Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All Saints Sermon - Out of the Tomb

All Saints, Nov. 1st, 2015

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and all the saints, Amen.

Two weeks ago, on our way to the cheese factory to stock up on cheese curds, my sister, my mom, and I first made a stop at the cemetery.  My grandpa - my dad’s dad, who died two years ago last September – is buried there next to the church I grew up in, and I go “visit” him and Grandma in there every time I’m in Wisconsin.

Myron Wittmann, saint

In the very same cemetery is the grave of the father of a friend and pastor here in New Jersey. And that very day we went to the cemetery, my friend’s wife texted to ask if I would go to his father’s grave too. I let her know I found his headstone, and she replied that the thought of me being meant a great deal to them.

Just a few days before that, on a clear and sunny 48 degree day, my brother and his now wife said their vows in that very same church. They made their marriage promise surrounded by those of us present, and also surrounded by the cloud of witnesses of family members who have died, including my grandma and grandpa, buried just yards away.

Loma Jean and Raymond Posselt, saints
Some of the stones in the cemetery, like my friends’ father and my grandpa’s, are fairly recent additions, with fresh stones and fresh grief. Others were buried so long ago the headstones are leaning and the writing unreadable. Regardless, these stones stand as reminders to what we have lost. They stand to mark the place where the earth swallowed up Grandpa, and we would see him no more. They stand as witness to our grief which also swallows us whole.
Raymond Posselt, saint

When you last heard many of today’s texts, you might have been in grief’s grip as you and your family stood graveside. Perhaps you still have yet to emerge from under that grief’s heavy shroud. For many of us, we wonder, along with Mary and Martha, where Jesus is when our loved ones have died and all we are able do is sit at the tomb and weep.

This episode in the Gospel of John began with Mary and Martha sending word to their dear friend Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill. They assume, as we all would, that being friends with Jesus might also come with the “benefits” of miraculous healing. So they must have expected him to show up in a hurry. 

But by the time Jesus arrives, he was four days late for the funeral. Mary and Martha are still grieving, and surrounded by supporters When they hear that Jesus has arrived into town, Martha got up and met him, while Mary stayed behind.

The very first words out of her mouth were “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And later, when Mary confronts Jesus, she echoes Martha, and doesn’t even know it – “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
“Lord, if you had been there…”

We can all join in with Mary and Martha here, and ask where Jesus was… when the chemo stopped working, or when your parents got divorced, when your spouse lost their job, when your son became addicted to drugs or any number of things that happen to us. Lord, where were you when we were swallowed up by grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, or regret? Lord, where are you, it’s been four day… four weeks… four years… four decades….?

Well, Jesus finally DID show up for Martha and Mary. And when leveled with this hurtful accusation, Jesus did not try to ignore their hurt feelings, make excuses for his delay, or leave in a huff, blaming their lack of faith.

Instead, Jesus wept.

Not just a couple of tears, hurriedly and discreetly dabbed away. This was some full-on sobbing – the completely consuming, can’t breathe, knocking you to the floor, eyes streaming, entire tissue box necessary type of crying. The type of crying when the grief is so immediate, so raw, so painful that it simply has to get out, no matter who is around or what people might think.

And this was JESUS… doing…the crying. In public. In front of Mary and Martha and all the others who were present.

Which made them all wonder – if Jesus cared about Lazarus so much, WHY the DELAY? What about the OTHER healings? Why did Jesus goof up Lazarus?

But, ignoring all that, Jesus, still full of emotion and grief, goes to the tomb where Lazarus lay. No to mourn and grieve, but instead to confront death head-on. And we know what happened next. Jesus – 1, Death - 0

This would not be the last time that Jesus and Death go toe-to-toe. In fact, in John, the raising of Lazarus is the last straw and sets into motion the events that lead to Jesus’ own death: his arrest, trial, suffering, his crucifixion, and burial in a borrowed tomb.

It seemed to everyone present that even Jesus could not escape being swallowed up by death. And a stone was rolled into place as a reminder and witness. Those who sealed Jesus’ tomb may have remembered Lazarus, and perhaps thought to themselves, “Maybe the one raised that Lazarus guy could have kept HIMSELF from dying. But I guess not.” Point, set, match. Death wins.

Three days later, another Mary came to his tomb to mourn. But she found there a surprise waiting for her: a tomb without a stone and a grave without a body. Death, so used to swallowing up people, had instead found itself swallowed up by Jesus, just as Isaiah said– he will destroy the shroud over all the peoples, and the sheet over all the nations, and he will even swallow up death forever. The way things were has been turned upside down. All things are being made new.

Like with his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, Jesus does not stand by to watch our grief from a distance. Jesus, the one who cried, is the one who wipes away our tears. Jesus, the one who died, is the one who removes the bitterness of death to instead promise us a rich feast and an end to separation, grief, and pain.

Jesus, the one who rose, knows what the inside of a tomb looks like. He knows what it like to be inside whatever kind of tomb we may find ourselves in, swallowed up by death, grief, illness, and suffering.

But Jesus is also outside the tomb, ordering the removal of the stone, and calling us by name to “Come out!”

This is what it means to be called a saint on this day, All Saints Sunday. To be a saint is to be called out of death to be part of God’s abundant life, right here and right now. To be a saint means being surrounded by the great crowd of the faithful who have gone before us into the glorious feast that God promises us.

To be a saint does NOT mean being extra holy, or pure, or having an immaculate life. There is nothing we can do to earn our way into sainthood. Rather, being a saint means living and trusting this notion that God loves us like crazy, and would even swallow up death for us so that we might have life. Living this way might leave us a bit dinged up from time to time, left over from our stints in the tomb. But that never stops Jesus from calling our name, to get out of the tomb and to follow him on the way.

Being a saint also means joining Jesus at the promised banquet with Grandma and Grandpa, those who have died in the last year, Lazarus, Mary and Martha… but also with other flawed, imperfect, and perhaps “unacceptable” people that didn’t expect to be there, with their own cracks and scars and tales of tombs to share. And who knows, they might be just as surprised to see US there, too.

But before we get there, between now and then, Jesus continues to show up, wipe tears from our faces, and call us forth from our tombs. And we continue to remember the saints who are no longer with us, who have gone ahead of us. And we remember that the title of saint is a gift, to all who have been in one kind of tomb or another, to all who cling to Jesus as he calls us forth into life and makes all things new. AMEN.

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