a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]
Revelation 21:1-6a and John 11:32-44
All Saints Sunday, to me, is like a little re-run of Easter. The browns and grays and oranges of late fall may be all around us, but the church is dressed in Easter white. We sing Alleluia over and over, and we’re rejoicing that Jesus, our Savior, is risen! He has fought the battle against death for us and in him we are promised life. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, and “See,” says the one seated on the throne in John’s vision in Revelation, “I am making all things new!”
And yet we are still sad. Even today. Even on this mini-Easter we find ourselves blotting at tears with our shirtsleeves and Kleenex, we glimpse the names on the back of the bulletin, and we are sad.
Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, talks about this life as a “valley of sorrows” and I remember when I was younger not knowing what to make of that. I suppose I was the victim of a happy childhood, unaware of the great griefs around me, but as I grow I’m coming to understand them more. Living in a valley of sorrows means that weeping is a part of the human experience for now, as much as we dislike to do it. It means there is, as Isaiah describes it, a “shroud cast over all the peoples,” that there is a lot of brokenness in the world that manages to creep its way into our own hearts and bring us sorrow.
It means, for example, I found myself shedding tears with someone in the columbarium just this week, as I heard them reflect on the beauty of a marriage cut short by death. It means I listened in a hospital room where a voice I normally associate with laughter broke as it told of growing frustration with the healing process. The valley of sorrows means our hearts ache as we learn more details from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, like the simple but moving funeral held Monday for the two special needs Rosenthal brothers who were integral members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and had lived their whole lives as a blessing to that congregation.
On Twitter last month Sandi Villareal, the web editor of Sojourner’s Magazine tweeted, “What line of a hymn makes you tear up every time you sing it?” Dozens and dozens tweeted their responses, and while it was beautiful to have the vanity and gossip of social media broken up a bit with a long thread of hymn verses, many of which I recognized, it was also revealing to see how many people will admit they often can’t finish certain hymns without crying. Young Phillip thought hymns were hard to sing because they could be boring. This Phillip finds some hymns hard to sing because of this lump in his throat. Hymns feature one of the great tensions of faith—we know and trust God makes all things new in Christ, the Lamb on the throne, but sometimes the tears of grief are hard to stop.
I remember distinctly one funeral I officiated in my early days in Pittsburgh. The middle-aged adult son of the deceased woman came up to me there in the cemetery once we had concluded the committal service, and he was clearly fighting back tears with all he had. “I know I’m supposed to be happy today,” he said, “my pastor told me this is the day of my mom’s victory, that she is now in Jesus’ arms, but I am still feeling sad. What is wrong with me. Do I not believe?” It was like he needed an OK from me to weep, but I stood there most likely unhelpful, unable myself to articulate the mix of emotions we humans often undergo.
Mary and Martha speak for us. They are us. They come running up to their dear friend Jesus knowing that he makes all things new, knowing his presence is something special, and yet still disappointed and overcome with sadness because their brother Lazarus has died. Their hope is mixed with frustration and regret and we know we have been there, too.
And look at what Jesus encounters as he arrives at the tomb—it’s that valley again! People are crying everywhere, all around him. They’re probably doing what people now call the “ugly cry”—that uncontrollable visible contorting of the face that you’re unable to hide. It used to be more OK to do that sort of thing in public.
What’s most fascinating is how Jesus responds to all of this. In so many Scriptures, the vision of God’s eternal kingdom involves no tears. Isaiah mentions it. So does John in Revelation this morning. When God finally has God’s way and everything is put right, one of the ways we’ll know we’ve arrived there is that there is no more crying. All the tears are wiped away, all the reasons ever to weep a thing of the past.
And yet, we don’t get a Savior who comes wiping away Mary’s and Martha’s tears. When God’s Word finally becomes flesh and dwells among us, he comes weeping himself. At least three different times we are told about Jesus’ emotional turmoil as he approaches Lazarus’ tomb. And as Jesus, dabbing at his shirt sleeve, face grimacing with the ugly cry, nears the entrance to the cave where they’ve laid the dead man, the crowd whispers, “Look at how much he loved him!”
This is how much he loves us. Jesus descends into this valley where people mail pipe bombs and cancer is diagnosed, where wars and substance abuse take the lives of people in their prime, where humans visit all kinds of pain on each other. This is how much he loves us! He descends into this valley and feels first-hand, for all its beauty and splendor, how strange and uncomfortable it can often be.
There’s a prayer that we say once the family has all gathered at the graveside for a committal. It is an ancient prayer, but one strikes at the core of what we believe and understand as people of the cross. It begins, “Almighty God, by the death and burial of Jesus, your anointed, you have destroyed death and sanctified the graves of all your saints.” That is, through his crucifixion, Jesus has claimed and made holy all who have died. By weeping, by arriving in Bethany amid all the weeping people, Jesus also makes holy all our tears. All our ugly cries? He’s OK with them, too. We could say he makes them beautiful. We have a God who is honest with our pain, who ventures into each dark corner of this valley, and our sorrows is not a sign of faith’s absence at all. They are a sign that we’re human. They are a sign that we are beloved creatures fashioned in the image of a complex, loving God.
For several years now, certain theologians and teachers of the faith have been listening to the faith of people in our churches, especially the faith of young people, and they have been concerned that this is not the God of our worship and message. What these experts and scholars are saying is that it appears we in the church are more likely to conceive of a god who is more or less distant, who exists mainly at the edges of our life, who stands there, wanting us to do better and treat each other nicely, who just wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. They’ve paid special attention to how church youth describe their faith and this is what we, the adults, have somehow taught them: that god is concerned about our morals, but in the end god functions as little more than a divine therapist, a being we consult when we’re down or in trouble. By contrast, the belief that God is transcendent—that is, can enter our lives and change things and actually cause new life to occur—makes too many of us uncomfortable. It often can make me uncomfortable to talk about that God.
And yet that’s the Jesus that shows up at Lazarus’ tomb that day. That’s the Jesus who cries alongside Mary and Martha, who sees the tumult of emotions they feel and then makes those emotions holy, and who eventually looks into the dark and commands Lazarus to come forth out of the dead. That’s the Jesus who prays to his Father that they will see what he is able to do—transcending their weeping—in order that they may believe. That’s the Jesus who goes to the cross, so that all may understand the glory of God is not just in being nice to one another, holding hands and singing harmonies, but in being merciful even when it’s hard. That is the Jesus we trust is here today, who doesn’t just show up to wipe the tears from our eyes and tell us just to be happy but who hears us and then weeps alongside of us.
A group of us this summer went to a showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the film about the life Mr. Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he didn’t explicitly mentioned God very often on his T.V. show, he was expert at weaving the message of this emotional, bold Jesus into his themes. There is one scene in that film that features an episode where Daniel Tiger, a simple puppet that often served as Mr. Roger’s true identity, sings a song about not being happy, of not feeling like he is enough. When it’s Mr. Roger’s turn to respond to his sad friend, he reminds him in a beautiful melody that Daniel Tiger is enough, that he is worthwhile and cherished and has many gifts to share.
But that’s not how the scene ends, with Mr. Rogers just wiping the proverbial tears away and Daniel Tiger being cheered up immediately. The scene continues with one more verse that weaves the two lines together, and we’re left with two songs intertwining—the sad song offered by Daniel Tiger, echoing up from the valley of sorrows, and Mr. Roger’s song of courage and hope.
As one of the men who joined us that evening pointed out over ice cream afterwards, that scene illustrates the life of the Christian perfectly, that we had just watch Fred Rogers present to the viewer one of Martin Luther’s best descriptions of the gospel. For now, we are in the same song both Daniel Tiger and Mr. Rogers. Luther called it “simultaneously saint and sinner”…people who weep, and who at the same time have joy. We dwell in a valley of sorrows, but assured of a loving God who comes to dwell in it too. Sinful, we are a cause of God’s weeping. And yet we are still made new.
And one day we are promised the sad tune we sing will finally run out of words, either because we die or because the King arrives. And on that day all that will be left is the King’s glorious song. The one seated on the throne who is making all things new will once and for all keep all things new—all of us—and this valley will be overcome by his love and the promise made in our baptisms will be complete.
We will rise, reborn and truly happy for one never-ending rerun of Easter.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.