All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

John 11:32-44

By: Ryan Young

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is, I think, one of the most difficult pieces of scripture in the context of All Saints’ Sunday. It is the story of Jesus raising one of his friends from the dead, and we are supposed to preach this to a congregation, many of whom are dealing with the recent passing of loved ones who will not be returning any time soon. I will never forget the intense anger at God almost universally voiced by patients with whom I spent sleepless nights as a chaplain at Emory Hospital (to be sure, members of my current congregation experience the same, but it seems that people are more apt to voice those thoughts to a stranger). In the face of that anger, hurt, and confusion I am supposed to offer a story wherein Jesus overcame Lazarus’ death in a way that he did not for their loved ones?

Yes.

Yes, because this story offers us the identity of Jesus. Just prior to this snippet, in verse 25, Jesus claims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In raising Lazarus, that identity is fully revealed. It is God alone who holds power over life and death, and by exhibiting that power, Jesus is shown to be God incarnate.

By raising Lazarus, Jesus exhibits his power over death. By being raised himself, he will exhibit his victory over it. These two events cannot be separated in the Fourth Gospel. It is in fact Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that precipitated the final decision to kill Jesus (vv. 45-53). Jesus’ death is an expression of the measure of love that God has for creation, and his resurrection should convince us that the love of God will not be overcome. Moreover, this love leads Jesus to extend power over death to all who choose to accept it, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (vv.24-26) In other words, because of Jesus’ power expressed both in raising Lazarus and in his own resurrection, Christians are able to experience death differently.

Two years ago, I broke down during an Ash Wednesday service. The youth from the church had been sitting together and had all just come forward together to receive the imposition of ashes and to kneel for prayer at the altar. As our senior pastor proclaimed with each child, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” the truth of the service weighed heavily upon me—each of these children would die. My own child, with whom my wife was pregnant at the time, would also die one day. It is a truth that I could not bear then, and if I am honest it is a thought that I still have trouble entertaining for long. I think that is a sign that the Church has failed in one of its tasks. In my experience we do not talk much about death outside of a few special days each year, indeed unless you came to a Good Friday or All Saints’ service you may wonder what, if anything, Christians have to say about dying. In avoiding the subject of death, perhaps the Church has given the perception that the power of death is indeed stronger than God’s love.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are reluctant to talk about death is that we grasp so little about resurrection. Death seems to final and resurrection so ambiguous. Is it a bodily resurrection? Spiritual? Is it an eschatological hope, or might some on odd occasion share in Lazarus’ experience? If I’m being completely honest, I can’t tell you with any certainty. I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. To be clear, I am not intelligent enough to understand a third of the book, however I have always found Dr. Tyson to be a fascinating and engaging personality—as an added bonus, his voice puts my fussy one-year-old right to sleep. Near the beginning of the book, Tyson says that, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” This simple pronouncement recalled a truth I have always known. Mystery is baked into the fabric of existence. While not a theist, Tyson’s words served as a reminder that God is under no obligation to make sense to me.

We ought to talk about the raising of Lazarus, and not only on All Saints’ Day, but as often as we can because it points to the truth revealed in Jesus’ own resurrection—that death does not have the final word on human existence, but has been overcome by the love of God. God’s love for creation is so strong, so final, that it is present even in that of which we are most frightened. In Christ we hold to the mysterious promise of resurrection. Maybe it’s a promise that we can’t fully understand or explain, but it is nevertheless a promise to which we can cling.

 

In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
“How could you believe that the life within the seed
that grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat.
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried.
Could ever die?”
Here come the blue skies Here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high & the tears run dry.
When everything that dies.
Shall rise.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.

-from the song “Love is Stronger Than Death” written by Matt Johnson

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Ryan Young with his wife, Rachael, and daughter, Iris

Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.

 

All Saints Day (C): The Company of Blessing

All Saints Day (C): The Company of Blessing

Luke 6:20-31

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

Could a more appropriate Gospel text be appointed for All Saints Day? These verses from Luke’s Gospel offer us as readers both a lens through which to remember the saints of God of the distant past and a blueprint for identifying the saints living among us in the present day.

“Blessed are those who are poor…”

“Blessed are those who are hungry now…”

“Blessed are you who weep now…”

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when people exclude you…”

The Christian tradition is one filled with individuals who have expressed prodigious and inspiring faith, often when confronted with the direst of circumstances. For each of them, such faith came at a cost; for many, it came at the expense of their lives. Their stories of proclaiming the good news in the midst of poverty and hunger, sorrow and persecution are narratives that can inspire us all, individually and collectively, to be the people God has called us to be in this present moment.

Last year, one individual in my parish remarked that All Saints is a good day to “preach the windows.” Indeed, many of us are blessed with sacred spaces that help us to commemorate the lives of the faithful followers of Jesus who have lived in years now long in the past. All Saints Sunday is the perfect moment to remember the faithful of the generations gone by, those who are known to all and especially those whose stories so often get overlooked.

As an example, it might be helpful for a congregation to hear about a woman named Cecilia of Rome. In the early third century, she was converted to Christianity along with her husband and his brother. Ultimately, the two men were executed for their conversion and while, Cecilia was burying them, she also was killed for her faith. They are saints and martyrs, steadfast in the face of those who treated them and the faith that they had embraced with a fiery hatred.

Or, it might be good for a congregation to consider the life of a man such as Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was murdered in Alabama in August 1965.  Daniels, a white man, had ventured to Alabama to be a voice for those who were poor and weeping, beaten down by a system that did not value them as fully human because of their race. Daniels gave voice to the voiceless, even as his body was carried to the grave.

Or, a congregation can celebrate the newly canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Sometimes known as the “saint of the gutters,” Teresa devoted her life to the poor who had been cast to the furthest margins of humanity. Her work among the hungry and the weeping has been chronicled across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century with images that give a face to those who might otherwise have been forgotten.

All Saints Sunday might also be a good occasion to remember those more familiar narratives, the stories of the first apostles or patrons of particular denominational identities. Each of these accounts has so much to offer the people of God whose roots are deep and strong.

However, if All Saints Day is nothing more than a remembrance of those blessed ones confined to the distant past, then we miss much of its power. A serious consideration of the saints must invite all of us to look for the holy ones in this present moment.

In many of our faith communities, this day will be one that calls to mind those who have died in recent days, friends and family members and faithful congregants whose lives no longer enrich our daily existence. But, even more, who and where are the living saints in our midst?

Jesus points us toward those among us who are poor, those who are hungry, those who are weeping, and those who have been hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.

The nameless woman at the busy intersection who greets you each morning with her story written on a torn piece of scrap cardboard. She is a saint.

The young boy living just a few streets over who went to bed with an empty stomach because his family was forced to choose between buying food and paying a bill. He is a saint.

The spouse of fifty years that never imagined her life without her beloved one who died suddenly and without warning last year. She is a saint.

The man who fled his home with his family in search of a land free from war only to be cast aside because of the color of his skin and the name he calls God. He is a saint.

These are the blessed ones in our midst. These are the holy ones who are drawing us forth from the comforts of riches and pleasure to the margins of pain and suffering, to the places where the good news is most readily in need of proclamation. It is in these margins that we discover the heart of holiness, the very core of what it means to be blessed, to live a life of saintly proportion.  And it is to these margins that Jesus bids all the people of God.

To go there requires us also to listen intently to the “woes” of this passage and to honestly take stock of our own lives.

“But woe to you who are rich…”

“Woe to you who are full now…”

“Woe to you who are laughing…”

“Woe to you when all speak well of you…”

The treasures and privileges available to some have the potential to so cloud our vision that we fail to see true blessedness, the holiness that hides in the hurts and hunger of this world God has brought into being.

Reading this passage from Luke’s Gospel on All Saints Sunday invites each of us to look deep into the rich heritage of our faith. In that inheritance, we discover again the lives of the faithful who have been bearers of the good news in their own day.

But, even more, this passage opens our eyes to the saints alive and living among us—the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the cast aside—so that we might have the faith to join their company of blessing.

 

ajh
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.