A Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

Today, November 1, is the Feast of All Saints. The collect and scriptures for today can be found here. The lectionary appoints John 11:23-44 as the gospel. As permitted by the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer I lengthened the gospel to begin at verse 17.

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

– John 11:17-44

Today’s gospel hits close to home for me – too close. I know this story well. My son, Brandon, died one month ago today. I do not just know about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There is a part of me that is each one of them. I am Mary – the one who stays at home, not wanting to get out, go anywhere, or do anything. I just want to hide from it all.

I am Martha with all my “if onlys.” If only I had done…. If only I had said…. If only I could turn back time. If only you, Lord,…. There are so many ways in which I fill in the blank that follows “if only…..”

And I am also Lazarus stuck in the tomb of my grief, tied up and surrounded by the stench of death, unable to free myself and escape.

I hope you know, however, that this is not about only me. Today’s gospel is as much about each one of you as it is me. It is about every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of loss, grief, and sorrow. And it is not just about the death of a loved one. Loss and grief come to us in many other ways as well – the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. I suspect that every one of you can name the losses and deaths you have suffered and how you too are Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

You see, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus embody the human response to death, loss, and grief in whatever form it comes to us. Like Mary we hide from the present. Like Martha we live in the past. And like Lazarus we can see no future. But Jesus will not leave us where we are just as he would not leave Mary, Martha, or Lazarus where they were. He calls each of us out into a new place.

St. Mary is called out of the house to the feet of the one who is resurrection and life. St. Martha is called out of the past to see the glory of God here, now, in this present moment. And St. Lazarus is called out of the tomb to see the light of a new day. With each calling out all things are being made new.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. All along this journey we are supported by their prayers and encouragement.

On this journey of mine I see St. Anthony of Egypt trusting the silence and solitude and I take a step forward. I hear St. Julian of Norwich remind me, “all shall be well, all shall be well, every manner of thing shall be well” and I take another step. I feel the hug of St. Brandon of Texas and I take still another. We never walk alone. The saints are with us every step of the way – calling, guiding, comforting, encouraging, loving, and praying.

And so this All Saints’ Day we remember with thanksgiving and honor all the saints who have gone before us, all those with whom God has knit us together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of his Son Christ our Lord.

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For All the Saints

9 thoughts on “A Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

  1. “…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. …”

    That particular section of the scripture jumped out at me today as it was read. In the past, I’ve always been focused on the tomb part of the story. Today howerver, I heard it saying that the miracle event was for the crowd(the live), not Lazarus (the dead). Everyhing was already okay, all was good; they just couldn’t see it. All too often we get focused in the wrong direction, looking only into the tomb, seeing only death and forget the ressurection.

    Great sermon.

    Peace,
    Cash

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  2. Another saint recently pointed this out to me:

    Notice how Jesus instructed the saints around Lazarus to take off his grave clothes and let him go.

    Jesus continues to do this today– he tells all the saints around us to peel off our grave clothes so we can emerge from our tomb.

    So when one of our brothers or sisters speaks the gospel to us in our guilt, they are peeling off the death shroud.

    Or when one of our brothers or sisters confronts us with our hardness or idolatry, they peel off the shroud.

    Life as a Christian is a big unwrapping party.

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    • Judd, I think you are right that part of our own spiritual growth involves stripping away the things that bind us. Interesting that the ones to whom Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go” likely were the ones who originally bound him in the graves clothes. I wonder if in unbinding him they also unbound something in themselves. Peace, Mike

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  3. Thank you for the reminder that the mourners and the one in the tomb are me too, that Christ still weeps and still calls just as lovingly for each of us as did he for his friends long ago. Every moment is new.

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  4. A great sermon, Mike. I recently heard a phrase from Jane Patterson that sticks with me: “We need to develop the discipline of hope.” Your words helped in that.
    It also helped me remember that we are a community – all of whom have shared losses although it especially painful to lose one as young as Brandon and I continually hold you and Cyndy in my prayers and thoughts.

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