The Incarnate Son of God is with us now, offering life on this side of the grave, promising to be our life and joy in the bleak ugliness of a world of death, and giving us our song of Alleluia.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, All Saints Sunday, year B; texts: John 11:(17-31) 32-44; Revelation 21:1-6; Isaiah 25:6-9
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This is a day when we speak of death like no other except perhaps Easter Day itself. We gather to worship, as we always do, with those who have died and are at rest in this nave, at the side of our gathering space. We gather to worship, as we always do, with those saints who have gone before us and surround the throne of God, sharing our praise and our worship. We gather to worship, and on this day we sing of those saints of times past and of our past, icons of the faith and loved ones who taught us the faith, and we remember that they even now live in the presence of the God whom we have gathered once more to worship this day. And in this space it’s a beautiful thing: beautiful sights, beautiful music, beautiful words, beautiful smells, beautiful people whose embrace of peace gives us life. Our celebration of all the saints who from their labors rest is one of the more beautiful liturgies we do every year.
But this is a day when we speak of death like no other except perhaps Easter Day itself. And on this day we hear Martha of Bethany speak a truth that is not beautiful, it is ugly. On this day we encounter two sisters who see nothing but grief and sadness, anger and disappointment, not beauty and joy. Martha’s truth is the reason: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Nothing can sugarcoat her reality, no words, no song, no beauty. Her brother sickened, suffered, struggled, and died. And now he rots, and he smells. And if the Lord Jesus doesn’t understand that, Martha thinks, well, someone ought to remind him.
This is a day when we speak of death like no other except perhaps Easter Day itself. So let us not forget what dear Martha said, the truth about this death we all face. It is ugly. It smells. It terrifies us. It is absence, not presence. Helplessness, not strength. There are tears. It disrupts our lives, causes us to wake at night in a sweat. Whether it’s the sudden death of a dear brother in Christ from our midst, or the unspeakable tragedy of hundreds dying at the waves of an incomprehensible storm, or the lingering, painful dying of someone we love, or the catastrophe of children lacking enough food to see their fifth birthday or even their first, there is little beautiful about death for us. We cannot live a day without the presence of death, and to be honest, the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead 2,000 years ago really has no meaning for us today. Good for him. Good for Lazarus. But we stand at gravesides in so many ways in our lives, the people we connect with in this story are these two sisters. Because they, like us, are on this side of the grave. They, like us, have faced the ugliness of death. They, like us, have questions of Jesus, the Son of God.
These two beautiful sisters help us. And they help us in the way they are different from each other.
Martha, the bold one, the one who is unafraid to speak up about her sister when she’s not helping with the dinner for their guest, Martha reaches the depths of her anger and disappointment in her pain. She comes out on the road to confront Jesus, her Lord and master, the one in whom she hoped. She is so angry that her brother died, as we all can be, but she is the more angry because she believes Jesus has caused this death by his indifference.
Her disappointment and wrath are palpable as she goes to meet him, not waiting for him to arrive at their house: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Death faced them, their beloved brother suffered, and they had sent word to the only One whom they knew could help. They’d seen him heal others, this would be easy for him. But he blew it. He didn’t care. He didn’t come. And now my brother lies dead, and he stinks. And all this stinks, Jesus.
Mary, the quiet one, the one who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen while her sister banged pots in the kitchen in annoyance with her, Mary reaches the depths of her sadness and disappointment in her pain. She does not come out to meet Jesus at first. She remains in the house, overcome by grief. She weeps in her loss and pain, unable to speak, unable to do anything. And only when he calls for her does she come out to see him.
Then her sadness spills out, her disappointment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Death faced them, their beloved brother suffered, and they had sent word to the only One whom they knew could help. They’d seen him heal others, this would be easy for him. But he didn’t come. And Lazarus died. And Mary can only weep.
And for us, our grief and fear at death moves between the anger and sadness of these sisters. But mostly, we share their disappointment: if Jesus is who we say he is, if he is the Son of God, if he truly loves us and can heal, then how can all this happen? If the Triune God has created a beautiful world, and given us all we need, and loves us enough to become one of us, then how can any of this be allowed? Why all this ugliness, this stench, this desolation that seems to pervade the world?
Isaiah says it well, it’s as if there’s a great death-shroud spread over the entire world, and if we sometimes get glimpses of sunshine and light, it’s only when there’s a brief tear in the fabric.
What is so powerful about Martha is her clarity of what she thinks she needs at this point.
Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He says, “Your brother will rise again.” And isn’t this the promise we always remember? There will be a resurrection. There is life in the world to come. It’s the promise of Isaiah, and of Revelation today. It’s the promise of Easter Day, the resurrection of Jesus himself, which promises life for us all after death. That in the days to come, on the mountain of the Lord, in the new creation, the Lord will make all things new, will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. This is the salvation we have waited for, says Isaiah, says us.
Martha wants to hear none of this. Not now. She is still on this side of the grave, and has no interest in a future promise, at least not right now. She says to Jesus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But she seems to suggest that doesn’t do anything for her problem with Jesus.
And perhaps that’s an honesty we would admit if we could. As much as we believe and hope in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, and so we do, there are times when that hope doesn’t seem sufficient to counter the ugliness of today. When we, like Martha, aren’t terribly helped by promises such as Isaiah and the Revelation give today.
It’s not that we don’t believe that we will be together in eternal life after we die. Certainly we do. Certainly Martha does. It’s just that right now we’re not there. We’re grieving, or angry, or disappointed with God. We’re struggling with senseless tragedies and painful losses of loved ones. And hope for the future sometimes doesn’t seem like enough.
Yes, yes, that’s beautiful, we say with Martha. But we’re in the midst of the ugly right now. What will you do about that, Lord?
And since we’re standing with the sisters, let’s look where they are looking. Let’s look into the face of Jesus when we ask that question, and see, and open our ears and hear.
Because Jesus’ most important acts in this story happen before he ever gets them to roll the stone from Lazarus’ tomb. Here are the really important things he does for them and for us:
He stands unafraid of Martha’s anger and disappointment and meets her where she needs to be met. You have theological questions, Martha? Let me give you one, he says. What if you understood that I AM the resurrection and the life, and that you have life in me now and always, even if you die, and if you believe in me you will never die?
He isn’t just talking about resurrection at the end time, because Martha wants more than that. And he gives her more. He promises that trusting in him regardless of apparent circumstances, regardless of how ugly things seem, will mean life, even on this side of the grave. And he asks Martha if she believes this.
But he also stands unafraid of Mary’s paralyzing sadness and disappointment and meets her where she needs to be met. He doesn’t offer her theological argument, because Mary doesn’t want that. He stands with her, loves her. And weeps with her.
And in so doing he puts into action what he was telling Martha: that he will never leave us alone on this side of the grave, and he will grieve with us, and weep at the ugliness and stench of this broken world alongside us. And that he will bless us and our grief by being present with us in it. By being resurrection and life in the midst of an ugly, dead world.
And you know what? As we stand with these sisters, then the question put to Martha in words and to Mary in presence is now put to us: is this enough? Do you believe?
Do you believe, says the Lord, that I love you enough not to abandon you here in this ugliness? That not only do I hold your loved ones and all the dead in my arms and raise them to everlasting life, but I come to be with you now, and will never leave you?
Do you believe that I am here in this place as you worship, blessing you with beautiful words, beautiful music, beautiful smells, beautiful sights, beautiful people to embrace you with peace, because that gift of beauty can help you through the ugliness?
Do you believe, says the Lord, that I actually come to you in that bit of bread and wine, that it’s me, your Resurrection and your Life, and that through that meal together you are fed by my life and sustenance and you are sharing that meal even with all those who have gone before you? That my Word is alive and active in this place and in your lives and will lead and guide you into all truth, truth that frees and gives you life?
Do you believe this? Jesus says to us. Is it enough? he asks.
John the seer heard these words in his vision, a voice coming from the throne of God himself, words he shares with us today: “See, the home of God is among mortals. “He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” And the Son of God says to us today, Do you realize that this vision is not just of the future but of the present? That I am with you always, now, on this side of the grave? That the home of the Triune God is among you, and God is living with you now?
This is Jesus’ answer to the sisters, and to us: I was here when Lazarus was sick, and died. And I am here now, with you. And in every way that matters I will always be with you, because this is where I am home, with you. And I will hold you and bless you in the midst of all suffering and pain that this ugly world has, until you can see its beauty as I do.
This is a day when we speak of death like no other except perhaps Easter Day itself.
And we speak truthfully of the ugliness of death, but it does not overwhelm us or destroy us, because of Easter Day itself. Because this Jesus, our Lord, the Son of God, has destroyed death’s power and is able to keep the promise he made to those sisters and to us, to be with us here, on this side of the grave, until it is our time to go to our own rest.
Because the home of God is among mortals, and it is here we need our tears wiped and our questions answered, here we need the gift of trust and faith in the One who did not stay away but has come to be with us always. So that it is more true than anything we know that we say, “even at the grave we sing our song: Alleluia. Alleluia.” And it is beautiful. More beautiful than we ever could have imagined.
In the name of Jesus. Amen