A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
A couple of years ago a group of children and teachers sat in a circle in the Memorial Garden as I explained a few of the major points about the celebration of All Saints. I told them that Halloween is the night when people used to say spirits walked the earth and so they faced their fear by disguising themselves with masks and costumes so they wouldn’t be recognized by ghosties and ghoulies. I told the kids that the word Halloween is short for All Hallow’s Eve—the Eve of the Feast of All Saints, when we celebrate the greats of the Church—people of special devotion and courage, many of whom died for their faith in Jesus. And following All Saints is All Souls’ Day when we commemorate the lives of all of those people who have gone before us—people who have died but who we miss, and remember with love. In our church today we tend to celebrate All Saints and All Souls together—remembering the famous (big S) Saints—like our St. Martin, and St. Theresa and newest Saint Oscar Romero, as well as the little ‘s’ saints, like grandma or Uncle Harry, all on the same day.
So that was the basic spiel as we sat together, surrounded by the memories of many of the loved ones of St. Martin’s. A little hand went up. I paused. A quiet voice said, “My mommy says she’s going to die, but not for a long, long time.”
You could have heard a pin drop.
The other children in the group took it calmly. The grownups, however, rushed into the gap with words of reassurance for the little speaker and the rest of the children, desperately hoping we could handle any of the difficult questions that might follow. There weren’t any. The kids were fine—but the teachers were sweating.
Such a simple statement of truth and hope. But out of the mouth of a child, these words called to mind some of the most difficult conversations of our lives.
I don’t want clinical trials. I want to enjoy my family and say goodbye on my own terms. You need to know where the important files are and that you’ll be okay when I’m gone. I want to die at home. I want to be buried next to my spouse. I’m ready to die. I’m afraid to die. All difficult conversations!
And in the event of sudden and untimely death, the conversations are even more painful, usually beginning with shock and tears. And then, Why? Or, If only… If only she hadn’t gone there. If only I had been there.
We are afraid of death. Our society spends a lot of time, energy and money trying to fend it off and to deny its hold over us. But if we have to be honest, for most of us it’s not death that scares us; it’s dying. Fear of pain and frailty. Fear of lingering and being a burden. And even when it is death that we fear, it’s not so much our own as that of those we love—we’re terrified of facing the gaping hole in the universe that will be left when a loved one dies.
Death frightens us. But if we are serious about our Christian faith, death isn’t, in itself, scary. For, to us, death is not an end, it’s a change. A pretty radical change, yes, but it is a transformation from one kind of life to another. That is what our faith teaches.
But it’s hard to hold onto that. Because we are creatures that don’t, as a rule, like change. And if we don’t like the small changes in life, we’re sure not going to have an easy time embracing The Big One; for ourselves, or for anyone we care about.
And so we grieve. And thus this morning we can connect with Mary and Martha and Jesus on a fundamental level as they confront the death of Lazarus, their brother, and friend. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Our Gospel today is one usually reserved for late in Lent; considered in the context of Jesus’ journey to the Cross, rich in parallel imagery of tomb, stone and burial wrapping—a microcosm of the great drama of Salvation, foreshadowing Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, it is all of that. But for right now it is a portrait of grief.
Of “if only”.
This is a scene that tugs at the heart. Many can identify with the sense of loss, confusion, and even anger felt by those crowded around the tomb; some glad of Jesus’ presence, others wondering what took him so long… His emotional response is unexpected—no divinely stoic reaction here—this is a man expressing grief—whether for his friend or for his own impending death doesn’t really matter. Note that John doesn’t just mention Jesus’ reaction in passing—he points to it three times: …He began to weep …greatly disturbed in spirit… deeply moved… Different translations phrase it different ways, but the significant point is that Jesus’ grief mirrors our own when we face death: We weep, we are moved, we are troubled, we are disturbed. This repetition indicates that it is as important that we know Jesus feels the pain of grief as it is that we know Jesus raises his friend from the dead. We see his human vulnerability and his divine nature in equal measure.
And it is this combination that is crucial to how we understand this passage today. New Testament Professor Brian Peterson notes that, while we can easily see the raising of Lazarus as a sign of God’s promise to raise us on the last day, as Martha confesses to Jesus, we also need to see the Jesus who reaches out to his friend and calls him by name: Lazarus, come out!… Unbind him, and let him go.
This isn’t just about Lazarus. It’s not just about something that happened then. And it isn’t just about the future; a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ at the end of time. It’s about Jesus now; the Jesus who embodies life and hope for us in the present moment because his power to defeat death lies most profoundly in his compassion for those who suffer.
Jesus weeps with us
The life of Jesus calls out to us now in all of our tombs of grief and despair; in all of the myriad kinds of death, disillusionment and cynicism that threaten to bind us in knots and bury us in fear and anxiety. The love of Jesus grieves with us; it does not save us from suffering and difficulty, but it does sustain us through it.
This is what the Saints knew. This is the Jesus that they loved and followed, that they served every time they fed the hungry or cared for the sick. The Jesus that they often died for.
Often we think of Saints as people of the past, whose exemplary and faithful lives we read about in biography and see in our stained glass windows. But our faith teaches us that they are not just figures of the past, or of an eschatological future. The Saints inspire us and are present with us now, which is why we celebrate them—as people who toiled and fought and lived and died because they loved Jesus, and whose faithful lives give us the courage to meet the challenges that confront us today and in the days to come. We are knit together, as this morning’s Collect says—knit together in communion and fellowship.
Retired Bishop Steven Charleston, first Native American Bishop of the Episcopal Church offers this beautiful description:
They are watching over us, all those who have gone before. They are our ancestors and they have seen enough in their own lives to know what we are going through. They have survived economic collapse, social unrest, political struggle, even great wars that raged for years. Now from their place of peace they seek to send their wisdom into our hearts, to guide us to reconciliation, to show us the mistakes before we make them. Their love for us is strong. Their faith in us is certain. When times get hard sit quietly and open your spirit to the eternal grandparents who are still a part of your spiritual world. Receive their blessing for their light will lead you home.