Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day [Year B] - November 1, 2015 (John 11:32-44)

Halloween should always be on Saturday night.

With the pressure of a school night off, and with an extra hour from the time change, our streets were crawling with more kinds of characters deeper into the evening than they usually are. I saw Ironman, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. There were witches, too, but more zombies than I think I’ve ever seen. Darth Vader was out and about (no doubt in anticipation of his movie’s release), but far outnumbered was he by white plastic-clad Stormtroopers that lurked around every corner. At one point I saw Jake from the Neverland Pirates, a particularly cute bumblebee and about twenty-two Elsas from Disney’s Frozen.

Halloween should always be on Saturday night. It just gives us more time to soak in this age-old tradition of mocking death and all the things of the dark.

Pity, then, I saw no Lazaruses, last evening, even with all that creativity. For if anyone could mock death, it would be him, and maybe his sisters, too. If anyone could thumb his nose at the fear of the dark, the zomb-i-fied stench of the closed-in tomb, it would be Lazarus, brought back from decay by Jesus’ word. Four days in the grave!? A Lazarus could mock death, for sure. He could tell it to be gone, for he knows the power of the resurrection and the life.

"Raising of Lazarus" Giotto
Just look at the scene that surrounds his burial cave! The drama is as intense as any episode of the Walking Dead! When this scene, which is the last of seven major signs, or miracles, in John’s gospel, was depicted in ancient art and iconography illustrators tried so hard to make sure the whole range of action was conveyed in one still scene. Often it took up one whole wall of a church fresco. The women are weeping over to one side, along with some of their sympathetic friends. Mary kneels, of course, her eyes on Jesus as she pleads. The by-standers are there with their sleeves held up to their noses to mask the odor. Jesus, typically in the center of these paintings, has his hands raised as if he is calling…and then Lazarus, out of the dark, is emerging from the tomb, bands of cloth already beginning to unravel from his body and face in the hands of yet other by-standers behind him.

It was the early church’s best stab at Halloween, if you will. A grotesque mockery of that shadowy valley that claims us all. And a reminder that in Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrection and the life, that valley of shadows has met its match.

But death is not always something we mock, is it, which is why Halloween feels so safe. You see, we’ve been in the hospital waiting rooms, the bedside vigils, we’ve conferred with the hospice nurses and cancer specialists. We’ve stood, too, by the gaping hole in the earth, or the cold, granite cubicle in the columbarium as we’ve said goodbye. We know death is not all zombies and goblins and vampires. In fact, it’s worse. It feels like a long Saturday night with no ending.

"The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt" (Vincent Van Gogh, 1890)
And the grief that goes with it? It’s exhausting. Worse than any squadron of Stormtroopers that lurk behind any corner, it overcomes us and overwhelms us when we least expect it, and we don’t know what to do with it, but we can’t usually mock it.

Ina piece in the New Yorker last week, Matthew Malady poignantly describes his emotions when he comes across a photo of his deceased mother on Google Street View, of all places. He explains how he breaks the monotony of too many hours behind a computer screen at his job by periodically checking out scenes from his past on this technology, devised by tech giant Google, that gives people a three-dimensional view of just about every street in the world.

One night, after many hours of writing, he decides, just before bed time, to look up the street he lived on in his late teens and which his mother lived in up until her sudden death two years before. He starts at the top of the street, working his way down past new picket fences and trees that are now taller than he remembered. When he gets to his old house, there is his mother, carrying a grocery bag and walking on the path that leads from the sidewalk to the front door. The Google car that was taking the photos of that street must have happened by at the exact minute his mother was coming home from shopping.

Immediately upon seeing her in those black slacks and floral print blouse, Malady experiences what he calls a “confluence of emotions…there was joy, certainly (Mom! I found you! Can you believe it?) but also deep, deep sadness. Heartbreak and hurt, curiosity and wonder, and seemingly everything in between.”[1] He grabs screen shots of the scene, knowing that eventually the Google car will make additional rounds and update the street view, wiping his mother’s memory away forever. He doesn’t say it, but he feels mocked, and Malady concludes by wondering how technology—things like simple Facebook posts and email reminders for flowers on Mother’s Day might complicates our grieving nowadays and he leaves the reader wondering whether if he reaches any so-called closure.

I feel that a similar non-conclusion could be reached by any one of those in our midst who is grieving someone today, especially some of the families of those printed on our bulletin. Death has scored another victory, it seems, and the only words left bouncing around in our head are a version of Mary’s resentful cry: “If something along the way had gone just a little differently, my loved one would not have died.”

It precisely in this horror and sorrow and regret that God has chosen to meet us and share our pain with us. When Jesus shows up at the tomb of Lazarus, he does not react some superhero from the Justice League, some soulless wizard that comes to save the day. He arrives and weeps. In the Greek, he is agitated or greatly disturbed by what he sees. In other words, even Jesus doesn’t first mock anything or anyone. He has compassion. Or anger. Or a complex confluence of both. And since we are coming to understand that God is the one behind everything Jesus does, we glimpse for a moment that God himself is as bothered by death as much as we are.

And as the bandages start to fall away from Lazarus’ body, we see that death itself has started to unravel. It turns out that for suffering and loss and grief and anything else that would try to separate God from God’s people, Jesus is really bad news. It may take a while to sense it, but He has come to be the resurrection and the life. Anytime he shows up, death will eventually begin to lose its grip on creation. Anything Jesus calls to eventually comes to life. Anywhere Jesus arrives becomes a place to make all things new. Anyone Jesus encounters is ultimately changed by his love.

This is the hope all the baptized have in Christ, as those who have been claimed by Jesus, as those who have been encountered by Jesus, as those whose name has been called out by the one who is seated on the throne. God has spoken, and God’s words are trustworthy and true. And although our silly mockery of death and decay may come to an end even after an especially long Halloween Saturday, and although death’s cruel mockery of us never seems to end, let us remember we wake and gather today in the light of another Sunday morning.

It was another Sunday morning when the women went to another tomb and they did not have to call into the darkness because he had already left it. By that point he had already conquered it and had emerged and was waiting for them, to call out their name. The raising of Lazarus is but a foretaste, you see, of that great new day that is coming when God’s selfless love in Jesus triumphs over all the world’s darkness.

Irish rock band U2 sings in one of their earliest songs words which I’ve always thought would serve as as a perfect hymn for All Saints Sunday:                         

October and the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear.
What do I care?

October and kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on and on.

Yes, because of the cross of Jesus, God goes on and on. His love never ends, and those who have died believing in his name rest in that promise.

My friends, we may dry our tears and uncover our noses, for the kingdoms of grief and sorrow fall. All Hallow’s Eve is finally ended, and we gather in the light of the resurrection. And with those who’ve gone before us we may wait in confidence that he will one day call our names into the dark and make all things new again: Jim, Brenna, Brenda, Kitty, Barbara, Fred, Russell, Harriett, Ron, Dennis, Cora, and while we’re at it, add to that number Samuel Lang Bolick. He may be small, but is is wet, too, his life just unfolding. All the saints…a whole host of characters who we may really aspire to be, the living and the dead, joined in Christ the victorious, who goes on and on.



Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Ghosts in our Machines” by Matthew J. X. Malady in The New Yorker. October 22, 2015

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