11-4-18 - All Saints Sunday - “Unbound and Let Loose!”
As I was studying and preparing to craft this message this week, I came across a reflection from Rev. David Lose that impacted greatly my thinking about this day and this scripture. His reflection forms the foundation of my message and reflection with you today.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth,
and the meditation of our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight,
our Rock and our Redeemer.
Our readings for today are the traditional lectionary scriptures for All Saints Sunday, Year B. And I say All Saints Sunday as opposed to All Saints DAY because All Saints Day is always November 1st, the day following Halloween. All Saints Day only falls on a Sunday every few years or so.I also remember that All Saints Day is November 1st because November 1st was my mother’s birthday and she was a saint - she HAD to be to have put up with my siblings… and perhaps me.
But we may wonder, why this story of the raising of Lazarus for All Saints Sunday? And this question takes on greater urgency, and perhaps more thoughtful consideration, in light of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg last weekend. And it gives rise to other questions as well.
Why does this passage matter? Or, does it matter at all? What does it say not just to this festival of All Saints but to our life in this chaotic and violent world?
Why this quaint festival of remembrance at all, for that matter? How does what we do speak into, let alone help, in a time of such polarization, fear, and hatred?
So as we consider together the enormity of these questions, I want to invite you to think about them from a different angle this morning, and perhaps raise some other questions as well.
First, why this passage on All Saints?
And with that, which character in this story, if any, helps us understand what it means to be a saint? Is it Mary, her heart grief-stricken, who gives voice to not simply a question but a lament, even an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Perhaps Mary represents all those who come to church on All Saints Sunday heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming.
Or is it Martha, who had asked the same question as her sister Mary only moments earlier, and then saw her question and grief transformed into a courageous confession, not simply about resurrection in general –
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” – but a particular confession in Jesus, the one who intentionally delayed coming as her brother died, yet who promised her life here and now: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Perhaps Martha stands for all those whose faith in Jesus seems incredibly resilient and who serve as both witness and encouragement for the rest of us.
Or perhaps we should focus should on Lazarus, the one Jesus called forth from the tomb. Lazarus is Jesus’ seventh, final, and – until Jesus’ own resurrection – greatest of Jesus’ seven signs recorded in John. Remember, the number seven in scripture signifies, wholeness, completion, even perfection. Lazarus stands as the promise of Jesus literally embodied, one whom death had taken…but couldn’t hold onto. He serves as a reminder of and testimony to Jesus’ power over even death and each of us has met people who have come through such difficult circumstances that they may well serve as a contemporary Lazarus for us.
Of course, the character of greatest interest in this story is Jesus, the one who gives life, who calls us out of not just death, but even our fear of death.
The one who weeps for Lazarus and his sisters and, I think, for those who stand by and neither understand nor believe in God’s promise of life.
The one who, in raising Lazarus, starts the chain of events that will lead to his own death (11:53). The one, finally, whom death itself cannot contain.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus promises Martha earlier in this story (11:25), and then demonstrates his fidelity first by raising Lazarus and then again and more fully on Easter morning.
Any of these characters might help us understand anew the importance of the promise of resurrection that stands at the center of all our Sunday celebrations but that is perhaps even more prominent on the Sunday of All Saints. We could focus on any of them briefly, identifying with one and hearing the promise of Jesus addressed to them. We could…
But today, I would direct our gaze to one more place at the end of this story, to one more person or, really, persons: those in the crowd who witnessed Lazarus resurrection and to whom Jesus commands: “Unbind him, and let him go!”
This part of the story is particularly intriguing, even compelling, because it reminds us that even God’s work of resurrection is not quite complete without our participation, without our being caught up in the act itself. It’s not so much that God needs us to do God’s work of resurrection, it’s that God’s work of resurrection isn’t limited simply to those whose life is renewed in the moment - in this case, Lazarus - but finds its fulfillment as it also catches up, impacts, even transforms those who witness and are drawn into it.
“Unbind him, and let him go!” Jesus commands. This is 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’s a promise that resurrection isn’t simply a matter of “then,” some point in a distant future (think of Martha’s mention of the Day of Resurrection) but is also and equally a matter of “now.” Now there is something to do. Now we find courage to live amid fear. Now we sense God’s promise of life helping us not only live in the shadow of death with confidence but also resist the power of death that we concede too, perhaps, too quickly.
God’s promise of resurrection isn’t an invitation to deny death – the death rate is and always has been, and always will be 100% - as the sign says, “Nobody gets out alive!” But God’s promise of resurrection does grant us both the permission and power to defy it: to defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives, to deny death’s threat that there is nothing else, to deny those who believe that because they have the ability to inflict death - with pipe bomb sent in the mail, by shooting up schools, Kroger stores, or synagogues - that they are somehow the most powerful people on earth. They are not.
In fact… they are among the weakest. This story, and the Easter story that it prefigures, promises that death does not have the last word, and therefore that we are free to live now, to struggle now, to sacrifice now, to encourage others never to give up now, to live out of love rather than hate now, and to have our actions directed by hope rather than fear…now!
In light of God’s resurrection promise, death no longer terrifies us, not the death of the loved ones we remember on this day, nor our own. But, and just as importantly, because of God’s resurrection promise, the life we share in this world here and now no longer terrifies us either. The massacre of innocents, the incessant drumbeat of the politics of fear and division, the ongoing and on-growing rhetoric of hate – these are heart wrenching elements of our life in the world, but they. do. not. have. the. last. word. either. And they are not the final reality.
In the story, we read that Jesus weeps. And we may wonder why, knowing that he is going to raise Lazarus to new life in a matter o minutes. Why does Jesus weep? He weeps because he knows that the pain, the grief and loss of death, of violence, of hatred is painful to endure. He weeps because he has come alongside us in full and complete compassion for the hurt that comes with life.
But prompted by God’s promise of resurrection - both now and on that day - we can stand against those who wield death, fear, and hatred. We can hold onto each other even as we live amidst them. And we can offer a testimony, rooted in life and in love, that counters their broken and distorted testimony of the world.
So this Sunday, we give thanks for those saints who have gone before us – those we remember, grieve, and for whom we celebrate their place now in the presence of God. But we also give thanks for those saints sitting here, in front of us, behind us, and beside us, who have heard the word of resurrection and now are called by that same Jesus to unbind all those we encounter who are bound by the fear of death. Called to unbind and to let go those struggling to find hope. We are invited this week – always, of course, but especially this week – to remember and celebrate that the God who raised Jesus from the dead still needs us, wants us, invites us to participate in, extend, and even complete God’s resurrection work by caring for, standing with, and lending our courage to those who are suffering and grieving, those who are most vulnerable and in need.
We have here in our midst today, I believe, a veritable host of saints who, while you are here amongst us and not yet in heaven, have work to do, a call to answer, a resurrection life to lead - here and now. “Unbind him, unbind her, and let them go!” is both our mandate and our marching orders, for the God who answered Jesus’ prayer in bringing Lazarus forth from the tomb, the God who raised Jesus from death, the God who promises us life eternal… this God is not finished yet! And we are the instruments of God’s resurrection life, grace, and power here and now. For in Jesus Christ, we too, are unbound and let loose. Amen.