A confusion of saints and souls: A Homily for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

There’s something of a confusion in our commemoration of All Saints. We’re not quite sure what we should be doing today in our worship. Our lessons, all of them, are among the lessons chosen for the burial service. We are worshiping as the choir sings Faure’s Requiem, and later in our service, we will remember the faithful departed, those of our congregation who have died in the past years, and others, our loved ones, who have died in the past year or before. So, what we really seem to be doing is celebrating what used to be called All Souls’ Day, or what in our calendar appears on November 2, the commemoration of all the faithful departed.

At the same time, in a few minutes, we will be baptizing Corrine Farrow. I joked with someone earlier this week that if we could find a couple willing, we could bless their marriage today, and in one service run the whole gamut of “hatch, match, and dispatch.”

It’s a busy, full, even complicated day here at Grace but whatever is happening inside the church today, the world outside is even more complicated. It’s difficult for us to focus on the worship of God in the midst of all that’s going on in the world. We are two days from the end of a long and in many ways painful election season. Many of us dread having to answer the phone in fear that it’s another robocall urging us to vote for one candidate or another or distorting a candidate’s position in hopes of swaying our votes. We’ve had more canvassers knock on our door than we had trick-or-treaters and the Post Office may stay solvent from the number of mailers sent out by campaigns and third parties. Even coming to church today was affected by the presidential election as we’ve had to deal with parking restrictions and road closures related to Bruce Springsteen’s visit to Capitol Square tomorrow. We’re inundated, distracted, and many of us worried about which way the election will turn out and what that will bode for the future of our country, and indeed the future of the world.

And that’s just the election. We watched and heard with horror as Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast. Many of us have been concerned about friends and family–how they survived the storm and how they are coping in incredibly difficult circumstances.

It’s difficult to put all that aside when we enter the doors of the church to worship God. It may not even be appropriate to do so. This is our world, these our lives, and as Christians we believe God is present in the midst of all of the chaos and confusion of this world; God is present to all of our worries and fears.

As I said, All Saints’ is something of a confused commemoration in the contemporary church. We’re not quite sure whether we are to commemorate all of the unnamed saints—heroes and models of faith—who have gone before, or to remember all the faithful departed, saints or not, many of whom, however fondly we remember them, were not models of sanctity. So in the midst of the chaos of our world, we come into a service that is in its own way somewhat chaotic, or at least full of mixed messages.

To help orient us, I would like to focus on today’s gospel. It’s a familiar story, the raising of Lazarus, but it’s full of dramatic language and gestures, well-suited to our distracted situation today. The story reverberates with imagery that recurs elsewhere in the gospel and it is full of emotion—we see Jesus deeply disturbed and weeping, for example, and Mary throwing herself at Jesus’ feet, distraught with grief.

I’ll point out only two ways in which the story connects with the rest of the gospel. First, the mention of smell, stench really. When Jesus tells them to roll the stone away, Mary objects because of the body’s decay. In the next chapter, Mary will anoint Jesus, an action interpreted as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death, and the sweet smell of the ointment fills the house. The second little resonance is with the word tomb. It appears only one time earlier in the gospel, in chapter 5, when Jesus predicts that all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out. Now in chapter 11, Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out.!” The next time we will encounter the word for tomb in John is in reference to Jesus’ own place of burial. In other words, this story is meant to point us toward Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and Jesus’ words, “I am resurrection and life” make that connection clear.

There’s one more detail to which I would like to point your attention. It’s the verse that follows Jesus’ cry, “Lazarus, come out!?

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.’

Ponder this a moment. First, Lazarus is not named. He is only “the dead man.” And in spite of the power that Jesus exhibited by raising him from the dead, there was still work to do. The community had to gather around, minister to him, unbind him, so that he could regain his place among them, so that he could become Lazarus again, not “the dead man.”

And here I think is where this story can help us understand what’s going on here in our service, and in the wider world. Today, All Saints’ is something of a celebration of our community, of the faithful who gather here at Grace week to week, and of the faithful who have gathered here in times past. Our community of faith is not restricted to those who worship here now; it also embraces all those who have come before, that great cloud of witnesses throughout the centuries. And today, as we baptize Corrine, we are adding to our community another member, expressing our faith that the community of saints in this place will exist long after we are gone.

We can also take heart as we go from this place, out into the world, and learn more about the devastation of hurricane Sandy in the northeast, and in places like Haiti, where the mainstream media take no notice, but our diocese has been active, and many of you have close relationships. We can take heart as we go from this place out into the world and the last days of a divisive and unedifying election season. We can take heart in the vision that the author of Revelation depicts:

“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;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”


PS: The exegetical notes on John 11 drawn from Jamie Clark-Soles on working preacher

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