Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – All Saints Sunday
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – November 4, 2018
A few weeks ago, Jeff and I received the results of our 23andme DNA tests. It’s been fun exploring and playing with this and it’s made us think about where we come from – about our ancestors from all over the globe. The cloud of witnesses. But it’s more than just thinking about this, there’s this wonderful connection with those who have gone before. It’s a mystical connection like the one I felt last week standing in the ruins of a church in Ireland, thinking, “Someday, I’ll see all those who laughed, cried, prayed and worshiped here.” It’s a connection that goes beyond just the genealogical facts.
Today is a day we celebrate and remember our beloved saints, those who have passed beyond the veil and into eternal life with God. When I think about my loved ones, I recall interactions with them, moments forever captured in time as fragmented glimpses. But maybe most often, I remember conversations or unique phrases that made these people stand out. When I listen to a recording I have of my grandpa on cassette tape I am instantly transported to my grandparents’ living room in Middletown, MD where I spent so much time as a child. The tape is only 1 minute and 39 seconds long, but those brief moments cross the ages, connecting me to John Dimitri Sulenka who passed away in 2001. Hearing him sing and recite a poem in Russian, translate them, and then finish with “That’s the story” capture so much of my earliest memories.
Voices play a critical role in our readings. On a day where there is more weeping than in any other All Saints Sunday readings, the voice of God is in many ways the destroyer of death. In Isaiah, we hear that God will destroy the shroud of death over the people: “Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” As the Lord has spoken, it will come to pass. In Revelation, God speaks, saying “‘See, I am making all things new. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’” Reconciling all things to himself, Jesus proclaims that he is the beginning and the end – the all in all. And in John, Jesus cries “with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” and says “‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Jesus’ power is made manifest and visible to others partially through the use of his voice.
But these are not the only voices we hear. There are those of pain, frustration, sorrow, and anger. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Voices of criticism and cynicism: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” And voices of weariness and doubt: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” To speak to all of these expressions, Jesus raises his own voice to God above: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
This is a highly emotional reading – Jesus is deeply moved, he weeps, and he is greatly affected by the suffering of those around him. Maybe even by their disbelief. Maybe he’s angry and hurt at facing death. In any case, he is not unmoved. And we, too, are a people who are deeply connected to our emotions. We remember, grieve, and celebrate our loved ones, experiencing the complex emotions that come with loving people. As Thomas Lynch says, “Grief is the tax we pay for loving.” But we also rejoice in how they showed us God in and through their own imperfect lives.
Jesus gets right into the messiness and, to borrow from the Gospel, the stench of human life – where emotions swirl, there are moments of agony and ecstasy, confusion, anguish, and pain. This day invites us to embrace all of that knowing that our God has done so not only in his life on earth, but in death on the cross. And as he embraced all of that, he embraced new life and the glorious hope, joy, wonder, and awe of the resurrection. We, my friends, dwell right in the middle of those two things – we grieve and experience the chaos and confusion of this life as well as its beauty. And in all of it, we long for the kingdom of God to fully break in among us. Not only do actions and circumstances affect us emotionally, but also the voices we listen to. They matter greatly, as well as how we use our voices.
In the past two weeks alone we have seen horrific violence across our country. Faithful worshipers murdered during services at Tree of Life Synagogue, two African-Americans gunned down by a white supremacist at a grocery store, a dozen pipe bombs sent to political opponents, and a school shooting brought on by bullying. A survey that cuts across political parties, races, ethnicities, cultural groups, and religions says that 80% of Americans fear that the polarization in politics will lead to further violence. We don’t even need to hear the statistics – we know the fear and anxiety all too well.
We live in the middle of all of this and wonder, “where are the signs of new life? Where, O God, is the hope? Lord, if you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened!” And what is the response? “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus began to weep.” He is moved. He weeps. He joins his tears to those already flowing. But he also steps in and raises his voice to bring about new life. “Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go.”
Jesus is greatly disturbed and weeps with us at horrific anti-Semitic synagogue shootings, the cold-blooded murders of people because of the color of their skin, school shootings, pipe bombs, and the detainment of children at our borders. He calls us in a loud voice to come out of the tombs we’re living in. To come out of the dark holes we’ve carved out for ourselves and feel trapped in. To step into his light and life and be unbound. Because we don’t have to silently assent to the injustice we see around us. We can act. The voice that calls Lazarus out of the reeking tomb and into the fresh air of new life calls us out of the captivity of sin, death, and injustice into new life where all people have dignity and are seen as our brothers and sisters. Where people are “free to worship without fear” and be who they are before God and others without threats or bullying.
Because as Christ stepped into the confusion and emotion of the human life, we, too, are called to journey with our brothers and sisters when they suffer, weep, wail, and are persecuted. As St. Arets Silouan of Mount Atho wrote, “Dwelling in the Holy Spirit, the saints behold hell and embrace it, too, in their love.” Out of great love Christ embraced the hellishness of life for us and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we sinner-saints share that same love with others, journeying with them in both their joy and sorrow. We use our voices to say “yes” to loving others in the name of Christ.
Jesus puts himself on the line for a friend, knowing that such an incredible miracle will be a risk to himself and also Lazarus. Because, afterward, things speed up, heading toward to the crucifixion. But this event with Lazarus prefigures his own death and resurrection – the sorrow, confusion, joy and celebration those three days will bring. This is a story filled with the reality of death and grief, but it also tells us that there is a greater life at hand. Because as Brian Peterson says, “…this day is about what all God’s saints have known and experienced, that here and now there is no death or grief or fear so deep and dark that the voice of Jesus cannot reach into it, call us out, and bring life.” Yes, it is a day to remember our beloved saints, but also to remember that you too are a saint, living and active in the world. So today may we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us out of our tombs into new life with him. And may we use our voices to make sure others know they are beloved saints of God in the world. Amen.