All Saints Sunday, Year B
7 November 2021
Since I grew up in one country and have made my home in another, I have always had an interest in the differences between cultures.
And being a pastor and burying people I have always been intrigued with the way a culture treats death because it tell us a lot about that culture. And so in Winnipeg I learned that the Filipino community celebrates a wake with music and food and takes over the funeral home for the night. And while I never had the opportunity to take part in such wake, it seems to speak of the importance of community, and a love for the deceased that is stronger than our fear of death.
In Germany, where I was raised, it was customary to lower the coffin at burial. Immediate family members would drop a rose onto the coffin, while all others would take a scoop of dirt and thus physically participate in the burial. I perceived that as an acknowledgement of death and that difficult times must be met together, and yet in a much more restrained way than in the Filipino community.
In Canada we too gather to support one another, at the service, at a luncheon, and we write cards, buy flowers, and deliver casseroles.
Our language is often less direct, and we cover up any soil at the cemetery with astro turf lest someone be reminded of death and of their mortality.
And then there is a cultural shift that has been happening for some time. Some let is be known while they are still living that they don’t want a funeral, forgetting that the service isn’t just for them, aside from the fact that everyone deserves to be mourned and to be remembered.
And one day I will study burial customs with more rigour, for what we believe about death also tells what we believe about life.
And yet all this is rather clinical. At best these are cultural, anthropological observations, at worst they are pretentious conjectures.
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany his friend Lazarus has died. The evangelist does not withhold the disappointment at Jesus’ late arrival. Both Mary and Martha, one after another, say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21, 32) That is not only a statement of faith. It is first of all lament, and it implies the question as to why Jesus took so long.
A little while later the townsfolk ask, whether the One who had opened the eyes of the blind man, could not have kept Lazarus from dying. (v.37) Perhaps you have asked the same thing.
This is no clinical observation of burial customs and rituals. This is existential. Why could Lazarus not have lived? We have asked that question, not just about Lazarus but about those we love, even while acknowledging the reality of death. Our questions are about why now and not later, or why in this way.
When my maternal grandparents died, I did not attend their funeral, for in those days children did not attend funerals. And so the first funeral I attended was the funeral of a friend from our kayaking club. He was 18 which was a couple of years older than I was at the time. He and two friends had been on a cycling tour when a drunk driver ran into them.
My friend’s funeral was held in the cemetery chapel, yet the chapel was far too small for the many mourners. Following the first part of the service held in the chapel, we processed to the grave where the service continued.
The image that imprinted itself on my mind is that of the boundless grief I saw in the face of my friend’s mother as mourners filed by the parents one by one to personally express their condolences. It seemed more than they could bear. Seeing such grief I left. I did not want to add to their burden.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we learn that Jesus was in every way as we are, except that he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) In the gospel we learn that Jesus was overcome with emotion. Our translation says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. (v.33) A couple of verses later we learn that Jesus wept.
We tend to conflate these expressions into one great sadness. Jesus was sad, Jesus wept, is what we come away with. But the Greek verbs in verses 33 and 35 are different verbs. Luther translated verse 33 as something like this, when Jesus saw Mary weeping, he became angry and downcast. In The Message Eugene Peterson translates the verse as, When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him.
My maternal grandparents died in my childhood home and I was present when my grandmother died. I have presided over many funerals, and death has almost become something normal, part of life, as we have come to say.
And yet Jesus displays anger at the death of his friend Lazarus. Anger perhaps not unlike anger we have experienced. And while death is part of our reality, I have said many times that death sucks, especially during these last two years.I would use stronger words if I could.
While it is certainly true that the story of the raising of Lazarus provides a preview of what awaits Jesus, namely his own death and resurrection, I believe that John Calvin is correct when he says, Christ does not come to the sepulcher (of Lazarus) as an idle spectator, but like a wrestler preparing for the contest. Therefore, no wonder that he groans again, for the violent tyranny of death that he had to overcome stands before him.1
And so on this All Saints Sunday, we not only remember the saints who have gone before us, among them our loved ones, because All Saints is not a memorial day for the dead.
Instead, All Saints proclaims the resurrection, affirms God’s salvation, affirms the Communion of Saints, affirms that death, while part of our human reality, is not part of God’s creation, but that when Christ was raised upon the cross and rose from the dead God defeated death.
Death was not part of creation, corruption only entered the world after the fall. The One who comes to redeem the world also comes to restore creation and to give life to the world.
And while we mourn those who have gone before us we are people of hope,2 remembering Christ’s resurrection and promise, looking forward to the new heaven and the new earth, and the home of God among us mortals.3
Thanks be to God.
1 Calvin, Commentary on John 11:38, quoted in The Gospel of John, Theological-Ecumenical Readings, Cascade Books, Eugene, OR 2017, page 101
2 see 1 Thessalonians 4
3 see Revelation 21