I am grateful to belong to a Christian community that honors All Saints Day. This church festival is an opportunity to remember with gratitude those whom we have loved who have died. More than that, it is a day to look death straight in the face without fear, despite the fact that—around the world—the death rate is one per person and 100%. Today the church lifts up our mortality and proclaims in word and deed. This is a place where it is perfectly acceptable to cry as hard and as long as we want and need to, where it is safe for the broken hearted to say out loud, “I am not ok.”
But notice that the sanctuary is not decorated in black as it might be for Good Friday, but in the white and gold colors of Easter! Notice that we name not only those who have died since last All Saints Day, but also lift up all the newcomers to the faith who have been baptized in the past year. The reason for that is to put death in its proper context. It is part of the human story, but it is not the end.
We gather here with a variety of feelings about death and about specific people in our lives who have died. Some of us might feel like the crowd around Lazarus’ tomb, confused and sad, not quite believing or understanding God’s promise of eternal life. Or maybe we are feeling angry and accusatory toward God, like Mary in today’s reading: “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Or maybe we are in a place of trust and resiliency, able to echo Martha’s confident statement of faith from just a few verses prior to our reading: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,” and “I know that my brother will rise again on the last day.” We may also be pondering the practical matters of dying, such as Martha’s observation that after four days, a dead body would stink. There may be some of us who feel like Lazarus today, as if we are lifeless and decaying behind a wall of rock. Some may even feel like Jesus today, weeping for lost friends. Jesus was keenly aware of his own impending death, yet also quick to remind others that resurrection and life are real too.
Whatever we feel today, we are gathered here around Lazarus’ tomb, around the names of many of our beloveds who are no longer with us. And what does God have to say to us in this moment? Is it the same message of hope that Paul writes to the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the power of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 5:3-4)? Abundant life is not reserved for the sweet bye and bye, but is also here and now! We don’t need to dread death, nor fear anything on this side of the grave. Baptized into Christ’s own life and death and resurrection, our lives are sanctified now — made holy and given a purpose for THIS time and place. When Jesus calls us from the watery grave of baptism, he empowers us to live strong, deep, authentic lives.
Notice that when Jesus calls Lazarus out of his grave, he doesn’t then abandon him to cope with all the complications and hazards of life all over again. He doesn’t say to Lazarus, “Go on your way; live a deeply significant life.” No. When Lazarus emerges from the dark tomb—back into the challenging, tear-stained, exasperating world we live in—Jesus turns to all the saints standing around and commands them: “Unbind him and let him go!” This is, as theologian David Lose puts it, “an invitation to be drawn into God’s life-giving work, to participate in, extend, and in some sense complete the reach of God’s mighty acts. It is a promise that resurrection is not simply a matter of “then” – whenever that might be … but is also and equally a matter of “now.” Now there is something to do. Now we find courage to live amid fear.”
The communion of saints is what makes living a resurrection life here and now possible. It’s why we gather as a congregation from week to week. We worship and work and pool our money with others because being a saint in this world is daunting, and doing it alone would be excruciatingly difficult. Surrounded by the massacre of innocents, the politics of fear and division, and the rhetoric of hate—heart wrenching realities in world—we need each other. The Good News is that forces of life-choking evil are not the final reality. Prompted by God’s promise of resurrection we can stand against them, hold onto each other amid them, and offer our testimony, a story that is rooted in life and love that runs to contrary to the testimony of the world.
So today, even as we mourn those we have loved and lost, we are also aware that we are the recipients and instruments of God’s resurrection life, grace, and power here and now. Perhaps it’s best expressed in this poetic verse—my favorite from today’s trademark hymn: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong, Alleluia, Alleluia!”