All Saints, Year B, 2015

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That’s what the Gospel of John tells us right after Jesus hears the news of Lazarus’ death. This family is special to Jesus. So special that Jesus stays with them in Bethany when he travels to Jerusalem to face his death. If you map out that final week or so of his life, you see him walking back and forth from Bethany to Jerusalem, over and over. They gave Jesus the comfort he needed to face the most difficult time in his life. So, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are not anonymous people that are part of a crowd who follow Jesus. They aren’t even the disciples. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends, his tribe. Mary anoints Jesus. She is the only person in his life who seems to truly understand that death is in his future. In the Gospel of Luke we experience Mary and Martha as bickering sisters, but in the Gospel of John we see them both as women of faith, beloved of Jesus.

So, when their brother Lazarus dies, and Jesus does not come right away to heal him, both the sisters are understandably devastated. They have sent word to Jesus, Jesus could have come, but he doesn’t. Jesus has healed hundreds of other people’s brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, but he won’t come to Bethany to heal one of his closest friends?

One of the most painful experiences after the death of a loved one can be this sense that God has abandoned you and your loved one. That, if God really saw your pain, heard your prayers, loved you, then God would heal the people you love. This pain and sense of loss can even mutate into a belief that God chose death for your loved one, chose suffering for you. We can come to believe that God is capricious and malevolent, or that you are somehow not holy enough to be worth his attention.

One of the great gifts of this story is that Mary and Martha ask our question to Jesus. Because they are two different people, in two different emotional spaces, Jesus answers them individually. When Jesus first arrives on the scene Martha runs up to him and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha goes on to say, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus then goes on to have a theological conversation with her. He explains to her that he is the resurrection and life, that he is the Messiah that has power even over death. When she and Jesus get to the house, he encounters Mary, who is still weeping. She also says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus doesn’t give her a theological lecture. For a moment, he stops being the teacher, and simply weeps alongside of her.

This is our Jesus. He is both the power over death and the one who weeps alongside us.

There was a time when theologians understood God as impassable, so this moment when Jesus weeps alongside Mary was a real puzzler for them. Jesus must have been weeping as some kind of a show, to make a point, because if Jesus was God than Jesus could not be affected by deeper human emotions. But for all those of you who have been following along with us in the Old Testament, you’ll have noticed that God, as expressed by the Hebrew Scriptures, is the opposite of impassable. He is deeply connected to human beings. He loves them and is frustrated by them. And throughout the Gospels we have experienced Jesus as deeply moved by the humans around him and their suffering. He moves toward people, does not keep distance from them. So, Jesus’ tears seem completely in line with the God we are getting to know. A God who made us, but also identifies with us. A God who weeps with us when we face the limitations of our bodies, and makes a way for us beyond our bodies’ finitude.

Our bodies are part of Creation. And creation is by definition finite and imperfect. Only the Creator is eternal and perfect. Every human being dies. Ideally, we would all die peacefully in our sleep when we felt like we have wrung every drop out of the life we have been given. But because our bodies are created and imperfect, we can die young from any number of diseases, accidents, or acts of violence. These deaths are not God’s judgment on us as individuals; they are just what it means to be part of a broken Creation.

God does not always intervene in our illnesses and accidents, but that does not mean God has abandoned us. God has already proclaimed his love for us and our liberation from death through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our ally not only in mourning the death of his friend, but in actually experiencing death. He engages with us on the deepest possible level, facing our fears head on and experiencing the very worst our lives can offer.

But his Father, our Creator, does not leave Jesus to face the consequences of death. Instead he pulls Jesus from the depths of death into the fullness of life again. And in that moment he offers all of us the same eternal life. You do not need to wonder if God has abandoned you, because God has already done everything he needs to do to ensure you and God and all the Saints that have come before us and will come after us will have eternal life together.

When Jesus chooses to resurrect Lazarus he is demonstrating the radical power of God over death. He is giving his close friends a front row seat to God’s new plan for humanity. No longer will we be limited by the imperfections of creation. No longer will we be banished for our sin. Jesus is making a way for Mary, Martha and Lazarus to be his friends eternally. Jesus is making a way for all of us to be united with God forever.

Wherever you are in relationship to your own mortality or the death of someone you have loved, know this: Jesus is with you, not against you. Jesus is alongside you as you grieve and Jesus is at work preparing a place for you and the ones you love in his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus loved ordinary saints like Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Jesus loves ordinary saints like us.

On All Saints day we celebrate this reality as we give thanks for all the Saints that have gone before us. We lift up their names in gratitude and in the deep joy that they are now living their resurrected lives alongside Lazarus.

Thanks Be to God.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day.  And when we say All Saints’ Day, we mean Allll Saints’ Day.  We don’t just celebrate Mother Theresa and Hildegard, we celebrate all those Christians who have lived and died before us, and who now have—in the words of our Ephesians reading today—received their inheritance and have been redeemed by God.

All Saints Day can be a sad day, as we remember people we dearly loved who have died in the last year.  We read their names and we think of them fondly and wish they were still with us, but that grief is just the beginning of what God has for us on this day.  This day is a celebratory, victorious day that reminds us of who God is and who we are.

The book of Ephesians reminds us that God has adopted us as his children.  Not only has he adopted us as his children, but he also gives us an inheritance.  Now, usually, inheritance is where grief gets really tricky.  Usually the person who has died has set aside some money for the people he or she loves, but in the worst case scenarios, there is a real sense of competition, as if the inheritance was a prize.  People sue each other, even commit murder, all in an attempt to get what they think of as theirs.  More than one family has fallen apart for a time over hurt feelings related to an inheritance.

Well, in New Testament times, inheritance worked a little differently.  Generally only one child was chosen to receive the family inheritance and that child was almost always a son, and usually the elder son.  Other children had to hope their older sibling was generous and would look after them.

So, when early Christians read this passage in Ephesians, they were blown away!  God doesn’t just choose Jesus to receive his inheritance.  In fact, God doesn’t just choose the best or the oldest believers to receive his inheritance.  Nope, God offers all of us his inheritance.

And while a parent may offer us a trust fund or a house or a beloved piece of furniture as an inheritance, God offers us redemption as our inheritance.  We become God’s people, we go from being estranged to being in relationship.  And when we die, we don’t just die, we join other saints and angels and archangels in the very presence of God.

So yes, on All Saints’ Day we mourn those who have gone before us, but we also celebrate that they have moved on to a new stage in their journey, where they are at one with the God who created them and who loves them.

The Saints who have gone on before us were specific individuals who we knew and loved, but they also become symbols for us.  They remind us of the meaning that can be found mixed in with the struggle of life.  They remind us that we share in the same inheritance.  That we, too, are claimed by God.

They also remind us that we don’t have to wait until we die to start behaving like we’re God’s children.  The moment we are baptized we become part of the community of Saints.  We become people who belong to God’s family and God invites us to help make his Kingdom apparent not just in the metaphysical realm, but right here on earth, too.

In the Kingdom of God the poor rule, the meek inherit, the weeping laugh.  We are called to start making the Kingdom a reality as we go about our own lives.  The saints urge us onward as we live lives oriented to the reality that God is real and makes a difference in the world.

The saints offer us hope that when the world seems ugly and corrupt and filled with violence, God is still at work in the midst of the darkness, using members of his Kingdom to bring beauty and justice and peace.

When you teach a child about God, when you participate in a Done in a Day project, or help with Rummage, or give glory to God by singing in the choir, you help build the Kingdom of God.  When you serve God by loving your coworkers, being kind to outsiders, welcoming newcomers, you help build the Kingdom of God.  When you support Housing Initiatives of Princeton, and Trenton After School Program and the Crisis Ministry, you help build the Kingdom of God.

The Saints who have gone before us were not superheroes.  When you look at the list in our bulletin today, none of our parish family that died this year ever miraculously healed someone or raised anyone from the dead.  But they were people of faith, and many of them showed us what it means to live the quiet life of a saint through their dedication to God, love for their families and communities, generosity of spirit and dignity and determination through adversity and illness.

Today we give thanks for them, and we honor their memory by trying to walk in their shoes.  Amen.

All Saints, Year A, 2008

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, the day in the church calendar during which we honor the Saints who have gone before us, like the many dearly loved people on our own prayer list this morning.  All Saints’ Day also reminds us that we are part of that collective body of Saints that belongs not just to this world, but to another, spiritual realm, as well.  We are people of two worlds and torn loyalty.  Those Saints who have gone before us are now fully in that other world, but we are left here, both longing for and dreading the transition to the next world.  We wonder what that world will be like?  Will we be reunited with our friends?  Will we remember any of our history?  Will we still be ourselves?

I went through a period of my life-way back in my mid to late twenties-where I liked to read television spoilers on the Internet.  Spoilers are little tidbits about future episodes of television shows that are dug up by entertainment reporters.  I began hunting for spoilers when I was watching a lot of J.J. Abrams’ shows like Alias and Lost.  His shows can be very tense and scary and I just could not wait a week to find out if my favorite character would escape the cliffhanger ending of the last episode.  Spoilers don’t tell you everything about the future plot of your show-they just give you the teensiest glimpse of the future.

On this All Saints’ Day, we too are invited to catch just a glimpse of what our future may hold, through the “spoiler” of the book of Revelation.

One of our readings today comes from the book of Revelation.  I think it is fair to argue that no book of the Bible is more confusing and difficult to understand than Revelation.  There are as many ways to interpret Revelation as there are biblical scholars.  You can read it as a lens to a particular time in history.  You can read Revelation as a prediction of what the end of time will be like.  You can read Revelation as a metaphor for the spiritual realm.  As I was preparing for this sermon, I had to chuckle when the New Interpreters Bible informed me that the Church of England would not even include all of Revelation in the Daily Office.  Leave it to us Anglicans to just wash our hands of the really weird stuff!

Even though it is confusing, Revelation is still worth our effort. There are no clear descriptions of heaven in the Bible, but the snippet of Revelation we have in today’s reading comes close.  And this vision of life with God is glorious.

As one might expect, God is at the center of this vision, in the person of the Lamb, which is an image often used to describe Jesus.  In addition to being worshiped by angels, the Lamb is being worshiped by people of every tribe and language.  This is the first really beautiful and hopeful image of the passage.  In this world of John’s vision, the Saints are no longer divided by their external differences.  In our normal state, humans love to divide ourselves into little subgroups, and religious people are the worst at this!  When talking about a particularly self-righteous person, my mother used to say, “Well, I think HE’LL be surprised by who is next to him in heaven!”  The image of people from every people-group worshipping God reminds us that God’s love transcends every boundary we put up between us.

These people are all in robes of white, symbolizing their cleansed souls, who have been redeemed by God.  Wonderfully, the angel explains to John, that this Lamb is shepherding and sheltering these people-making sure they do not go hungry or thirsty or even get too hot!  And most beautiful of all, the angel promises that God will wipe every tear from their eyes. 

Life with God will be peaceful, and relational and joyful.  We don’t know much else.

This passage from Revelation does not tell us everything about the next world-we are just teased with enough spoilers to keep us encouraged.  After all, if we knew the whole story, where would the fun be?

Eventually, I stopped reading spoilers for television shows online, because I found I was no longer excited by the shows I was watching.  Knowing what happened ruined the fun of being fully present with the characters and the drama of their lives.   

Saints are saints not because they spend all their time daydreaming about what the afterlife with God will be like.  Saints are saints because they-and we-are focused on loving and serving God right in the here and now.  If we knew too much about what heaven was going to be like, we might be tempted to spend our lives just waiting to get there, rather than being fully engaged in our present. 

But we are welcomed to be encouraged by the good news of an afterlife with God and our loved ones who have gone before us.  Following God is not easy.  Following God requires discipline and personal sacrifice.  If you are feeling discouraged, it’s perfectly all right to take a sneak peek at the back of the book and remind yourself that in the end, God wins, we are redeemed by Christ and go on to spend eternity with him in joy.

Amen.