A sermon preached for the Feast of All Saints’ at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings for the Feast of All Saints’ are here.
I’d like to share a personal story with you, if I may. I shared this with the group who gathered on the deck for fellowship this past Wednesday so sorry for the repeat for those who were there, but at the time I hadn’t yet made the connection between this story and the message of today’s gospel reading. Thanks for asking me to share it with you then and giving me the inspiration to share it in connection with today’s celebration of All Saints’.
As many of you know, I didn’t grow up in the Episcopal Church. My very first footstep into an Episcopal church was at an uncle’s funeral, at the cathedral in Houston. As I observed all that was going on around me, for the first time in my church going life I knew I was where I belonged. The signs and symbols revealed God’s glory. The music gave a new rhythm to my heart. The words of scripture and prayer spoke to my soul. In the grief and sorrow of the death of someone so very dear to me, I encountered the God of Life.
In the church of my childhood, the focus of our faith was mostly on what happens after we die; our belief in Jesus was more or less an after-life insurance policy to save us from the fiery torment of a Dante-style Hell. I don’t recall being taught much about how our faith shaped our living but rather how it affected what happened upon our physical death. I am so grateful to have come to know the God of Life and to be in a community where we seek together how to live a resurrection life, following Jesus for the glory of God.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus reveals life as God intends it for all of us, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven, a resurrection life lived for the glory of God. I want take a few moments to set the stage so that we can dig deeper into the short bit of God’s story we read today. It’s important that we know where we are in God’s story literally and figuratively.
So just how did Jesus arrive at the tomb of Lazarus?
Not too long before, while Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the festival of Dedication, what is called Hanukkah today, Jesus was asked by a group of people at the Temple to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah. The festival of Dedication was about the Maccabee’s revolt against the Greeks and the rededication of the temple almost 200 years before this incident. Jesus doesn’t behave or talk like the Maccabees, or what they expected from a messiah figure, so they aren’t convinced he’s a messiah who can free them from Roman rule. Jesus points out that even with all that he has said and all of the good they have seen him do, they are unable to see him as the one whom God has sent.
They take up stones to kill him and try to have him arrested but Jesus and the disciples escape across the Jordan back to where John had baptized him. And it is here that Jesus gets a message from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is very, very sick. Jesus assures the disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death but to God’s glory and he waited two days before telling them he was going to return to Judea.
The disciples remind him of the previous incident and warn him against returning to where folks had just tried to stone him. And even though he had just told them that Lazarus’ illness doesn’t lead to death, Jesus now tells them plainly, “Lazarus is dead” and begins the return journey. The disciples are very confused. We have the benefit of knowing how this bit plays out but I bet we’d be just as confused as the disciples if we were there with them.
As they approach Bethany, Martha runs to meet Jesus on the road with the same words we hear her sister say later: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Martha and Jesus then have a conversation about life and resurrection and Martha, in her grief at the death of her brother says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
It is Martha who has the ears to hear and the eyes to see Jesus. It is Martha who proclaims God’s plan. It is Martha who is the exemplary disciple.
Martha then returns to the house and tells Mary that Jesus is calling for her. And this is where we enter the scene in our reading today. When Mary approaches Jesus she kneels before him and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Mary is immersed in her grief and Jesus is deeply saddened by the pain he senses from all who are mourning Lazarus. Jesus isn’t raising Lazarus as a way to dismiss death and the pain and grief it causes all of us. Jesus doesn’t downplay our pain and sorrow in this world. He knows better than any of us how real the suffering can be. Jesus walks with us in the place of our pain to show us how to see every moment of our life through the lens of God’s love.
Jesus asks where have they laid Lazarus and their response is the exact same as Jesus spoke to his first followers a few years earlier: “come and see.” Jesus uses these words to mean come and see the life God has planned for you. For the mourners, these same words reveal their understanding of life shrouded by death.
At the tomb, Martha speaks again, ever the pragmatist, the one who so boldly proclaims Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah points out that Lazarus has been dead four days as proven by the smell. Grief is like that isn’t it, one minute we are clear headed, the next looking for distractions in the details, and in the next we weep.
The four days is important. It took time for word to reach Jesus and then he delayed two days before making the trip. In Jewish tradition it takes the soul up to three days to leave the body so in the understanding of those around them, Lazarus was completely dead, not just mostly dead. Not only was he physically dead but the life source, his soul, the very breath of God that had been in him was gone as well.
Jesus reminds Martha of their previous conversation: this is all for God’s glory, to reveal the resurrection life we’ve all been promised. Jesus is living this with them and provides a prayer to help them focus on God to find comfort in their pain.
And finally, Jesus commands:
Lazarus, come out!
Come out of the darkness.
Come out of the fear.
Come out of the struggle.
Be freed from the trappings of this world that shroud life in death.
Be freed from the burdens of living life on our terms rather than God’s terms.
To all of our questions and struggles Jesus answers, “Come and see. Come and follow me out of the nightmares of our own devising into the life that God intends for everyone (to borrow a phrase from the Most Reverend Michael Curry).
Come and see the resurrection life. Follow me to the future with hope in which God dwells with us, undoes death, and wipes away all our tears.”
At the celebration of my uncle’s life, in the midst of the grief, I saw God’s glory revealed, not just in the details of the service but through the memory of the life my uncle lived, demonstrating the heart of Jesus to everyone he encountered. My uncle lived a resurrection life freed from the trappings of this world, as a light that shone in some very dark corners to reveal God’s love and glory to others living in fear and struggle.
We are stewards of this gift of life given us by our creator. Our faith is all about how we live life here and now, in the now and not yet of God’s Kingdom. The home of God is already among mortals. We don’t have to wait for it some day. God dwells with us and in us and it is through us that God continues to reveal himself to this world as the Living God, the God of Life.
Jesus calls us with the invitations ‘follow me’ and ‘come and see’ to step into God’s story. This is the resurrection life: seeing God in all people and places, aware of God’s presence with us and in us always, proclaiming with our whole life that Jesus is Lord not someday but here and now.
And that is precisely what we celebrate on our festival of All Saints’ – the lives of those who have walked before us with the God of Life, the Marthas and Marys and others whom the church recognizes as special witnesses of God’s story as well as those more personal to each of us, the uncles and others whose lives caused a shift in our lives so that we can walk with God through this life on earth as in heaven, sharing with others what has been handed down to us. Amen.