My final sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church.
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.
All Hallows Day
Today is November 1st, and on this day we celebrate All Saints Day. This day used to be known as All Hallows Day, and the evening before as All Hallows Eve, which of course we have come to know as Halloween. The Old English word “hallow” means “holy,” which is something special, set apart, and sacred. So when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We are really saying to God, “let your name be made holy;” “may we recognize and treat your name as sacred and special.”
Likewise, in the New Testament, the English word saint translates the Greek word for holy. So a saint is a holy person. But—and this is a very important point—in the New Testament, all Christians were called saints, all Christians were regarded as holy. In other words, unlike today, it wasn’t just a special class of Christians who were called saints. All Christians were saints, were holy by virtue of the simple fact that they had the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. When a person came to trust Jesus Christ, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit. And so, they became holy the moment they became a Christian. That’s why, for example, when Paul writes the Christians in Ephesians, he addresses them as saints.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1–2).
So today, on All Saints Day, we remember before God all Christians who have passed way, who have been taken away by death… death, that “shroud that is cast over all peoples, [that] sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isaiah 25:8).
Today, I am reminded of my mother, who died in early 2002. I remember Rebekah and I making the trip from Pasadena, California to Woodward, Oklahoma. Emma was 14 months old at the time. At Mom’s funeral, I was asked to read one of the passages of Scripture that she had chosen. It was from Ecclesiastes, that famous passage that begins,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die;… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 4).
As I mounted the lectern, I was aware of the fact that at many funerals grief and sorrow are discouraged, and sometimes even treated as contrary to faith. If you really believed in Jesus, the argument often goes, instead of selfishly mourning the loss of a loved one, you should be celebrating the fact that they are in a better place. Now, I never understood this, so before I read the scripture, I offered a brief reflection, which was drawn from today’s gospel reading.
Jesus and Lazarus
My goal was to give people the freedom to grieve and mourn and to express their sorrow and sadness, just like Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus. Twice in today’s gospel, Jesus is described as being “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend, “Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but perhaps the most powerful: “Jesus wept.” And here’s what strikes me about Jesus’ response. Jesus knew what he was about to do. Just a few moments earlier, Jesus had told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life… Your brother will rise again.” Jesus knew that he was about to turn their mourning into joy and their weeping into laughter. Yet when he saw their deep sadness, he didn’t dismiss it. He didn’t say, “There’s no need to cry, I am about to fix all this.” No, Jesus didn’t dismiss their sorrow as irrelevant or unnecessary. Quite the opposite, he joined them in their sorrow. In just a few moments, Jesus was about to bring Lazarus forth from the grave, yet he took the time to weep. He took the time to express his own grief and sorrow. He wasn’t just weeping to mourn with the mourners, Jesus was expressing his own sense of loss at the death of his friend. Jesus wept his own tears. So if Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing full well what he was about to do, then I think we have permission to mourn and grieve over those whom death has taken from us, especially today on All Saints Day.
The Tears of God
But that’s just one lesson that the tears of Jesus teach us. Here’s another: the tears of Jesus are the tears of God. At the beginning John’s Gospel, the author offers a poetic description of who Jesus is as the incarnate Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And this Word became flesh. The eternal Son of God, through whom all creation came into being, became a particular flesh-and-blood human being, Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus is the face of God. He is the spitting image of his heavenly Father, so whatever Jesus does reveals something about his Father. Whatever Jesus says and does, God says and does. So when Jesus heals a man born blind, that is God healing a man born blind. That makes sense to us, but how about this. When Jesus stands at the tomb of Lazarus and weeps, God is also standing at the tomb of Lazarus and weeping. The tears that flow down the face of Jesus are the tears that God is shedding. This is the great mystery of the incarnation, and it reveals something profound about God.
Our God who created the heavens and the earth is not unaffected by human suffering. Our God can be moved. Our God is capable of sorrow just as our God is capable of joy. Jesus reveals that our God shares in our suffering. God sheds our tears, and God values our tears. God created the heavens and the earth and so, according to the psalmist, God knows how many grains of sand there are in the seas. He knows how many stars make up the night sky. In fact, he has given them all a name. He knows the number of hairs on each of your heads. (Now granted.. that isn’t saying much given the state of some of your heads, but it is still impressive.) And guess what else God knows about you. God knows the number of tears you have shed throughout your lifetime. Not only because he was with you in your times of sorrow, sadness, and fear, even when you did not feel his presence. God knows the number of tears you have cried because he has collected them. In Psalm 56, the psalmist writes: “You have kept count of my tossings; [You have] put my tears in your bottle. Are they not recorded in your book?” “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.”
Just think how much God must cherish and value our tears if he takes the time and energy to collect them in a bottle and to keep track of them in a book. And of course, we are not just talking about the tears we shed over the death of a loved one. We shed tears for lots of reasons; we experience grief and sorrow whenever we lose something of value, something we cherish: when a dream for the future disappears, when we lose a job, when an important relationship is broken and you don’t know how to fix it. Of course, we sometimes shed tears of joy, at the birth of a child or when we remember with gratitude someone we have lost.
And sometimes the tears we shed are a mixture, tears of sorrow combined with tears of joy. For example, there may be a time in your life when God calls you to go from one place to another. On the one hand, you are excited about what lies ahead. But on the other hand, you are sad because you must leave another place behind, a place that has welcomed you and your family and the gifts you have to offer, a place that has cherished you and become your home, a place that has supported you, helped you grow and mature, and prepared you for what lies ahead, a place that you could never repay, a place that was so wonderful that, if you tried to say thank you, you might not be able to make it through the rest of your sermon.
Yet, all of those tears, be they tears of sorrow and gratitude, be they tears of anxiety and hope, all of those tears are collected in a bottle, for they are all valuable to God.
No More Tears
But that’s not how this story ends for there will come a day when there will be no more tears, not because God will get fed up with our crying, but because God will destroy death once and for all, and God will bring such healing to our souls, our lives, and our world that we can scarcely imagine. In that day, God will come to live among us forever, and his presence will be a blessing. In that day, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and it will mean something because our God is acquainted with suffering, and he has cried our tears. And when he wipes away our tears, he will collect them all in his bottle, and then put a stopper in it. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” What a glorious day that will be.
But even more glorious is the fact that we don’t have to wait for that day to come in its fullness before we can experience some of its blessings. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, that future day has already dawned and its rays shine back into our lives so that, even in the midst of our suffering and grief, we can experience the presence of God which brings hope. On this day, we remember our loved one who died, and we remember them with both sadness and joy. But on this day, we also remember the one who wept with us, who died for us and who was raised that he might bless us with life. And so,
Go in safety, for you cannot go where God is not.Go in love, for God’s love alone endures.Go in peace, for that is God’s gift to those whose hearts and minds are in God’s son Jesus.
And the blessing of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, rest upon you this day and remain with you always. Amen.