.  A Lord who enters through the gate,  a King.  God a provider who wipes away tears, and creates a new City when the old has been destroyed. 

But when I turn to our Gospel reading today, the story of the raising of Lazarus, I hear a very different sense of God’s relationship with death and with all of us who struggle with death.  I noticed first that this is a story about the women who Jesus loves.  He is family to the sisters, Mary and Martha.  He loves their brother Lazarus.  Jesus knows them so well that he goes and stays with them.  He cares about them, and they care about him.  The two sisters are very different—Martha the one who provides the meal and looks after Jesus’ practical needs.  And Mary, the one who sits at his feet and listens like a disciple.   In this story, God is not far away wielding power over death.  Instead Jesus comes into the bosom of the family.  Just before this passage, we know that the sisters sent Jesus a message, they told Jesus that Lazarus was dying.  But Jesus delayed and arrived after Lazarus had already been laid in the tomb.  Mary runs out to meet him, and cries,  why didn’t you get here sooner?  If you had been here, my brother would not have died. 

And Jesus responds, he is deeply moved.  He cries with the sisters and the Jews who were with them.  Jesus loved Lazarus, he empathizes with the sisters.  He responds like family would, crying with those who are closest to the death.  Jesus is part of the suffering, he is not high above fixing the situation, he is right in the midst of this family loving and hurting, comforting by his presence.  Jesus takes Martha and Mary’s anger—why didn’t you come sooner.  He doesn’t get defensive, he just commiserates with them about their loss.  When the crowd says, surely if you could give sight to a blind man, you have saved this one from death—Jesus doesn’t complain or explain, he just goes to the tomb.

Jesus and the sisters are together in their grief, they are witnessing and supporting one another.  Finally, Jesus shows them God’s glory.  He enlists their help.  He tells them to, "Take away the stone." So they took away the stone. And Jesus calls on the Father, and Lazarus walks out of the tomb still wrapped in his shroud.  Jesus points out that he knew that God would act, but he calls on God to build up the faith of the crowd—so that they would know that Jesus is sent by God. 

When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, then Jesus tells the sisters Martha and Mary to unbind him and let him go.

In this story we have perhaps a feminist perspective on Jesus’ power.  Jesus saves in the bosom of family.  He is there with the women who cry.  He is loving and crying with them.  The women help Jesus roll the stone away.  They complain, but they also believe because they love Jesus and Jesus loves them.  And when Lazarus is raised, the women are called to help again—this time to continue the work of bringing Lazarus back by unbinding him and making him free.  Jesus’ saving acts are done collaboratively with the people he cares about.  Jesus is not above the sisters, he needs them both to help him.  God acts, but God acts with this family.

It strikes me that this message might resonate with us here.  We are a congregation that is majority women.  We are a close knit group who love one another as family.  We might call one another brothers and sisters.  When one person is suffering illness, or is dying the others are called.  Our pastoral care team is looking after those who are hurting.   

When someone in this community dies, we cry together, we help to bury them and we mourn with faith in their resurrection.  Our choir sings, our altar guild prepares for worship.  It is in this faily, that we experience God’s presence.  Our God who loves us as family, will raise us all to new life. 

We respond to God’s love by loving God and by participating in God’s saving work.  We are the ones who must roll away the stone.  We are the ones who must unbind the dead.  We know suffering, we experience suffering here and in every place in the world.  We cry and call for God.  We give God praise, and we seek to follow God’s way. 

In this messiness, in this complexity the Paschal mystery is real.  We know God loves us and saves us because of the way we move through death in this community.  There is a loving presence here that is beyond our human understanding.  There is new life, and a call to service that comes through our shared experience of death.

As we move through our Church seasons towards Easter, we will come to more deeply engage in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.  But today, All Saints Day, we can participate in this foreshadowed resurrection, the raising of Lazarus.  By God’s grace, we can come to know God’s power and triumph, we can feel God’s empathy and suffering, we can hear God’s call to us to participate in saving work.  We are offered masculine and feminine images and experiences of strength and weakness, comfort and call to service.  We know that we are not alone, we are here with one another in this temporal existence, we share with all those who have come before us the hope and promise of new life in God. 

As we renew our Baptismal Covenant now,  let us pray that we may know God more fully throughout our life journey, as we grow and age, as we bury people we love and face our own deaths.  Let us look to God’s saving power in the promise of our own and family members resurrected life.  And let us hear Jesus’ call to us to participate in God’s work of bringing the new Jerusalem, here to all people in heaven and on earth. 

As we say the prayers of the people and read the names of the departed today.  Let us feel God’s love for all of us and prepare ourselves to model our lives on these saints and all the Saints who have gone before us, showing us the way to participate as Martha and Mary participated in God’s creative resurrection work. 

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