Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Nov. 7, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Nov 7, 2021 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

All Saints’ Sunday

Nov. 7, 2021

Holy God, give us grace to know you and to trust you, for you make your home among us, you dwell within us, and we are yours. Amen.

“Come and see.” We are used to hearing this as Jesus’ call to follow him, and this very gospel of John begins with that same call to Jesus’ first disciples. “Come and see!” he says, calling us too. Today however, it is spoken to Jesus, directing him to the tomb where they have laid Lazarus’ body. As you often hear me say, nothing in John’s gospel can be taken at casual face value. Voices inviting Jesus to Come and see is one of John’s metaphors, not just handy mourners giving stage directions so we know how Jesus gets to the tomb from the road where Martha and Mary had pleaded with him. For Jesus, just entering Bethany is a risk the disciples reminded him of only a couple verses before, there’s danger and some who would stone him may well be among the mourners. This threat to Jesus’ life is an overhanging pall, as is Lazarus’ death, now four days past. (Which is to say his death is truly final, since the soul was believed to hover around the body for three days.) The reversal of phrase here is unsettling; on Jesus’ lips ‘Come and see’ was an invitation to new life. Not here; they are saying to him, Come and see the place of death, come and see how death triumphed and you couldn’t or didn’t stop it. Come and see how wrong you are about life. So Jesus goes.

I want to back up a bit to some important earlier threads before we join Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb. Right before this, Martha had met Jesus on the road; “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He promises her brother will rise, but she thinks he means ‘on the last day.’ Still not with me, are you Martha? He says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” In her grief and perhaps anger at his delay, she skirts his question, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah…” We can almost hear her thinking—and so you still could have prevented my brother’s death! She cannot yet believe that “death does not break the bond between lover and beloved. No ‘last day’ appointment is needed.” (John’s Gospel & the Renewal of the Church, Howard-Brook, Orbis 1997) 

She leaves to tell Mary, downgrading him from Messiah to ‘the teacher.’ When Mary heard, “she rose quickly and went to him.” Again a deeper meaning here; Mary rose. The word used suggests transformation, and while we might think first of the raising of Lazarus, but Mary begins her own transformational rising. She leaves the house of mourners and the atmosphere of death, and heads towards this one John calls the Light. In contrast Martha has just chosen the opposite direction; discounting Jesus’ promise that Lazarus will live, she goes home to the familiar comfort of tradition and mourners. Theologian and priest John Dear says Martha returns to “our culture of death and violence,” and Mary instead walks from the ‘culture of death’ and toward the God of life. (Lazarus, Come Forth, Orbis Publ., 2011)

I was intrigued with Dear’s perspective because the uncertainties and strain—and yes, death—of the past year and a half have left so many in grief, so much violence, so many churches and non-profits stretched beyond limit, both in terms of volunteers and donations. St. Michael’s has had some struggles and deaths, and we’ve met them with adaptation and love. St. Michael’s also has such a healthy faithful penchant towards life and the light of Christ, and it bodes well for us. Even if the budget coming out of our financial pledges means some hard sacrifices, I know without doubt that we will continue to follow that light, so it is with great joy we bless these pledge offerings today. 

Someone recently asked about the cross created from the individual plates bearing donor names, saints before us. Taken down from pews or windows, etc, they were gathered to form a cross during one of St. Michael’s life-giving transformations. When people talk about All Saints here, we can’t do so without trying to explain the power of the ribbons! Names of those we love who died from last month or many decades past become our altar cloth and then surround us as saint will do. They all lead us as if by ribbons—to follow the light of Christ. We stand on the long faithful shoulders of those who came before us, alongside of John, Mary, Lazarus and more. We worship in pews and receive Communion from vessels made possible by the faithful giving of those saints, and now we broadcast with cameras and equipment skillfully planned and managed by often hidden saints among us. No matter how hard this pandemic has been, one day others will remember your example, and stand upon the shoulders of your faith or walk in our steps to follow the Light of God. We don’t know every hope and fear of those before us, nor even all our own. Think of the mourners that day—they saw Mary go, assuming in her abject grief she was heading to the tombs. She ‘quickly rose up’ to go to meet Jesus, John says they follow her—the word invoking discipleship. She led them. Did she carry a glimmer of hope’s light?

When they meet, Jesus sees her and the others weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” This is not a quiet reflective moment of grief at his friend’s death, the descriptive words are ‘I snort’ —out of displeasure, anger, to express indignant exasperation with some one; to charge sternly. Stop and think about that moment – because we grow closer to Jesus by letting the text and context inform us, engage our imagination, consider how Jesus might feel. Since the gospels seldom tell us his feelings, we have to listen for these clues. When Jesus asks where they’ve laid him they say, “Come and see.” We are back to where we began as his own words are served back to him, pointing away from light to the tomb’s darkness. And at this, “Jesus wept.” It is the only time in the whole of the New Testament that word is used. Just this once. The word means to weep silently, tears falling without a sound. What thoughts move his tears? What pain or grief is released through those tears? Does his heart ache wondering, How can they believe more in death than in life? Even these most faithful followers?! He wept because people rejected the power of life, presumed love not strong enough to overcome death.

Take away the stone.

Martha, still able to see only death’s dominance, argues against it, “Already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Only when the stone is rolled away does Jesus pray. His prayer is not only for what will occur, it is also because in opening that tomb they begin to open the possibility of life. He prays as to a loving parent. Thank you, thank you for hearing me, for always hearing me. Right now, right here, this is so they may believe I am from you. 

So they might believe, so we may believe. He doesn’t raise his beloved friend for his personal fulfillment and joy, (although there will be a party!), this is for those around him and for all who have lost the faith, hope, and love, which Jesus came to bring. Now, with all of them gathered at death’s door, Jesus calls loudly,

Lazarus, come out!

And so Lazarus shuffles out towards bandage-filtered light and Jesus’ muffled call. He is at the doorway, still bound and covered in grave clothes he cannot free himself from. 

We are much like him. I often ask you what tomb we need to come out of as individuals. The complexities of this year layer our answer with new perspective. Even more so as a community of faith and as children of God in the wider world. Jesus doesn’t drag Lazarus out, in fact no one does. He comes out of his own free will, just as we must. When Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go free”, can you imagine their reaction? Four days dead and you want me to go up close and touch him? Untie the very strips of cloth which help to seal in the stench and decomposing fluids? To me these are the original First Responders, (only without gloves and hand sanitizer). Those called to set the most trapped and vulnerable ones free, to help them into fullness of life, and to help each other find the arms of loving compassion and community. What hobbles us when we try to find our way to the Light, what remnants keep us from responding to our Lord with trust? Hard as it is to figure out what needs unbinding, and letting people help, we need to do it, just as those before us did, and always will.  All Saints is one of the great feast days of the church, because we see and proclaim that the God of life defies the culture of death as the end. Love triumphs and Resurrection comes.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.