All Saints’ has to be one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I’ve heard it described as “a little Easter in the middle of fall.” It is like a little Easter–but without all the extra tiredness that accompanies Holy Week. It is a chance to celebrate the resurrection and what that means in our lives and in the lives of those who have died. Often, we talk of God’s promises for “after we die.” But those promises ought to affect our lives right now, too.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Many of you know, from conversations in Bible Study and other places, that I’m not a huge fan of the King James Version of the Bible. It was written back in the seventeenth century, and, well, it sounds like it. I appreciate its beauty and its poetry, but sometimes I feel like that very beauty often obscures what the words are trying to get across.
But with this week’s gospel from John, I have to say the King James gets it right. When Jesus tells them to take away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, instead of his sister Martha replying “already there is a stench,” in the King James, she simply blurts out, “But Lord, he stinketh!”
He stinketh! Truer words were never spoken. Death really stinks. It literally stinks, as bodies decompose. Martha would know this better than most, as she and her sister Mary were probably the ones who prepared Lazarus’ body for burial. They washed him, they wrapped him in his burial shroud. They knew what state his body was in. These are tasks we no longer do ourselves, leaving them to professionals.
But no matter how far we distance ourselves from the literal stench of death, we cannot escape the reality that death still stinks. Even if we don’t have to smell the body, death stinks. Losing ones that we love is painful and heartrending. Even if it’s what we call a “good death,” someone who lived a long life and died peacefully. It still stinks because they’re still gone. And when the death seems to just be wrong—sudden, unexpected, gone much too soon—well, then it really stinketh.
All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember all of the faithful departed, and especially remember those we loved who have died this past year, this a day to acknowledge the reality that death stinks. That death hurts. That in death we lose something very dear to us.
It’s okay for us to weep with Jesus. It’s okay for us to wish that it had been prevented, like Mary and Martha. It’s okay for us to feel blame, to feel anger, to feel resentment. It’s okay to grieve. There’s so many emotions in this story of the raising of Lazarus. Because grief brings out our most honest, most visceral feelings. And that is a part of what All Saints’ Day is about.
But All Saints’ is also about something more than grief. It is about more than just the reality of death. It is about the promise that right there in the midst of death, God is at work bringing new life. We mourn those who are lost to us, but we also celebrate that in God we have the final victory. That death does not get the last word.
All Saints’ Day is a day to be honest about the reality of death, but it is also a day to be honest about the reality of God’s promises. And those promises come right in the midst of the reality and pain of death. In these beautiful passages that we heard from Isaiah and Revelation, where they say that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, that God will swallow up death forever, that tears will be wiped away, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and that God will live in our very midst.
Both of these passages, with beautiful words of hope and reassurance and comfort, both of them were written in the middle of death and grief and tragedy. Isaiah was speaking to a people who had just been conquered, whose holy temple had been destroyed, whose loved ones were scattered to the winds or lying dead in the ground. And yet he speaks words of hope of the day when all peoples and nations shall come together.
The church that Revelation was written to was being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Everyday more of their companions were being killed for being Christian. It was not safe to be a member of the church. But John still writes of a day when all creation, all peoples, will be renewed, will be restored. John writes of God entering into this world of persecution, and brokenness, and pain to bring new life.
Our world is full of death. Some of it, we experience on a personal level, those people whose lives have touched ours, that we now no longer have. But death hangs over us all, as we live in a world that seems guided more by hate and by fear than by love. Every day people seek to use fear and hate to divide us, to demonize other human beings, and to justify inconceivable acts. We do not have to look far or hard to find the stench of death.
But Jesus interrupts death with a word of life. He says to Lazarus, “Come out.” Come out of the tomb, and he says to the community to release him from the very shroud of death. Isaiah and Revelation they interrupt the death and destruction all around them to say that there is something more than this. That God is stronger than even this.
God’s promise of resurrection does not mean that we can deny the reality of death. But it does grant us the power to defy it. To defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives. To defy death’s threat there is nothing else, no other way of being. Death does not get the last word. And we do not have to wait to live as resurrected people. God’s promises of life, of comfort, of all creation being renewed, they are for the here and now.
Isaiah and Revelation and even Jesus offer us visions of what will be. But they are visions that we cling to as God’s promise for us, right now, not someday. Right now God calls us from our tombs of darkness and fear to be renewed people. In Christ we see the God who is victor over death, and we are able to live as though the eternal were right now. Because in life and in death, we belong to God. We live as resurrected people right now. We live as people who hold to God’s promises of life, right now. We live as gift to a world that desperately needs to hear that death doesn’t get the last word, that death does not win.
I will leave you on this All Saints’ Sunday with a poem by theologian Jan Richardson:
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day–
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead–
but this day,