Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday Sermon for All Saints Day

It was back around Memorial Day weekend, when my husband and I made a trip to Southwestern Minnesota – not to visit relatives, this time, but to visit an historic site that both of us were curious about.
It seemed like we were going to the end of the world, as we drove and drove and drove through farms and prairies, following the directions on the brochure.
At the same time I was very aware that we weren’t that far away from my uncle’s farm,
really, not too far away from the place where my mother had grown up,
not too far away from the place where my grandmother had grown enormous gardens, with cucumbers and strawberries and tomatoes.
We were on our way to what is called the Jefffers Petroglyphs.
Out in the middle of the prairie and farmland are these ancient rocks with etchings on them. The etchings are from 500 to 7,000 years old, they say.

We got there about 11 in the morning, which they told us is not the best time for viewing. The best time, they said, was at sundown.
Then the faint lines come into sharp focus. At this time, near noon, we saw a few images, but mostly had to take it on faith: "That’s a buffalo." "And over here is a thunderbird." "And this is a human hand."

"Do you believe this?"

That was the question that hung in the air, every time our guide pointed at faint scratchings on the rocks.

"Do you believe this?"

That’s also the question that hangs in the air, today, on All Saint’s Day.
It’s the question that Jesus asks Martha when he came to visit them after her brother Lazarus’ death.
Though it comes in a few verses before the text we have in front of us.
"Do you believe this?" he asks Martha. It comes near the end of an exchange with Martha after he has arrived, four days late for the funeral.
Four days late! Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that their brother was ill. Very ill.
And he didn’t come in time to gather around Lazarus’ bed and pray and say goodbye.
And he didn’t come in time to heal Lazarus, the way Jesus had healed so many other people.
And he didn’t even come in time for the funeral. Jesus showed up four days later, after the prayers and the burial, and after the tomb had even been sealed.

Martha says to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ It’s the same thing that Mary will say, just a few verses later.
And how do you suppose, how do you imagine she says these words?
Does she say them in faith, "Lord, I just know that if you had been here, my brother would not have died!"
Or does she say them in anger, "If you had been here, Lord, if you had only been here...." with some more words implied, "But you weren’t here, were you? Where were you?"
And perhaps the truth is, that Martha felt a little bit of both of those things, both trust and anger, and grief too, all residing in the same person.
That’s one of the things I love about this story: Mary and Martha are so real, we can imagine their faith, their anger, their grief.
We can imagine being them.

And Jesus tells Martha, "Your brother will rise again."
And Martha says, "Yes, Lord, I know what you mean, on the last day."
(The day when every tear shall be wiped away, death and crying and pain will be no more....)
And here’s where it all comes together, the next thing that Jesus says to Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"


That’s the question we ask and answer at every funeral, and that’s the question for us today, on All Saints Day, when we name and remember the saints among us who had died in this past year.
That’s the question we ask and answer as we bring our grief, our anger and our faith to the tomb where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
That’s the question we ask and answer as we hear each name: some of them familiar to us, some of them strangers, all of them beloved.
We name the names and trust that these saints are gathered before the throne of God, feasting at God’s banquet table, in the presence of the Lamb.
"I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus says. Incredible words.
"Those who live and believe in me, even though they die, will live.... Do you believe this?"


I love this story because Mary and Martha are so real, and I can imagine, just imagine their voices as they see Jesus, as they kneel in front of Jesus, as they confront Jesus, with their faith, their fear, their grief, their anger.
"Lord, if you have been here?" they say, and I can imagine saying the same things, with every single one of the inflections.
What about you? Have you ever said to God, "Lord, if you had been here.... I just know... that my husband would not have gotten Alzheimers, that my wife would not have Parkinsons disease, that my child would not have cancer, that my father would not have died...."
Mary and Martha are so real, that they could be me, they could be you.
And like all of us, they have come to the graveyard – the place of tears, of suffering. We have all been there, at one time or another.

And then there’s the scene at the tomb – and that’s another story, isn’t it?
The scene at the tomb seems more appropriate to Halloween than to the Bible:
There they are, in front of the tomb, and the stone is rolled away, and Martha (who said she believed) is worried about the smell, the smell of death – so she says "wait a minute!",
but Jesus calls out to Lazarus anyway, and he comes out, still with his graveclothes bound around him, maybe stumbling a little.
Have any of us experienced anything like this in our lives?
And there, at the tomb where there has been death and mourning and crying – suddenly there is life. "Do you believe this?"


In the middle of it all, between Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ tomb -- stands Jesus.
What does he do? He weeps, he prays, he raises the dead. Here is Jesus, in the graveyard, the graveyard where we are, and he is weeping, because he loves us, and he is praying for us.
"Do you believe this?" Yes, we say.
We believe it. Just like Martha and Mary, we believe Jesus’ tears, and his prayers, as he stands between us and Lazarus, between us and death.
And we want to believe that there is a place where there is no more crying, no pain, no more death.
We believe Jesus, as we name the names of those dear to us, and remember their faces, some young some old, and remember the stories of their lives, heroic or ordinary, doubting and faithful: saints.
Who is a saint but one who trusts that Jesus goes with her, even and especially to the graveyard?
And Who is a saint but one who trusts that Jesus goes with him to the graveyard, to the cross, bringing life?
"I am the resurrection and the life," he says, to us, as we stand in the graveyard, or on the prairie in the bright sunlight.
It’s as if he were pointing at an ancient headstone, or perhaps a petroglyph out on the prairie and saying, "Can you see it? I am here, raising the dead. Trust me. The images do show up more clearly at sundown."

I used to say that I got to know a lot of people in my parish after they died, and it still is sometimes true.
It’s not that I never got to know them, but I often heard different stories, stories I never would have heard, and saw different pictures, pictures I never would have seen.
I remember one picture, a young woman in wire-rimmed glasses and a starched nursing uniform. She must have been all of 22 years old, and she was getting ready to cross an ocean.
She served as a nurse in England during World War II, although she never talked much about it.
Her son told me that her unit held 1,000 beds. Can you imagine?
I’m sure she saw many tears, suffering and death. And yet, "I am the resurrection and the life," she believed.
She went to a place where there were graveyards, where there was death, trusting the one who is the resurrection and the life..

This day as we remember and grieve, we also name and commend to God those beloved to us, beloved to God: saints..
We weep as our savior weeps at tombs, we believe and we doubt as Martha and Mary did,
but in the end, and each day, even though we don’t see it, Jesus comes to us, where-ever our tombs may be, and raises us up, and gives us life.
Sometimes, however, the images show up more clearly at sundown.
"Do you believe this?"

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