Saints, Death, Weeping

sermon for All Saints Sunday (John11:32-44; Isaiah25:6-9; Rev21:1-6a)

A fair question to ask is why in the world would we think of this facing death again today as a joyful festival?

Memories, even of those we really admired as saintly, are helpful and to be cherished, but are no celebration.

On the worse side, some of us can’t walk into church without it calling to mind those we miss. It may be you can’t help but dwell on losses you grieve, the people who shaped you and brought you to church in the first place. Or that one of the last times you were in a place like this was to say goodbye at a funeral service. There are such intense emotions that it’s painful even to come through the doors, that it’s almost too much to face. I understand that, and some of that feeling is exactly what we’re dealing with today.

But before we go into more of that, I also want to put aside a different idea. Some feel uncomfortable in church because of grief and overwhelming sadness. But there are also those who feel uncomfortable at church because they suspect it’s not a place for them. If I could weed out one persistent comment and stop it from crossing people’s minds or lips, it would be the idea of being unwelcome at church or that God would be opposed to you. Too many times to count, I’ve had people say that if they walked into a church, lightning would probably strike or the roof would cave in. It hasn’t happened.

I’m not sure where that view of God comes from or how it gets fueled, but I’d wish never to have to hear it again. Because whatever causes it, that is not the God we have, not the God of the Bible, not the God embodied for us in Jesus. If you think God is out to get you or doesn’t like you or thinks you’re not good enough to be around, then you’ve got the wrong idea of God. Just the reverse, if you’ve got that notion, then God is eager to be with you, already on your side, particularly when things are bad.

That, then, brings us back to the hard confrontation of death today. Being at church can be tough because we face this mostly head on. When you’re watching sports or reading a book or working on a project, mostly you can keep distracted, with death out of your mind. Even following the news—and even when it’s just awful news—still that can mostly seem far away and not need to be dealt with. Even in late autumn days, turning chillier and darker, when trees are getting bare, still we divert our focus to the colors of beautiful leaves. Or we think about compost, and somehow separate that distinction, that leaves break down to become new soil that will nurture future life. That’s a gain, but death in our families isn’t. That kind of death is loss.

At church, we don’t talk around it. We don’t say you need to brighten up and act happy, as if you’re not actually torn up. That’s an important distinction. Sometimes this faith gets manipulated into some sort of antidepressant or motivational poster. God gets misused to whitewash over the pain or to skip ahead. We end up with trite phrases like, “she’s in a better place.” I don’t have to tell you that consolation is crap. For the people around me who have died, the place I want them to be is still with me. That would be better. I’ve also been there with too many of your loved ones whom we’ve placed in the ground, buried in a cemetery, kept in an urn. That’s not a better place. If we ignore that part of our reality then our faith becomes some escapist lie. It isn’t that we don’t hope for more, but if we jump too quickly to the end—or, still worse, if we impose that on others amid the despair of death and brush aside their sorrow, then that is not honestly our faith.

So, again, just as we don’t have a God who is out to punish those who haven’t been in church or feel like they’ve done something wrong, as God won’t ever withdraw a promise of blessing for you, neither do we have some sort of fairy tale God who always has a smile on and watches cute cat videos while ignoring our reality and dreaming that we’re all living happily ever after. That is not our God.

This takes us into our Gospel reading, where Jesus encounters the death of a dear friend, one he loved. Here, as in other places, death makes Jesus angry. It says “he was greatly disturbed.” And then he began to weep. In some versions of the Bible, that is the shortest verse. John 11:35 is only two words: Jesus wept. (There is one other verse that competes for brevity, but we’ll have to come back to that.)

For now, we should probably notice this most encapsulated theological statement of our Scriptures. What does it say to us that the briefest conception of Christ, the most summarized synopsis, the tiniest little kernel we can compress God into is this weeping? I’d say that it focuses our belief on a God of compassion. A God who sympathizes with our hurt and sorrow and pain. A God who is absolutely and utterly with us, in dejection and disappointment and despair. Who laments with us and aches with us. One who knows that death stinks really, really bad. When we face that, it’s right to be sad and broken and confused. We can’t ignore sorrow. So God knows this pain and our longing and our tears. Jesus wept.

It struck me as remarkable this week that when our readings from Isaiah and Revelation tell us that God will wipe away every tear, that that includes God’s own tears. God also longs for something else, the time when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and death will be no more.

Again, we’ll come to that. But we ought to reflect a moment more on this God of compassion, because that identity is both good and bad, to be treasured yet also not fully satisfying.

We know the blessings of sharing in grief, of being able to lean on each other. That’s among the central reasons to gather in church, especially when our lives have been fractured. I heard St. Stephen’s described that way this week, that this community helped in time of loss: in the death of a son, as a husband was struggling with terminal illness. It is the blessing of Bold Café and Soup for Schools groups, this intimate support network that can offer care and be there together in the roughest times. This is part of why it’s important to be invested in the life of the congregation, because this compassion, this shared love and concern, is such a reciprocal relationship of harvesting what you’ve put into it.

To have God identified with such compassion is the ultimate in caring proclamation. More, this love won’t fall apart, is not dependent on your investment in it. God doesn’t get distracted or have to leave to attend to other business; God is with you always. You can always lean on God and share with God. The old song goes:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!

Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—

all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer!

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?

We should never be discouraged—take it to the Lord in prayer.

Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?

Jesus knows our ev’ry weakness—take it to the Lord in prayer.

So for one who encounters your suffering with you, it can’t get any closer and more intimate than that.

Yet—and here’s the part that isn’t so satisfying—compassion only goes so far. Misery may love company, but we need some company that doesn’t love misery. It’s good news that God isn’t against you, that—just the opposite—God is with you especially when you really need it. But having a God who knows your sorrow and your longing is not quite enough. You also need a God who can and will do something about it. A God who not only shares your tears but will, indeed, wipe away those tears, and every tear. We have this sense that death shouldn’t happen if the Lord is with us.

At this point, my proclamation to you falters. There’s a hiccup in this good news. God went into death for you, was killed on a cross to destroy death, and rose on the third day to conquer the grave and give you the victory…but, well, this doesn’t exactly feel very victorious or glorious or celebratory at this point. God, it seems, didn’t decide simply to undo death, to erase it, to make everything suddenly better. I don’t like that. I don’t like that we are still here grieving, that we’re stuck with our tears, that we still have to confront death that destroys our good relationships and steals loved ones away from us, or sucks away our own happiness or wellbeing or life.

I can proclaim to you that death is not the end. It has not won. There is more to come. And that changes everything, even if it’s all too eventual and gradual for what we’d wish here and now today. There’s a promise we have now, but we experience it not yet. Jesus rolled away the stone from his loved one’s tomb. His own stone was rolled away on Easter. And no grave will capture or bind you or your loved ones or any of the beloved of God, any of God’s good creation. That is the promise. God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. Then we’ll join together at the feast.

Even as we’re still stuck in the messy middle and it can seem so hard to go forward—to face another day, to get out of bed, to hear what the doctor has to say, to deal with our memories, to worry about forgetting, to live in this world—even though that is so much of our reality now, we trust the end of the story. And that changes everything. We don’t need to pretend things are okay when they aren’t, don’t need to stop grieving.

Instead we grieve with hope. I said we’d come back to the other shortest Bible verse. In the original language, there’s a verse that’s shorter than the compassion and shared sadness of “Jesus wept.” It’s not only shorter; it’s a counterpoint that also looks past our present sorrows, since “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans8:18). The shortest verse? “Rejoice always.” (1Thessalonians5:16)

Hymn: In Deepest Night (ELW #699)


Bad Blessings for Imperfect Saints

Comments for All Saints Sunday (and Confirmation) – 3 Nov 14

Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

T: “Praise to you, O Christ?!” It’s one of those Gospel readings that makes you wonder. It really doesn’t sound much like good news.

N: Yeah, agreed. If this is what a blessing from God is like, we may ask if we even want to be blessed, or if it’s more of a curse.

But we should pause, since these are among the most famous sayings of Jesus. They’re his first public words in the Gospel of Matthew, the very start of the Sermon on the Mount. We call them the Beatitudes. The name actually comes from the Latin in this passage, beatus, blessed, and it doesn’t take long to realize the Beatitudes are probably the opposite of that old Crystal Cathedral book about the “be happy attitudes.” These blessings definitely don’t seem like they’re designed trying to make you happy.

But maybe that’s a worthwhile thing to remember as we get going today. Blessing isn’t something we choose, and following Jesus isn’t about just getting what we want. If we’re simply seeking happiness and some sort of self-satisfaction, then this says we’re barking up the wrong tree. We’d go running the opposite direction. See, nobody would say, “I’d be more fulfilled in life and really be an achiever if only I could suffer some. I think I’ll go out and really find something to make me mourn and grieve. That’d be great!” Right?

So the beatitudes could seem like real buzzkills and downers. But we also need to recognize that Jesus isn’t exactly giving a motivational speech here, at least not like we’d normally picture it. These first words of his first sermon aren’t a mass-market advertisement trying to make his listeners happy, and they certainly aren’t about telling them how they can get more from God, how they can manage to be more blessed, to squeeze more blessing out of a reluctant God.

Instead, this is already what his listeners were dealing with, and what we’re dealing with. It’s about God and our reality, real life. And it’s still remarkable to hear. There’s something inside of us, or something about our culture, that still wants to claim that if you’re suffering, if you’re sad, if people don’t like you, if you’re weak, if you’re not rich, then you’re doing something wrong. It claims that if God really liked you—or even if God really existed—then you’d be pain-free and happy and strong and have a bigger house and no worries.

Jesus says that’s a lie. God does not abandon us in the hard places. God’s blessing is especially where you need it most, when you need it most. And not only that, but all that rotten stuff of persecution and hunger and war and injustice and poverty and all that makes us so sorrowful and even death are not the end of the story and that doesn’t define you. Jesus not only says, but shows that there is more. Even death, as completely terrible as it is, cannot separate us from God’s blessing and love. That’s the point of this message especially for All Saints Sunday.

T: the ordeal and Revelation

ending with Rolf joke for confirmation – “Who are these robed in white? The ones who came through the great ordeal!”

N: That’s a great line, though I have to stick up for Confirmation here at St. Stephen’s. Especially for those of older generations who with fear and trembling faced tests on memorization in front of the congregation, you should know that students at St. Stephen’s really do enjoy this program. We have students wanting to be here, Sunday School students begging parents to get to go to church, even dragging their kicking-and-screaming parents here!

For this set of Confirmands today, they did talk about the ordeals earlier. I even heard that when he was 7-ish, Nate made a little sign to hold up in worship that said, “I hate church.” And they’ve all faced questions and struggles, wondering about how the science of evolution fits in with belief, for example. This group is also concerned for justice and angry at how exclusionary and oppressive some churches and those claiming to be Christian can be, and part of what makes St. Stephen’s work so well for them is that we’re Reconciling in Christ, welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Nate, Sydney, and Jordan would be quick to point out the ordeal of being in the Boundary Waters with me through a fearful lightning storm. And Travis certainly has had more than his share of ordeals, as today among the saints we are remembering the death of his grandmother and last year his father.

Yet, again, it’s not just the ordeals and struggles and doubts, but also many great moments of community. And that’s part of what makes these four students exemplary saints for us today. We can look at them as our examples, as reminders of what faith means and what it can do as we share it in community. They describe great relationships with each other.

Even more, they’ve been broadly important in this community. I love thinking back to my early days, when I’d be leading Time for Children and as soon as I started to ask a question, Sydney’s hand would be up, and I’d call on her and there’d be a pause. She didn’t have an answer; she just liked being called on. Still my office door is decorated with sketches from Jordan, including a favorite of mine from an early one of our annual Martin Luther King observances, portraying his victories for racial equality and justice. Travis, or Lars as he was known during Confirmation classes, was always good for some humor and laughter, but you shouldn’t let that fool you because he’s tremendous at caring for young children and is eager to teach Sunday School. Nathan not only brought his pet snake Steve to VBS, but also connected with the Senior Ministry Team and did a presentation at Seasoned Saints.

All of that shows these four saints can’t be isolated by age group, or restricted in our view of them. They are very fully saints, sharing the struggles we all have, and also being a benefit to this community in at least as good of ways as the rest of us.

T: baptism as tying all of us into this promise and sainthood

Cloud of Saints