When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
At our house, we are still working on our haul of Halloween Candy. Even as the stores switch from the Halloween decorations and music of October, to the Christmas displays of November (?). The costumed masses or few, depending on where you live, that roamed the streets last Sunday have been lingering this week. Modern trick or treating has a lot to do with the practice of medieval Christians making pilgrimage for All Saints. Dressing up, lighting candles, journeying on the road was all part of the belief that spirits would often wander the earth until All Saints Day, and the costumes would be to scare away vengeful haunting spirits, and the candles, often lit in each room in a house or door way that would guide good spirits home.
As the end of the middle ages saw the Reformation, our forebears sought to reshape the feast of All Saints. Rather than praying to the Saints on November 1st and then praying for all souls still in purgatory on All Souls Day November 2nd, Lutherans and other protestants have mashed the two together, recognizing that saints are not special or holy people. But that all those who have died in faith are made Saints by God’s Holiness poured out for us.
On All Saints Sunday, we gather to pray in thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, and we pray to God that we too may join the saints and heavenly hosts in the always ongoing great high feast. We recognize today, that our worship is not something that we create, but rather something we are invited to join with the heavenly hosts. We are like thirsty pilgrims who approach the always flowing river of heavenly worship and we wade into the water again and again, week after week, briefly pulling back the veil between heaven and earth until one day we too will be swept up into the great worship of all the saints and we too will join the heavenly hosts.
And yet today is not all sweet visions of heavenly worship and dreams of joining those beloved saints who have gone before us.
Today, we also face the reality death. Like Jesus on the road to Bethany, we are confronted with the real, messy, emotional and overpowering experience of grief. This year, perhaps more than most years, our experience with death and grieving has been more complicated. Perhaps our spirits are disturbed like Jesus’ is. Maybe we are churning and twisting deep in our beings with Mary. Maybe we are like Martha and the crowds, still reconciling and trying to make sense of all that happened over the course of the past year, over the course of the past 20 months.
As Jesus makes his way to Bethany to mourn the death of his friend Lazarus, we are not meant to see a doctor calling a time of death, nor a pastor leading prayers at a funeral, nor a funeral director guiding a grieving family through grief. Jesus is going to Bethany as a friend, a brother to Lazarus, family to Mary and Martha.
On this grieving journey to Bethany, Jesus meets a desperate Mary. “Lord, if you have been here my brother would not have died” she pleads. And Jesus is disturbed, Jesus is moved. The greek points to a deep churning passion, even anger within Jesus. He doesn’t just recognize and acknowledge the grief in the Mary like a therapist would. But Jesus feels it too, but Jesus loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus feels the depths of grief too.
The kind of grief that we all know. The kind of grief that always comes with death. And yet even that difficult yet predictable and known experiment of grief has been altered this year.
Funerals delayed, grieving done in insolation and from afar. Private gravesides, zoom funerals, or even simply nothing to help us navigate the strangeness of our grief. Like everything else in our world, this Pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we experience the death of loved ones and death within our community.
In the before time, we knew how to attend to those last things. We knew the rituals around death. We knew how to make the phone calls, send the cards, leave the casseroles on doorsteps. We knew to read the obituaries, to show up 45 minutes early to a funeral to make sure we get a seat, how to appropriate greet a grieving friend at a funeral lunch.
But those rituals have been taken away, but our grief for those who have died has not.
The grief that Jesus feels today is the same personal, raw, churning grief that we know in our lives. And while grief makes death feels so personal and lonely, death is also transcendent, cosmic, universal. It is found on the road between two friends grieving a dead brother and it also the great darkness hanging over all creation:
See, the house of God is far from mortals
Death hovers over them as their master;
they will all suffer the same fate
and death will spare not one;
Life will be no more;
there is nothing but mourning and crying and pain,
for the first things reign over all.
This is the old heaven and the old earth, this is what All Saints pilgrims carried with them on their journey, this is the personal grief that we bring today for loved ones.
This is death.
This is death, and Jesus stands in front of the tomb, tears running down his face and defiantly says, “Take away the stone.”
And grief, personal and cosmic says, “But Lord there will be a stench” because death is too strong, too powerful, too overwhelming.
Except for God.
Except for the God who created something from nothing.
Except for the God who is creating a new heaven and a new earth.
And out walks a dead man, out walks Lazarus alive again.
The very last thing that Mary or Martha expects is to see their brother alive. Grief cannot imagine that there is an answer to death. That is why Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their grief. That is why God’s spirit churns with anger, that is why God grieves with us on the road to the tomb, that is why God, even knowing that the stone is about to be rolled away, weeps along with us.
And there walking out of the tomb, the personal and cosmic realities of death collide into the personal and cosmic promises of God. The reality of stinking rotting dead flesh that we know too well suddenly smashes into the loving, heart-pounding, passionate love of God for all creation.
As Jesus stands at the tomb, calling for the stone to be rolled away, beckoning forth a beloved brother and friend, Mary and Martha finally see the the reality of Jesus’ promise, of dreams and visions of Revelation made tangible:
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Our All Saints pilgrimage this morning is the same mixture of personal and transcendent grief. We acknowledge that death comes for our loved ones and us, death comes for all.
But with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, we discover that in our grief, God in Christ meets us on the road. God in Christ churns with anger and grief, with sorrow and sadness weeping with us just as if death had the last word.
Yet, Jesus has also come to meet us with that great Revelation promise,
“See, I am making all things new.”
As Jesus stands there, tears running down his face, disturbed in spirit… He commands the stones be rolled away from all of our tombs. Jesus enacts the cosmic and transcendent promise of resurrection, Jesus declares that God has come to live with mortals. Jesus declares that death is not the end for those whose names we will read today, not the end for those whom light candles for… Jesus declares that death is not the end because,
“See, I am making all things new.”
As we gather on All Saints, with hearts full of both grief and thanks, of joy and sorrow, we discover a God who is deeply and powerfully and intimately involved in the affairs of mortals, who sheds real tears for Mary, Martha and Lazarus out of love.
We discover a God who cannot help but love us. A God who cannot help but love us in our grief and a God who cannot help but make all things new in our world.
Today on All Saints we confront grief and death, we confront the personal and cosmic and we make pilgrimage to tombs and grace, sealed shut forever. But then we see a passionate and loving God, weeping with us AND calling us out of our graves into new life. And all of a sudden, those great promises of resurrection, those promises of a new heaven and a new earth collide with us.
They collide with us when the creator of all things stands before us and our stones of grief and says to us,
“See, I am making all things new – including you”
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