November 1, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
All Saints, Year B
Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, Johjn 11:32-44
For many of us today’s Gospel is a surprise. On All Saints’ we are accustomed to hearing the words of the Beatitudes, those beautiful and challenging teachings of Jesus that invite us into blessedness. But the Revised Common Lectionary has not chosen that section of Matthew. Instead, we hear the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. We are left to puzzle out why this passage is chosen to illuminate the idea of the saints.
There is an immediate wisdom in this story being read today. Most if not all of us have known the grief of Martha and Mary. We have known the pain of losing someone dear to us, someone without whom we aren’t sure life can go on. Many of those were named today as we remembered our dead, our dear ones who are now at peace with God. In the midst of our immediate grief we feel at sea and lost. We want a different answer from life, from God even as much as we know death is part of biological life and always has been. We can echo those who said surely someone who can give sight back to the blind could have prevented Lazarus’ dying. Surely our medicine, with so much new knowledge, should have been able to stop the disease. Or, surely an all-powerful God could have stopped that accident from happening. Natural questions that are part of our grief.
We also see Jesus who is moved by our grief, indeed, grieves himself for his friend. If we truly believe in Jesus’ full humanity as well as his full divinity then we have an amazing assurance here that God experiences our pain and hurt. Even more profoundly, in Jesus, God knows it as we know it—a union of experience and reality between creator and created.
The story moves on as Jesus does his greatest sign yet. He raises Lazarus from the dead to show God’s glory and to demonstrate that he is the resurrection and the life. Just before we join this story, Mary confronts Jesus about her brother’s death and Jesus replies that he is resurrection and he is life, to which Mary answers that she believes. Note the present tense of those words. It is important. More importantly, he shows that Lazarus in his deepest reality is now partaking in eternal life in God, is now alive in way we can not fully imagine for it is not the same as the life we know before death. Lazarus is part of that communion of saints that exists beyond time and space and that can at times be so intimately present to us. Fully alive in God, fully dead in the material sense of the world we inhabit. Yet again a paradox in our faith that invites in hope and reminds of us the deep Mystery at the heart of it all.
There are some disturbing parts to the story. In fact, if we are honest it is a bit gruesome. We have no idea what Lazarus looks like. Is he called forth as a resuscitated corpse? He does not speak a word. He does nothing else but come forth from the tomb. He is unbound and let go. But to where? It is not a happy ending where he goes home with his sisters, sits down to dinner and they pick up as before. Lazarus does not reintegrate with his former life. What he is exactly and what happens to him is never fully answered.
Which brings us to the perhaps the metaphor and the allegory that his rising and unbinding are meant to invite us to consider. Perhaps we are meant to see an allegory for our life as Christians, our life as an active, living part of the Body of Christ. When we become baptized as Christians we symbolically die and we are symbolically raised to new life, to everlasting life. This idea is part of the Thanksgiving over the Water that we will hear in just a few moments as we prepare to baptize a new member into this communion of saints. “We thank you Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” The raising of Lazarus can be seen to my mind as a graphic depiction of the symbol of baptism, our rebirth into the present great mystery of life as part of the resurrected One. What a joyful and hopeful story we are joining.
It is also an allegory for the freedom that we are meant to encounter and destined for once we are reborn into this new journey, a new way of being in the world. Freedom is one of the persistent themes throughout Scripture. It is one of God’s deep hopes for us. Lazarus is bound in death and was also bound in life. We all are. It is a way we image the sin and death that ensnare and infect us. But life in God and for God is a release from that bondage. We hear this too in the words prayed over the water of the font: “Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Baptism is the action for us that is a reflection of Jesus’ command to the crowd to unbind Lazarus and let him go. Baptism unbinds us from sin and the power and fear of death so that we can be those people whose lives reflect the Beatitudes, whose lives are witness to life, resurrected life, over death, of love over fear and hostility. We are offered a joyful freedom to celebrate, live, love and give—all through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is the claiming of a radical freedom that we learn about through participation in community, through the sacraments, and through hearing, hearing and hearing again the Gospel of the Christ.
Today we are witnesses to the birth of a new saint, a new blessed one of Jesus. We are present at the gift of radical freedom offered and received. We who are already baptized are reminded of the tremendous response we have made and the sometimes difficult, yet life-giving hope it holds forth for us. So in communion with all the saints past, present and yet to come, we once again remember the mystery, join in the mystery, and become part of reality of an ever-present, ever-loving God who makes his home among us. We celebrate with joy that before all else we are followers of Christ and that as we grow in his stature more and more of life—all that it is and has—becomes consecrated and given to him and the work of his church in the world—a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, a feast, a place of grace and belonging.