All Saints’ Day
Year B, RCL
November 4, 2018
North Fork Ministries
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "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."
The waning days of October through today, encompassing Halloween, All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day, represent a thin place in the landscape of our existence. The ancient Celts, who celebrated the festival of Samhain, around the first of November, believed that the veil between worlds becomes especially permeable, easily penetrated, during this time of celebration of both life and death.
Upon seeing Mary, along with her fellow Judeans weep over the death of Lazarus, Jesus was “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. He wept, and when coming to the cave where Lazarus was buried, he was again “greatly disturbed”.
Aristotle’s conception of God was that of a force that set the universe in motion, but that is unaffected by the actions of creation, remaining distant and apart from the world – “the unmoved mover”. A very different picture of the Christ emerges in this story of Lazarus and Jesus. We are presented a image of a God so intertwined in the web of creation, in our collective being, that God suffers when we suffer, is moved when we are moved, and is with us in life and in death.
In death we find new life. It is not by accident that we baptize on All Saints’ Day. It is not a coincidence that on the same day that we choose to recall the members of our congregation and our friends and family members that we buried this past year, that we also will baptize young Isabel and Colette. This juxtaposition of death and new life that occurs on All Saints’ Day brings to the forefront our recognition that the eternal is with us now. And that we are called to live as though death has no power over our days.
I can’t hear this story of Lazarus without thinking of my friend Robert Hopper. His was the kind of life that rises above death, defying it as surely as the resurrection of Lazarus showed death to be powerless in the face of love. I could have just as easily never known him, or at best only known him in passing. We were both members of an Episcopal church in Austin - called All Saints’. Robert taught communications at the University of Texas - and he was a consummate communicator. It was perhaps this quality that compelled me to give him a call and arrange lunch. I’ve not often done this, but I commend to you the practice. If you come across someone you would like to know better, particularly someone from whom you can learn more about how to live richly, don’t let the opportunity pass by. What I learned from Robert was that life is theater. Not that we are just acting, pretending to be someone else. But that we are called to play a role, to truly be ourselves, to come out of the dark cave of our existence and to be a vibrant character in the unfolding drama of life. He understood that we are called to bring every ounce of our being into the realization of that role. To do anything else… is to sleepwalk through life. To do anything else is to walk as Lazarus, with our hands and feet and face, mummy-like, still bound with strips of cloth.
After our first lunch, a fast friendship developed. We often talked about the manuscript for a book he was working on – a refutation of the thesis of the best seller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. It was Robert’s contention that the ways in which men and women communicate are essentially the same, that we are all from the same planet, but that on life’s grand stage, the false roles we are compelled to play, cause us all, men and women alike, to repress and to lose the ability to communicate who we really are.
Our friendship wasn’t to last long. I had served as a Stephen Minister for several years, a pastoral care program - (something we might want to do here). By accident, I suppose, I had been assigned to walk the final months and weeks of life with a long series of fellow parishioners facing death. I had grown weary of death and asked for a break from the work. But the entrance of death into our lives has a way of changing our agenda. Robert was diagnosed with liver cancer and he asked if I would shepherd him through his passage into sainthood.
During our final months together, Robert taught me to pray, as only those who dwell in those thin places between life and death know how to pray. We Zen walked together, prayed the psalms, and told our stories. As he grew frail, and couldn’t sleep at night, I often rolled his wheelchair outside where if I tilted the chair far back he could search the night sky for the summer’s meteor showers. Toward the end he attended church only when his strength allowed, and he admitted that his favorite part was watching the kids look for their parents when they returned from children’s chapel.
Early one morning about 5:30, I received a call from his wife Karen, telling me that Robert had died in the night and asking if I could come to the house. When I arrived she took me to the bedroom where he was lying silently, peacefully. It seemed more fitting than strange, when she told me that at 3:00 in the morning, she realized that Robert had stopped breathing. And so, knowing that she only had a few hours to say goodbye, she laid beside him until daybreak.
Karen had already called the funeral director. Robert had made the arrangements himself, choosing a discount funeral home. I remember him telling me, “I like their attitude.” That morning the undertakers walked through the front door, wearing matching dark overcoats, white shirts, black ties, porkpie hats with their brims pulled low, and though the sun hadn’t quite risen, - dark sunshades. It was if the Blues Brothers has come to take Robert away. Robert couldn’t resist, one last time, rolling the stone away from the tomb, ensuring that we would laugh through our tears.
Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “…there is a power loose in the universe that is stronger than death, that is able to call us out of our stinking tombs into the fullness and sweet mystery of life…We have a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it – creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair – resurrecting us from our big and little deaths…”
“Take away the stone….Lazarus, come out!”