Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
When 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus 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.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Laz’arus, come out!” 44 The 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.”
Today we get to gather visibly and intentionally with those who have come before us and who formed or guided or shaped us in some way. Some of these people have passed away and some are living still – as you can see. Some are well known and officially honored by the church, and some are well known and beloved only by us. Some are good and some tried their best to be good. Some made us grow in freedom and love and some, perhaps, cramped or wounded us, at least for a time. Some we adore, some we still struggle to understand — and this day insists that every one of them is important, every one of them blessed, and every one of them who is no longer with us, is now – thanks be to God – perfected through eternal union with Jesus-who-is-love and who is both the source and destination of us all.
This great and vibrant and diverse community of humans is known by the church as “The Communion of Saints” which is such a lovely phrase, I think…and which the prayer book defines as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ…” And so it is.
This morning, then, we are invited to welcome each other, as always, in all our humanity and complexity and fullness – and also to welcome all those who made us who we are and brought us to this place and this time, together. We are invited, first, to give thanks for them, for sure, and to claim them as our own, but also to simply sink into the truth of their reality in our lives for a bit, to spend a little time with them in prayer and with each other.
It can be hard to do this, to sink into the truth of the people we have loved and lost I mean. And especially this year, when the losses have been so enormous, it feels even harder. Who here lost someone they loved during this strange expanding/ telescoping COVID time?
Many of you, I see. And I did too. Since March 2020, my family lost my aunt, my mother and one beloved cousin – none from COVID, but all during COVID, and COVID, of course, colored all of their deaths in one way or another, as it has colored everything really for the past year and a half.
Did you notice that last week we reached a new milestone – passing for the first time the terrible marker of a three-quarters-of-a-million people dead from the disease in this country alone? It boggles the mind, and dims it too, because it is simply too much to take in. Three-quarters-of-a-million people! But even if we can’t fully absorb it, the raw fact of loss on this scale takes a toll, I think. And, like it or not, we are none of us the same as we were in those so innocent days prior to March of last year.
So let’s start there. On this All Saints Day, let’s settle for a moment and for once let ourselves sink a bit into what so often goes unacknowledged – that we are a nation, and a state, and a church, and a congregation in a protracted state of grief; that we are tired. And we are sad. And then we are tired again…
Does this sound something like at least part of the truth?
Well – the good news is that at least we are not alone. The tiredness and the grief are real, and I don’t want to take away from that, but rather to more deeply acknowledge it. It’s just that whenever we stop pushing it all away some place, pretending that the fear and the doubt and the lonliness aren’t there, which is to say: whenever we dare sit just as we are sitting now and allow ourselves – even for a few minutes – to feel the truth of all that is going on, both internally and around us… Well, in that moment we’ll be almost as close as its possible to come to Jesus himself. Listen:
“When Jesus saw (Mary) weeping, and the people who came with her also weeping he was greatly disturbed in spirit, and deeply moved. He said Where have you laid (my dear friend Lazarus)? They said to him “Lord come and see” and Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus began to weep.
It’s so heart breaking to lose even one person you love. And so disturbing – even to the spirit. And for a time we must weep with Jesus for all this world has lost these past many months – if only because, just practically speaking, we will never be able to rise again until we first let ourselves fall…
Think of it — even Jesus is undone by death for a time. Jesus, who is God, undone. He has no words, he has no solutions, he has – it seems – nothing but the truth of the loss of this one beloved friend, Lazarus, and it’s all he can do to simply stand there and weep, and weep, and weep. And this wasn’t an aberration or a mistake, I don’t believe. He didn’t weep despite the fact that he was God, but because of it. Because the weeping and the being undone and the lostness was all essential – to Jesus personally and also to his mission. He had to feel what he felt, and he had to express what he felt as best he could, in the company of others who were feeling the same, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t have been able to accept the truth of his loss — and so would never have been able to turn it around, by which I mean, to grasp life out of the heart of death, and hope, and newness and even joy.
Lazarus was dead. This was the first thing. Dead for four days and beyond hope of waking up. Truly dead. And before anything else – before any hope of new life, or restoration, or reconnection, or release – Jesus first had to join his community in their grief and collapse. For a time, at least, he had to do nothing but weep.
And as for Jesus, so also for us. Not only once, but regularly, it is important – perhaps even essential – to take the time to stop and remember the truth of those we have loved and lost both personally and communally and to grieve, and maybe even to weep, and ultimately, with God’s help to give thanks for all they were and are to us – and to step out into our futures on this earth again both strengthened and supported by their ongoing presence within and among and around us.
Their journey is no more ended than Lazarus’ of course – their lives are “not ended but changed,” the prayer book says. And here’s the thing: when they die, even three-quarters-of-a-million of them, our lives are not ended but changed also. Like them, we have – every single one of us – whole worlds, and realms to discover and grow into and be curious about still…
And the way I see it, none of this will be possible – not really, or at least not fully – without the power and the faith and the prayers and the struggles and the mistakes and the courage and the sheer, raw life-force of all these people we see here – and of the whole communion of saints, known and unknown who we have – each in our own way, unbound and let go of.
So let’s spend a little time with them now.
Let’s Look at the faces of the men and the women here.
Let’s dare settle a little and think of just one person who you know and loved and lost and love still.
Think of the specific and particular ways this person loved you.
Think of the gifts they gave you – all of them: the laughter, the arguments, the quiet moments… the raucous moments.
Think of their own particular strengths – name three.
Think of their vulnerabilities and the places they perhaps needed help.
And now think of them just sitting alone in a room, without anyone there, at all. Think of them alone in a quiet place that they loved, resting, regrouping, restoring themselves for whatever was next. Think of them in their own private way praying – praying for you.
And give thanks. If you can, give thanks for them…and then, from that place of love and openness and life – say ‘amen’ to their life. Say ‘amen’ which is ‘yes’, to these saints of your own life, and also to yourselves, and to your life just as it is right now, and to whatever might come next for you, with their help … ‘Amen’ to all that is still unknown to us, and invisible, and unimaginable.
Say ‘amen’ if you can – and then – slowly, gently – open your eyes, and look around, and say ‘amen’ to each other too – to this living ‘Communion of Saints’ which is so much bigger and deeper and richer than meets the eye. Look around, and let yourself see – and say “amen.”