We walk amongst graves in our lives, living in a world with death, but like Mary we walk with the true God who not only weeps with us, but heals us and the world now and for a life to come.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
All Saints Day
texts: John 11:32-44; Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus and Mary of Bethany walked to Lazarus’ tomb.
It was a cave, with a stone rolled in front of it. This isn’t the last time disciples of Jesus will come to such a place, with such a cave and stone. And like those women on Easter morning, Jesus and Mary come to a place where death is real, permanent, immovable as a boulder.
Today we walk with them to a burial place. Every day we worship here we walk with Mary and Jesus. We worship with the graves of our loved ones beside us, graves we’ve recently filled. We leave communion and pass them again. We worship in a cemetery.
We notice this today more than usual. We take our normal incense, smoke that is our prayer to God, smoke that also honors the presence of God in our midst, and we spread that fragrance at our place of burial. Apart from the feast of the Resurrection and our funeral Eucharists, this is the only time we do this there.
Today we remind ourselves to remember. To remember our loved ones who have died. To remember that we worship in a cemetery because we don’t ever want to forget the truth of our death, and the death of those we love. To remember that we constantly walk on graves, amidst our beloved dead, above those who for centuries have lived and died. After millennia, everywhere we walk is holy ground, sanctified by the dead. Everywhere we walk we walk with Mary and Jesus.
It is good to remember we always walk amongst our graves. Where death is real and permanent. Because it is only at the grave we find the truth that gives us life.
We walk amongst our graves and remember names today, from this year and many, many past years, because it’s essential to our life and our faith.
Our culture too often urges us to move on after death, uncomfortable with grief that isn’t neatly processed, impatient for us to get over the deaths of those we love.
We stubbornly say on this day every year that we don’t intend to get over it. We remember every year because there is grace in remembering, joy in the midst of grief, whether it’s recent or long-standing.
We insist on remembering because as long as we live we want the memory of those we love to be alive in our hearts and minds. We insist on remembering because we hope that when it’s our time to go, others might remember us, that our existence won’t fade quickly after we leave.
We insist on remembering for the same reason Mary and Jesus went to the tomb. Mary went to visit and name her brother, to mourn him, to show Jesus the place. She didn’t expect him to be raised. She did what we’re doing today.
And there, amongst the graves, Mary saw the wonder of what the Triune God can do, a wonder even death cannot stop. When we go where Mary went, we also begin to see.
When we walk amongst our graves like Mary, we see and remember how powerless we are in the face of death.
Mary repeats her sister Martha’s plea, but less angrily. She’s mostly sad and helpless: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” At the implacable stone covering where her brother is laid, Mary can’t see any course of action, anything to do, but weep.
She used to be confident, to know what to do. When Jesus visited, she sat at his feet and listened, filled with joy. She would confidently know what to do later when, as Jesus’ worst week began, she took sweet-smelling oil and anointed him for burial. But in the face of this death, her brother four days buried, she can do nothing but weep.
We walk amongst our graves to remember we’re that helpless. We see systems of oppression, habits of violence and war, world-wide poverty and hunger, and see no way to break them. We see a culture warped with the sins of racism and selfishness, inequalities that tear people apart even in our enlightened, free country. We see things that bind us in our own hearts and keep us from being who God means us to be.
But we walk amongst our graves because death is even more powerful than all of these things. All that sickens this world, all that owns us, all that causes pain and suffering, as intractable as they are, death is more. We walk amongst our graves and remember how powerless we are. We weep with Mary because it’s all we can do.
So when we walk amongst our graves like Mary, we do it because with Mary our tears are welcome.
We may be functioning perfectly well, coping with our grief, finding a way to live without our loved ones, but at times when we remember deeply as we do today, the tears often come, unbidden, uncontrollable.
That’s why we can’t take our eyes off of Jesus today. Jesus stands at Lazarus’ tomb with his grieving and weeping sister and weeps with her. Now, Isaiah, and John in his Revelation, see a future before us where God will wipe every tear from every eye and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
Yet before that happens, while we live on this side of the grave, what does God do? The One who is God-with-us stands with us at the graves of our beloved and weeps with us. The One who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who is making all things new, that One is content to share our grief here, and shed the same tears we shed.
So in that day when the Triune God wipes away all tears from all eyes, our God will first need a tissue for God’s own eyes. This is immeasurably comforting. The true God knows our grief and shares it. Here amongst our graves we are not alone.
But mostly, when we walk amongst our graves like Mary, it’s because Jesus promised we’d see something marvelous.
We need to know we are powerless; we are comforted to know God grieves with us. But we come here because Jesus promised this to Martha and to us: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.”
It is death that is the great power, the end of all possibility, the great unknown; it is death that tells us there’s nothing more we can do. Sometimes we dream, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone who died could come back to life and tell us what to expect, comfort us? That’s what we want. Then we’d know.
Oh . . .
This is why we walk amongst our graves. Because when we come to that other cave, with that other stone, we find it is rolled away, and the cave is empty. We look up from our tears and see our risen Lord standing before us saying, “ See, see . . . I am making all things new.”
We recognize that in becoming as powerless as we are, even going through death itself, our God has destroyed death’s power forever.
We can only see this at the grave. And what this means is stunning.
Amongst our graves we see the empty tomb of Christ Jesus and we are amazed.
Because if even death, the great finality, the great power, is over and done, then all the other powers that plague our world have no chance. All the things that we see no hope in changing are ultimately doomed. So we can begin to work to dismantle them, to heal our society and our world. Because our Lord is alive and is making all things new.
And if even death, the great finality, the great power, is over and done, then all the things that bind us and keep us from our life as children of God have no chance. All the things that own us, lead us astray, keep us from loving God and loving neighbor fully, are ultimately doomed. So we can begin to work to dismantle them, too, to find healing of our hearts and lives to be who we were always meant to be. Because our Lord is alive and is making all things new.
And if death, the great finality, the great power, is over and done, we will not end there, either.
Our hope for those we love is our hope for us: because Christ lives we also will live. Because our Lord is alive and is making all things new.
We worship in a cemetery because here we find hope and joy for the healing of this world, for the healing of our lives, and for the life with God forever that awaits us with those whom we love who have gone ahead.
We worship here because it is here we learn to say with Isaiah, “This is our God for whom we have waited, that God might save us. Let us be glad and rejoice.”
Let us be glad indeed. The One who is making all things new has already begun. And on this day we remember, and we are glad.
In the name of Jesus. Amen