Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:[1-31], 32-44
Sadly, as we look around and see the injustice and the evil that pervade God’s good creation, looking forward to future where God’s justice has the final word, a future in which “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” can sometimes allow us to ignore the mourning and crying and pain in the present. Our trust that God will fix things someday lets us off the hook for fixing things today. Sometimes we Christians can become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha meets him on the road. Like her sister Mary, Martha’s first words to Jesus are “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” When Jesus comforts her with the promise resurrection, she responds: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She believes in life after death, that the dead will be raised and God’s justice will be established and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. She more than believes this—she knows it; but it does her no good. She still aches for her dead brother. The message that “it gets better” is poor consolation for those in pain. Promise of justice in the next life is no help to those suffering injustice now.
This is exactly why we need festivals like the Feast of All Saints. We need to be reminded that resurrection is not a pie-in-the-sky promise for the future, but a manifesto of grace and justice for the present. Jesus says exactly this: “I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and those who live and believe will never die.” Clearly, we all die, whether or not we believe. Jesus is not talking about a fountain of youth or a formula for immortality. He is saying that death is no barrier to God’s love and the community into which that love forms us. Then, to prove that this love really does extend beyond death, Jesus puts his money where his mouth is: he commands Lazarus to walk out of his tomb.
We know that the dead are always with us. We carry them around with us in memory: their words, actions, lessons, mementos. Through those things, they continue to interact with us, to affect our lives just as if they did when they were alive. This is the resurrection Jesus is talking about: not just the life that follows death, but the life that extends into death. The grave is no more separation than a long trip we haven’t taken or a phone call we have yet to make.
This is true for everyone, but for the people bound to Christ through baptism, the connection is even stronger. In baptism, God claims us and calls us saints—God’s holy people. Saints do not remind us just of themselves, but of God. We are not saints because of how great we are, but because of how great God is. Mary and Martha and Lazarus were nobody special. The only reason we know about them at all is because Jesus loved them; but because Jesus loved them, they are saints—people who show us the truth of resurrection. The saints we remember today show us with their words, their actions, their lives and even their deaths that God’s love is bigger than the injustice of this world, and that this love is for us. That is why we celebrate and remember these saints: because through them, we see God’s perpetual work of resurrection, here and now.
Let me give you an example. In 2009, almost 4 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Pr. Stephanie and I were there chaperoning a group of kids from her home church at the ELCA Youth Gathering. We piled on the bus for our service day and learned that we would be cleaning up a cemetery. The first thing I thought was, “A cemetery? Shouldn’t we be doing something useful?” But this wasn’t just any cemetery; we went to Holt Cemetery.
Most cemeteries in New Orleans are above ground because the water level is so high. They have beautiful stone mausoleums to house the dead and are carefully tended by the city. Not Holt. Holt is a potters’ field, where the poor, the homeless, and the unclaimed are buried in shallow graves. Families of Holt’s residents can’t afford nice stones and a paid groundskeeper. Most can’t even afford new coffins; instead, they share boxes and burial plots with as many as a dozen other people. After the storm, there was no money to clean up Holt Cemetery, so the city stopped caring for it. The people of Holt Cemetery were forgotten. (1)
This is what saints do: they show us how God is already working here and now, bringing peace, bringing justice, and bringing wholeness. Belief like Martha’s—that resurrection is only somewhere in the future—is vapid optimism. Optimism is passive: it is about waiting for something better to come to us. What the saints give us is hope. Unlike optimism, hope is active. Where optimism waits, hope goes out and does. It falls and fails sometimes, but it is tenacious and unafraid, and it survives long after optimism has been crushed. Hope tells us that the good we envision for the next life is the same good for which strive in this one. Optimism placates, but hope invigorates; it unsettles us and sends us out to get our hands dirty. It will not let go of the notion that God’s goodness is real, and that we can find it. (2)
Resurrection is fundamentally about hope. It is about seeing firsthand the ways God is actively working to heal creation through the lives of people—living and dead—who we know; resurrection is being raised to new life by experiencing God at work. Our baptism is the beginning of an ongoing process of drowning our cynicism and complacency and powerlessness and being raised by God to new life—resurrected life, life that strives with its very being for the fullness of Christ’s reign. In baptism, God resurrects as saints.
The saints we celebrate and remember today are saints because they have been resurrected with Christ. In their lives—in their successes and failures, in the words and lessons and habits they have left with us, even in their deaths—they bear witness to the reality that God is ALWAYS bringing new life, that resurrection is happening right here, right now. Through these saints we hear the voice from the throne saying, “It is done! I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Even from their graves, these saints encourage us and support us and lay the groundwork for us to continue in the work to which God called them, and to which God now calls us.
That is why God gathers us as this one community of saints: so that we can support one another in God’s work of resurrection. Christ brings us all around this one table—this one fixed point in space and time—to experience a taste of the eternal. We come to this table and receive the living flesh and blood of the firstborn of the dead and suddenly resurrection ceases to be some theoretical thing far in the future and instead becomes a present reality. It becomes a resurrection that we can taste and smell, a resurrection that gets under our fingernails and stuck in our teeth. When we gather at this table, we eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup as all those who have come before us and those who will come after us; we share the same meal as all those in whom God’s resurrection is embodied, and we become saints: witnesses to the life-giving love of God.
We celebrate this Feast of All Saints because the world at its worst can be an unkind and uncaring place. Instead of yearning for some future resurrection that will enable us to escape this mess, Christ teaches us to hope for the resurrection in the present by gathering all God’s saints together. In the lives of these saints, the future joy of eternal life somehow breaks in on the present. Rather than being some far-off truth in a half-glimpsed future, eternal life becomes for us a present reality: what will be actually is. New life abounds. Mourning and crying and pain, as real as they are, are temporary because our God dwells among us, resurrecting us, making all things new. Seeing the reality of resurrection now gives us hope—real, living, abiding hope—for the resurrection of the dead on the last day.