All Saints Day: Remembering and Hoping

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + All Saints Day + November 1, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6b; John 11:32-44

Last weekend I drove up to Appleton, Wisconsin for the wedding of my best friend from high school. On the way I reenacted a little ritual I used to do on every drive between my parents’ house in southern Wisconsin and my college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Driving on I-90, I neared the exit for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where another high school friend, Joey, died during his freshman year, seven years ago. I turned off my music while I passed, silently remembering the day Joey had bought a coconut just so he could cut it in half, bring it to school, and make horse-trotting noises like in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie.

And then I did something I’ve only had the strength to do a few times in the years since he died — I listened to the song that all we drama department kids sang at Joey’s funeral. It was from his favorite musical, Spring Awakening. Most of the song is made up of just two lines: “I believe there is love in heaven. I believe all will be forgiven.”

The next day, just before the wedding ceremony, the bride tucked a small yellow rose in the altar flowers for Joey, the friend we had both loved and lost. Even on that happy day, in the midst of trying to figure out fancy dresses and how to keep a smile on for the photographer, she and I joined together to shed a few tears of grief.

Grieving is not really a process, at least not one we can graduate from. We make it out of that initial fog and return to our “normal” selves, but then there are moments — places, smells, events, anniversaries — that bring our grief back in full-force. Today, on All Saint’s Day, the church sets apart a time for us to bring that grief we still carry — that grief we will always carry — before God.

Today’s gospel reading is filled with the sounds of grief. Some of that grief is disappointed, faith left unfulfilled: Mary says to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the grief is angry, as some of the people say: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Some of that grief is just raw, without words, and unreasonable: Jesus weeps at the sight of his friend’s tomb, even though he knows Lazarus is about to be raised.

Those expressions of grief are the parts of the gospel that feel the most true to me. I believe in the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead; I have faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But I know grief. I know it in the way my eyes still get heavy with tears when I think about those I have lost; I know it in the anger at God I have heard in hospital rooms and in churches; I know it in expressions of loneliness and blank pain. I know it in my gut. Surely there is faith and hope to be found in the power of God, but sometimes the knowledge of grief, the reality of death, feels so much closer and inescapable.

While I was studying this week’s Bible readings, I read that the hopes expressed in these beautiful passages from Isaiah and Revelation — the hopes for a perfectly redeemed future — tend to come from people who “see no way out of the current dilemma.”[1] Many of the Old Testament’s most beautiful visions of the Kingdom of God come from the exiled Israelites, people torn away from their homeland and forced to live powerlessly under a foreign king and a foreign religion. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation visualizes the hopes of Christians persecuted under Roman rule.

These were people who could see no end to the way their lives were going; they could not circle a date on a calendar and count down the days till change came. But they could visualize a different future, somewhere out there, because they had faith that the world they were living in was not the world God wanted.

There are many situations in our lives that can feel inescapable. Death and grief are two of the most powerful. But there is also sin — those feelings of regret that keep us awake at night; the feeling that our past is always going to have a stranglehold on our future. There are relationships that feel like they will never be healthy. There are illnesses and pains that will not be fully healed here. There is an endless and global history of war. There are “the ways of this world” that strike against the work of God’s grace.

It is when we find ourselves dwelling in these situations that we must try to visualize the future alongside those saints that have gone before us. They hoped for a world where God is even more present than God is now, where God is near enough to wipe away tears from our eyes.  We may find comfort in knowing that Jesus weeps along with us now, but we must also remember what that weeping shows us: that God does not want death or sin or brokenness or wandering for us. God wants to keep saying to us what Jesus said to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus: Take away the stone. Come out of that dark place. Unbind him, and let him go!

Our faith in these words is not based only on a story that has been passed down to us from long ago. It is based in what God has already done in history and in our lives. We have heard the testimony of saints like Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom God freed from enslavement to addiction and doubt and made a powerful preacher of the gospel. I have seen God working in the jails, where men who spent their lives building up a defensive, tough-guy, in-control persona find a sacred space to break down in front of one another and ask for prayer. And I am sure we have each seen God working in our own lives: helping us change our ways, guiding us along paths we wouldn’t have chosen, offering us moments of peace, comfort, and forgiveness, making us new people, God’s people.

In a way, this is what All Saints Day is about. It’s not about praising the famous saints — the saints with capital S’s, like St. Paul and St. Francis and St. Lucy — for all their good works or their faithful deaths. It’s about remembering what God has done in every saint, including us; and it’s about looking forward to what God will do in us, and in all the saints that are yet to come.[2] This is the source of our hope for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world to come.

Today we remember those who have died, but the day is not only for them; it is for all of us, the whole family of God. How beautiful and perfect that today we baptized John and recognized in our community the newest of God’s saints?

Let us pray: God of the Past, God of the Present, God of the Future, You gave hope to your people in exile; you sustained those who suffered in your name; you transformed the lives of so many who have gone before us. Grant us faith to believe that you will provide a future, even where we see none, that bitterness may turn to joy, and hopelessness to hope eternal, by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.[3]

From St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church’s mural “Dancing Saints” (San Francisco). Image borrowed from Tea Mama’s pinterest page.


[1] “November 1, 2015: All Saints Day,” Sundays and Seasons:Preaching (Year B, 2015), ed. Robert Farlee (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2014) pp. 272.

[2] Rev. Dr. Delmar Chilton emphasized remembering what God does in God’s saints in his podcast with Rev. Dr. John Fairless: “All Saints Day (November 1, 2015), Lectionary Lab Live (#139), http://johnfairless.podbean.com/e/lec-lab-live-139-november-1-2015/

[3] Based on a thematic prayer for the day from Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Revised Common Lectionary website http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=227 (November 1, 2015).

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