For All The Saints: All Saints' Day Sermon
This week we are celebrating a very special day in the historic Church calendar--All Saints' Sunday. All Saints Day, as it is more widely known, follows All Hallows Eve (what we refer to as Halloween) and rarely falls on a Sunday. I know it's kind of odd to think about, considering the ways we typically celebrate Halloween in our culture, but All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day (November 2nd) have all been historic celebration or feast days throughout the history of the Church.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters seem to celebrate these days a bit more than those of us who swim in the Protestant stream of Christianity, but in recent years many Protestant denominations have begun to rediscover some of this ancient worship celebrations and make them their own.
As Presbyterians, we have a bit of a different understanding of All Saints' Day than many of our Catholic counterparts, who see it as a day of celebration and prayers offered to the venerated saints who have gone before us. And by venerated saints, I mean those who have actually been given the title "Saint" by the Catholic Church.
Presbyterians see all Christians from all times and places as "saints." So when we celebrate All Saints' Day, we remember those Christian saints in our lives who have gone on before us, and joined the Church Triumphant, as it is sometimes called, or the "great cloud of witnesses" as it is called in the Bible.
Today we're going to be thinking quite a bit about those saints who have gone ahead of us in the journey that we all share. So we'll be talking about death, grief, loss, sorrow and sadness. But never fear, we are also going to be speaking of other things like hope, life, joy, light and resurrection.
But first, a bit of shadow.
I've had my fair share of moments when I have come to face-to-face with death. The first time was when my grandfather died when I was ten. I remember standing by his casket, touching his face and hands and thinking he felt like a statue. I remember whispering to him as if he could hear me, half thinking that he could.
When I worked as a chaplain at Florida Hospital, I came face-to-face with death almost every day. Sometimes late at night when the code team had failed to revive someone--I was the one who had to call their family and tell them their loved one had died. Many times I would sit in the room with the deceased person waiting for the family to arrive. More than a few times I had to stand and watch while the nurses would carefully redress their body, and cover them gently so the family wouldn't see the ravages of death upon them.
I've been at the bedside of people who passed away in front of me. I've seen suicide victims brought into the ER with their grieving families. I've had people scream and curse at me when I told them I was the chaplain there to comfort them in their grief. I've had them fall into my arms exhausted and completely spent. I've held friends outside their house while first responders gathered the body of their son who had just shot himself in the head.
I've held the head of a man who was dying while he convulsed in my hands, and then barely an hour later sat in my office for a meeting with someone to talk about some church thing or another.
I've seen more of death than I ever dreamed I would see. And it never gets easier. Each time I come face-to-face with death, there is a little voice in the back of my mind that whispers to me in a not-so-gentle way... "Just you wait... your time will come."
We've all faced death and loss at one time or another. We share this with all human beings. We share feelings of grief, loss, sorrow and emptiness.
And some times the loss we experience leaves us feeling as though we've had our insides kicked out.
In his classic book on grief, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis reflects on the deep sorrow he felt after the death of his wife. He entered a cold, dark fog and even his strong faith in God did little to keep the emptiness at bay. He went to God in grief and discovered: "But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside."
Many of us have questions in our loss--we wonder what God is up to, and if he really cares at all. Some of us feel disbelief, and even anger. Others of us feel loneliness and despair.
It's been said that there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I kind of think of these as the 5 stages of Whatever, because honestly, to talk about these with people when they are in the middle of feeling grief is pretty fruitless.
If you've been there before---you know exactly what I am talking about.
There is this phrase that I love so much in the Westminster Catechism, which is one of the great confessions of faith in the Reformed tradition of the Church. It says simply, "In life and death we belong to God."
There is so much that is good about that statement. I am going to spend most of our time today unpacking it, with the help of the Gospel of John chapter 11--a story from the life of Jesus known as the Raising of Lazarus.
What does it mean that "in life and death we belong to God?" Well, the Apostle Paul kind of summed it up like this: "We [Christians] do not mourn as those who have no hope." We believe that we are always in God's hands. That those we love--even those we have lost to death--are in God's hands, too.
So let's get to our Scripture passage today, because it's easily one of my favorite stories from the Bible.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.
42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”Let me give you a little background on this story. Early in the chapter we discover that Jesus gets a message from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is extremely ill. The old King James version of the Bible declares it like this, "Lord, the one whom you love is sick unto death." Mary and Martha fully expected Jesus to come right away. They had seen him heal complete strangers, and they were his friends, so they just knew he would come and make everything right. Only he didn't.
Jesus waited until after Lazarus was dead, and then showed up after the third day of the funeral was over. He walked into the funeral after all hope was gone. In the ancient Jewish tradition, there was still hope after three days if someone died because their spirit would linger until it saw the body start to decay and then it would leave. Jesus essentially showed up when there was no hope.
Martha immediately says to him, "Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died." Jesus replies to her "I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live even if they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Then he asks her, "Do you believe this?" Martha says "Of course, I believe you--you are the Messiah." But the truth of the matter is that she believed that Jesus would raise Lazarus someday but that in the present moment all hope was gone.
Then we pick up the story in our passage where Mary comes and asks the same thing. Both sisters are focused on the "later" aspects of the whole thing, and truth be told are probably a little messed up that Jesus didn't come to the rescue.
The Scripture says that Jesus wept after this. A lot has been written about this verse--one of the shortest in the Bible. Some ancient scholars thought it was a ploy to help teach the people. John Calvin believed it was the human side of Jesus manifesting the indescribable emotions of the divine side of Jesus.
I actually think it is just a sign that God is with us. Jesus feels sorrow, feels the loss, the sadness of his friends. And because of his incredible connection with God the Father, we know how God truly feels about us in our moments of grief--God is with us, for us and feels our pain.
Then Jesus becomes deeply moved, or embrimaomai as the Greek reads. This actually means that he became angry, but angry at what? I think he wasn't angry that people didn't believe, or that Mary and Martha didn't get it. I think he was angry at the whole situation, that death had won a small battle--that the world had to be like that.
So he fixed it. None of the impediments--the stone, the stench of the dead body, the linen wrappings around Lazarus--none of those things stopped him from giving death a huge uppercut. I love that last line: "Take off the grave clothes and let him go." How awesome is that?
What do we learn from all of this? I think this story calls us to ask a ton of questions, but one in particular kind of stands out for me. What are we really focused on when we lose a loved one? When we experience loss and grief, what do we typically fix our eyes, our attention on?
Truth be told, we focus mostly on THEN rather than NOW. What I mean by this is exactly what Mary and Martha did when Jesus was trying to hit them with a bigger, more expansive and eternal truth. We find ourselves looking forward to a day someday when we will be reunited with our loved ones---and there is nothing at all wrong with this.
But what happens is we find ourselves despairing in the NOW as we struggle through, soldiering on as best we can.
One overlooked but awesome part of this story is that it really shows Jesus validating our very human feelings in the midst of loss. He feels anger. He feels sorrow. He weeps.
But he invites us to think about all of these emotions in eternal terms. Jesus doesn't say, "I will be the resurrection and the life..." He says, "I am the resurrection and the life..." Jesus blurs the lines between THEN and NOW, forcing us to think about how eternity is not just something that happens down the road. Jesus is the resurrection and the life in the moments of loss just as he will be one day when all things are made right and God makes all things new.
Jesus teaches us that in life and death we belong to God.
I should say a few words about heaven, and resurrection at this point. To not do so would leave this whole discussion kind of twisting in the wind. And since heaven and resurrection are two of the biggest mysteries of the Christian faith, it makes sense that many of us probably have questions.
To begin, there is a difference when we are talking about heaven with a small "h" and Heaven with a capital "H." Heaven with a capital "H" is what the Bible refers to as the ultimate goal for God. God has a plan for the universe and that plan culminates with Heaven, a state of existence with God at it's center and newness for this world and all of us.
Heaven with a small "h" is what we refer to as the "place we go when we die."
One of my favorite theologians, N.T. Wright, has done some of the best work that has ever been done on these topics. In his great little book For All The Saints Wright says something very profound. He declares that to say that "heaven is the ultimate goal" for Christians does violence to the notion of Christian hope. He is referring, of course, to the small "h" heaven.
The main goal of Christian hope, according to N.T. Wright is the resurrection of the body. This is the promise we have from the Scripture--that we will all one day be raised to new life, with bodies that are perfect and a world that is made completely new and awesome.
So what happens to all those who die in Christ before that happens, since we can assume the Resurrection hasn't happened? Well according to Scripture, those who die in Christ and who await the Resurrection are saints.
It's like when Jesus was on the cross and told the repentant thief next to him, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." He didn't tell him, "today you'll be raised from the dead with me." And Paradise in this instance refers to heaven with a small "h"--to be one with God, at rest in Him.
The Christian departed, I truly believe, are in a state of restful happiness, with God, at one with God, completely content, joyful and awaiting the complete renewal of all things. Do they dream? Do they experience the creative imagination of God, the connection of God to the world and to their loved ones? I have no idea--I would like to think they do. I'm going to claim that, to be honest.
N.T. Wright explains that state of restful happiness and waiting like this: "God will download our software into his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again." I love that. So our loved ones---they are so good. They are so good it defies all imagination.
The big question for those of us who are left behind is, "What do we do in the meantime? How do we cope with the loss, the grief, and the pain?" I have a story that might help us find a way forward.
I was officiating at a funeral, and it was a particularly sad one. A beloved husband and father died, and his grieving widow and daughters were in pretty bad shape. I looked down at them on the front row of the sanctuary, holding on to one another, weeping, broken.
A friend of the family got up to sing Amazing Grace. And the person was tone deaf beyond all measure. I am not sure exactly why it was they thought they should have been singing. But it was bad. So bad that everyone was kind of wincing and recoiling at every rotten, sour note.
Then I saw the faces of the mother and her daughters. They softened. Then they began to smile through their tears. Then they started to laugh behind their Kleenex. They held each other, shaking and laughing--everyone I am sure thought they were weeping. The widow told me later that it was just like her husband was there with them, playing a prank on them like he always did.
They knew in that moment that God was with them, and that their loved one was with God. All because of some poor tone deaf person singing Amazing Grace.
For those of us who have been left behind--the signs of our loved ones at rest is all around us. Maybe you hear them in a phrase they used to say all of the time--a gentle breeze blowing at the right moment with the right fragrance on the wind--a memory or a moment that sends chills down your spine like you can almost feel them. Because in an eternal way---they are... right now, not just someday.
And you---go out and live.
Live as though death has no power over you.
Live as though Eternal is now because God is now all around you.
Live as though you belong in life and death to God.