All Saints Day

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 3 November 2018. You can read it again here:

Surely today’s gospel reading must be one of the most dramatic in the New Testament. There is a death in the family – not just any family, but close friends of Jesus – he used to stay in their house when he came to Jerusalem. It was the brother of Mary, who, if you remember, was the one who loved to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him teaching. She came to Jesus and protested – if only he had been with them this wouldn’t have happened. She was sobbing her heart out, and her friends with her were crying as well. Jesus didn’t tell them off for not having faith – he cried, too. He asked where the body had been placed, because the Jewish custom was not to bury bodies, but to seal them into caves. He told them to open the tomb. Martha, the other sister, was there. She explained to Jesus that after 4 days the body would be decomposing, but Jesus insisted. And out came Lazarus, still in the bandages they used to wrap around corpses. I expect everyone was too astonished to move – Jesus told them to unbind him and let him go.

Today is All Saints Day. Now I don’t know what the word “saint” means to you. It conjures up images of stained glass windows. We usually think of saints as people long ago. If someone is called saintly, we would expect them to be long suffering and perhaps a bit humourless. But they come in all shapes and sizes. Today we remember not just the 12 disciples and well known saints like St Francis, but also the ones like Mary, Martha and Lazarus who don’t get much of a mention the rest of the year. In the Anglican Church our idea of saints is bit fuzzy – we are happy to talk about the old saints like St Luke or St Margaret, but we don’t declare people saints in the way that the Roman Catholic Church does. For instance, Mother Teresa has been declared by the Pope to be Saint Teresa of Calcutta. The Anglican way has the advantage that there is no firm boundary between the saints and us. Saints are people that can inspire us by their lives. We can ask them to pray for us and we have a sense of their presence. And they can keep us company.

In the well known All Saints Day hymn we sing “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine”. It’s not that saints didn’t have problems, but because now they rest from their labours and their struggles are over. So don’t think saints were perfect. The disciples, for example, were always getting it wrong, and there is nothing to suggest that they became perfect later in their lives – St Paul makes it quite clear that he at times found obeying God difficult. An example of someone from more recent times is Florence Nightingale. At the age of 30 she experienced God calling her to work for the sick. She broke off her engagement, so that she could dedicate herself wholeheartedly to the work. After superintending a nursing home in London she went to Turkey to nurse soldiers injured and diseased during the Crimean war. She was known as the Lady with the Lamp, because she used to visit the wards last thing at night to bring comfort where she could. But I don’t think that I would have liked to be one of her nurses. She was ruthless, domineering and impatient. And she was no shrinking violet – she made sure that she received status and recognition. We can take inspiration from her good qualities, while realising that she had her imperfections. She has a special day when she is commemorated in the Church of England – August 13th.

But ordinary people, too, can be saints. I’m sure each one of us knows someone who quietly and unassumingly helps out people in trouble, keeps an eye on elderly neighbours and is always ready with a listening ear. They would laugh at the thought that they are saints, yet they inspire us to care for others better. They are the unsung heroes, yet they are our saints, too.

Today’s reading is about a man coming back from the dead. Not Jesus, not one of the disciples, but an ordinary friend of Jesus. We know nothing else about Lazarus, or what happened to him later. But in the releasing of Lazarus from the tomb we see the power of Jesus over death. Lazarus was uniquely restored to an earthly life – we don’t expect the same to happen to us or to those we love. But in hearing this story tells us that for us, one day, there will be resurrection, too.

As a child I was taught that John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept. Those two words say it all. We know what it is to weep when someone dies – no elaboration is necessary. He grieved alongside Mary and Martha, even though he knew what would happen, that death does not have the last word. He empathised with their grief, and our grief, and the grief of the whole world. To have faith does not end our sorrow, but it gives us comfort that one day we will rejoice again. Let’s hear once more those verses for the book of Revelation.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more

This evening we shall have the All Souls service to remember those who have died this year. Next week will be Remembrance Sunday when we focus on those who have died in war. But today we wear white robes, because today is a day of rejoicing. We remember all those who have inspired us, in the Bible, in books or in our own lives, and we know that they are gone before us to the place of everlasting love, where one day we shall be united with them.

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