All Saints Day 11/01/09

John 11:32-44

Today is a rarity in the life of the church, an opportunity to talk about death without the occasion of a funeral.  Today is an opportunity to mourn and celebrate those who have gone before us, to think about life after death, and to address the fascination and fear that all of us have with death.  Today is All Saints Day, which directly follows All Hallows Eve or the Day of the Dead.  Now lots of churches celebrate All Saints Day the Sunday after Halloween wherever it falls during the week, but it just so happens that this year Halloween fell on a Saturday and so All Saints Day falls on a Sunday, today.  There is a rich history behind the holiday called Halloween going back centuries.  It was believed that on that day, the dead spirits were given license to roam the earth again.[1]  Sometimes those spirits played tricks on the living and so the living decided for that day, to join the spirits in the revelry.  People donned masks and costumes that they felt resembled the dead spirits so that they might blend in and go unnoticed that night.  When the next day dawned, the people breathed a sigh of relief for having endured the night (I know several parents who feel that way after trick or treating!)  But they also breathed a sigh of relief that they were among the living spirits.

A Cultural Fascination

The church may want to distance itself from Halloween – this holiday that seems to celebrate bad spirits.  Aside from Christmas, Halloween is the biggest holiday in North America.   Walk through any store and there are ghosts, goblins, bats, spider webs, pumpkins and more either being sold or decorating the walls for the season.  This is a major cultural event here and you can see it in our movies, our books, and our TV shows.  Vampires are main characters in the Twilight Series that is a popular young adult book and now a movie.  Halloween Town and Wizards at Waverly Place on Disney is more appropriate for a younger crowd, making magic and the battle between good and evil less scary.  Even shows that my 2-year old Sam likes feature ghosts and jacketty-lanterns (Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie).  I could spend even more time recounting the scary movies like Friday the 13th, Scream, etc. that make going through haunted houses fun and scary at the same time.

The reclaiming of the battle of good vs. evil

The church does not distance itself from Halloween.  Instead, it claims the day after as a time to celebrate those who have lived and died – those saints that have gone before us and taught us about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to struggle with and be faithful.  I think, however, that these two events are a little too separated …. What does All Saints Day have to do with Halloween?  What does the Christian faith have to say about dying and death? 

For one thing, the battle is not between living and dying.  Looking at it from that perspective claims that death is evil and death is the enemy.  Even death cannot separate us from the love of God.  This is what Mary and Martha and the onlookers struggle with in this passage in John.

Before our passage begins, Jesus is told about Lazarus.  His illness is severe and death is close, but Jesus waits an extra two days before going to attend to this family that he loves so much.   When he does arrive on the scene, people have several reactions:  some are impressed with the depth of his emotional response (Jesus wept), others wonder if Lazarus’ death was really necessary (if Jesus had only gotten there sooner.)  They are consumed with the questions that haunt many of us when we encounter tragedy: was this necessary?  And Jesus’ response seems to tell us that these things happen for a reason … a response that is very frustrating to me.  I imagine, however, that Jesus had several things going on at once in this situation.  Perhaps Jesus chose to come late, but perhaps he himself didn’t quite understand why he was held up.  Jesus had warring emotions of guilt and distress within him, and to be honest, Jesus was mad.  Like many of us today, Jesus found himself in the position in which he had to wear several different hats at the same time:

1)      He was a close friend of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  He loved this family and these individuals.  As a human, he felt the loss of his friend just as much as those around him.  His grieving was genuine, and he stood with that family in their pain, sharing in their pain.

2)      He was also a prophet and teacher to these people, and he is trying to help them understand his role as the Son of Man.  Even while he feels some difficult human emotions, he is also trying to convey a theological truth, a God lesson to all those who will hear.

That would be enough to make me distressed.  But there’s someone else that we should be identifying with in this passage.  Certainly many of us are like Mary and Martha and the Jews, mourning and trying desperately to understand what Christ’s presence means for us.  But what if we are Lazarus in this passage?

How are we like Lazarus?

What parts of our lives have we buried, covered in shrouds and enshrined in tombs so that we do not see or address them?  Imagine, if you will, that you are dead – you have no sensory experiences or thoughts.  One moment, you are surrounded by the strong smells and sights of this world, and the next everything is blank.  You don’t even have a sense of time passing or any sense of emotions …. Until you hear Jesus calling you “Lazarus, come out!”  You start and suddenly you feel the cool, damp stone of the tomb.  You stumble towards the light of the door, blinded momentarily by the sharp, bright light.  As the shroud is removed from your body, you slowly begin to focus on the world around you.  You see Jesus, the man responsible for your new life, and you recognize your sisters nearby, their tear-stained faces alight with wonder and fear.

What is Lazarus’ life like after he has been raised from the dead?  He is marked as different, separated from the crowd.  People whisper about him, and wonder what really happened that day, curious if it was just a hoax or real.  Every day for the rest of his life, Lazarus must try to explain what has happened to him, justify why he was worth bringing back.  What is it about him that made him the person Jesus would use his power to save?

We all are Lazarus.  We, Christians, have heard Jesus calling us to leave our tombs, step into the light, and live a new kind of life.  Every day we must puzzle out what has happened to us in our encounter with Christ.  Every day we must answer why we are worth saving.  And every day we must realize that we are the same as everyone else – all of us are brought to new life in Christ.  We are healed, forgiven, made whole, and made anew in the image of an incredible man who stood at death’s graveside, and wielded a power that only God can.

I am the resurrection and the life.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  When we come to Jesus, and accept this resurrection we are dying to our old life and we are joining a host of saints who have lived in Christ.  “All Saints’ Day began as a day to honor Christians who were martyred in the Roman persecutions. Over time, it has been transformed into an opportunity to honor all departed Christians … So while this day has become one in which many congregations remember those who have died, the texts for this day call us to remember them not simply as having “gone to heaven” or “being absent from the body, present with the Lord,” but as those who, with us, have experienced God’s power to defeat death here and now, as well as in the age to come.” [2]

The resurrection of Lazarus reminds us of the death and resurrection of Christ.  It reminds us that our new life begins now, today.  We do not wait to arrive in heaven to celebrate the kingdom of God.  We live knowing that death does not stop our relationship with God; and we celebrate God’s power and presence with us every day.

Let us pray, Awe-inspiring God, you inspire us with your ability to balance human emotion and Godly compassion and power when we struggle to be merely human.  As we stumble out of our tombs, help us to focus on you and the new life to which you have brought us.  Keep our sights on you and teach us how to proclaim and believe in your power, both in our living and in our dying.  Amen.


[1] All Saints Day and Halloween.  http://www.piut.org/allsaintsdayb.htm

[2] http://www.gbod.org/worship/default.asp?act=reader&item_id=19864&loc_id=9,612,32,52

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