+ A sermon for All Saints Sunday (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 7, 2021 +
Text: Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
“Jesus began to weep,” our gospel lesson tells us.
Or as many English translations phrase it, “Jesus wept.”
It’s the shortest verse in most English-language Bibles.
A favorite of sneaky confirmation students who were told they had to memorize a Bible verse.
I’m pretty sure at least one student in my confirmation class chose John 11:35.
But in that short verse, we find a depth of feeling and sorrow, a depth of care and compassion, a depth of mystery and paradox.
Jesus had come to Bethany because he heard his beloved friend Lazarus was sick to the point of death.
When he arrived, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.
He also encountered Lazarus’ sisters, his friends Mary and Martha, who were understandably distraught that their brother had died.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both tell him.
It sounds as much a lament as it is an accusation: “Lord, why weren’t you here? How could you let this happen?”
A pointed jab that their friend Jesus, the great healer and teacher, the one who said he’s come so we can experience life in abundance, hadn’t been there when they needed him most.
And now their brother Lazarus was in the tomb.
How could he let this happen?
But then, we see a remarkable scene in the gospels.
We see Jesus himself grieve.
We see God Godself cry at the death of a beloved friend.
I don’t know how it happened, but at some point, we as a society have decided it’s not ok to grieve.
We as Christians have assumed that we can’t come to God in pain.
Sure, some grief is ok.
Some lament when a loved one dies is understandable.
But after a certain point, like after the funeral is done? You should probably just get over it.
We try to bottle up and hide these painful times in our lives, the struggles we are going through.
As if pain was so neat.
As if grief was so linear.
As if hiding our struggles magically makes them disappear.
But today we see our Lord weep.
Today we see our God grieve with a grieving family.
Any pretense that grieving is something we have to hide, something we have to keep from our God is wiped away because our God cried when God’s beloved friend died.
And we see that not only are our tears valid, they are holy.
Not only does God see our grief, God stands with us in the pain and hurt and grieves with us.
Our God weeps with us.
On this All Saints Sunday, we not only give thanks for the life and witness of all the saints, past and present, who help us experience the expansive love of God, we also intentionally make space for the grief that surrounds the loss of those saints in our lives—especially those who have died in the past year.
And I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced a lot of grief in the past year—certainly in the past two years since we last gathered in person for this holy day.
Since that time, at least 5 million of our siblings across the globe have died from the coronavirus; 750,000 of them in this country alone.
Not to mention all the disruption of our lives and tarnishing of our hopes.
Saints we have known and loved in our own lives have died.
And today we especially remember the three of our sisters in Christ from this congregation who have completed their baptismal journey and died during the past year—and we lament that we couldn’t even gather to mourn their loss and commend them to Christ’s loving care.
We’ve been forced to stay apart and haven’t even had the chance to come together and recon with the grief of these days.
I don’t know about you, the pain of all the death that has surrounded us is so palpable that I realized I have been numbing myself to the COVID death toll, protecting myself from the weight of realizing the implications of such a profound loss.
The pain, the grief, the death sometimes just seems too massive to comprehend, too heavy a weight to hold.
And yet, we know that death is inescapable—not only the realities of death during the past year, during the past two years of pandemic, but for each and every one of us.
The Prophet Isaiah calls it “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
Because there is no person on this planet, no nation on earth, that is immune from death.
It does not regard social status, age, sex, or wealth.
As much as we try to escape it, to trick ourselves into thinking we can avoid its sting, death is the great equalizer and will come for us all and we all have experienced its piercing pain.
And when we encounter this reality of death in our lives, when it takes our loved ones from us, we may hear ourselves echoing the same lament, the same accusation we hear from Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
“Jesus, where were you? If you can raise Lazarus from the dead, why can’t you raise our loved ones? How could you let this happen?”
Perhaps part of the holiness of this strange festival day, especially in this strange, heavy year, is that we intentionally gather together to grieve the loss of these saints from our lives.
We come together to rediscover the truth that has always been, that Christ has been with us all along, walking with us through our grief, weeping alongside us—his tears mingling with our own.
Because even as we mourn and acknowledge the sting of death, we also defiantly choose to celebrate the saints on this day.
To give thanks to God for their part in our lives, their own lives and witness which helped reveal to us the unimaginable and everlasting love of God.
But most of all, we come and dare to worship our God who not only stands with us in our grief, but, in Christ, has also died.
A God who knows intimately and better than we ever could what it means to die.
A God who refused to be bound by death but rose again to bring life and healing to all people.
We worship a God who has taken each one of us, whether we were infants or adults, and united us through the waters of our baptism to die the same death to which Christ died so we may be risen into the same everlasting life of Christ’s resurrection.
On this day, we worship a God who defeated that ancient enemy of us all and vanquished all the power death tries to wield over us so we may be brought into the new life that God is preparing for us all.
Our reading from Revelation speaks of that promised day when death will no longer have dominion over God’s good creation. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s people, and that very God will be with them, God 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.”
The Prophet Isaiah also envisions that day as a great feast of victory for our God: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And the LORD will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; the LORD will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
This is the hope we try to cling to on this holy day.
A hope that, even though we will all die, that death will not have the final word.
A hope that God will bring us into the new heaven and the new earth, the promised feast where we will be reunited with all the saints, all our loved ones, all God’s people forever.
A hope that Jesus himself embodied when, cheeks still stained with tears, he called his beloved friend to come out of the tomb, back from death, and into his embrace again.
We know that no matter how hard we try, our loved ones will not heed that same miraculous call as Lazarus did that day in Bethany.
But we put our faith, our hope, our trust in the one who has triumphed over death forever, who brought his beloved friend into the fullness of this new life, and who has promised us an everlasting place there too.
“See,” Christ says to us again today, “I am making all things new.”
In just a few minutes, we will gather around this communion table to place photos, to write names, to light candles that remind us of all the saints who have died and rest now in God.
At this table we cry, grieving our loved ones and the holes they have left in our lives confident that Christ is here grieving and crying with us.
At this table we give thanks, celebrating the love, the memories, the ways these saints have impacted our lives confident that they continue to love and pray for us.
And at this table, we rejoice in the new life that these saints are now experiencing, in the new thing that Christ has promised each of us.
Because at this table, we will come back to experience a foretaste of that heavenly feast which God is preparing for all people, we commune with all the saints, past and present, who surround us and now live in Christ.
We proclaim our hope in the day when our faith shall be sight and we enter the new heaven and the new earth with tears running down our cheeks—no longer tears of grief and sorrow, but tears of triumph and ineffable joy because at last, the enemy of us all has been defeated and God’s own love and joy and life will reign forever.
Amen, Lord Jesus! May it be so.