All Saints on Hallowe’en
Happy Halloween. Forgive the paradox. This is All Hallows Day, and last night was the Eve of All Hallows Day. We’ve shortened it to Hallowe’en. Our culture treats it as a great merchandising opportunity, and we treat it as a way to get ourselves or our kids dressed up as something we really want to be. But many forget today and tomorrow are celebrations of the lives of those loved ones who have left this earthly life and are now in a different and better place. Today is called All Saints Day, and tomorrow All Souls Day. These two days were called out as feast days by the Church in the 9th and 10th Centuries.
The supposed difference between the two is All Saints Day is a remembrance of those who have already reached heaven; and All Souls Day is a remembrance of those faithful departed who have died and not yet reached heaven. This is a hangover from the Catholic concept of Purgatory. The idea of Purgatory is that we are only partially forgiven for our sins. We might have committed some thoughtful, intentional sins, but are not completely sorry for them. Our repentance is incomplete. Purgatory confronts us with these sins, or debts, and gives us a chance to somehow “work or suffer them off.” Or, we may have unintentionally hurt or harmed someone in life, either by something we did, or by failing to give someone what they needed from us at the time. Purgatory gives us a chance to deal with those unintentional trespasses as well.
Presbyterians do not believe in Purgatory – a place where the remainders of the sins of otherwise good people are purged away. Presbyterians believe that God in his infinite and loving mercy redeems us and cleanses us from all sins. Therefore it is unnecessary, as Dante described it, to climb the Mountain of Purgatory to get to heaven. Heaven is open to those who repent and accept the atoning sacrifice God provides in Jesus on our behalf. We are called to repent in this life, before death of the body.
Today’s readings are deep teaching about life, death, and what happens after we have passed through this life. As you know, the bible teaches at four levels, even five. (1) The narrative level, the story is what we learn in Sunday School. (2) The Moral level is the teaching directly derived from the story. Most sermons are from this Moral level. (3) A third level is called Remez by the old Rabbis. It means Hints or Glimpses. This is a level of understanding connections between different parts of the Bible and what may seem to be very different stories. (4) The fourth level, Wisdom, comes from letting the Word of God penetrate and change our inmost lives and show itself in how we live and think. Wisdom itself is always referred to in the feminine as, Shekinah or Spirit of God. Pay attention, guys.
(5) The old rabbis also said there is a fifth level. They called it Mystery. Mystery is not accessible to our conscious minds, not meant to be understood by reason. It is meant for our spirit to feed on. This is a level of deep satisfaction to our soul; it is direct communication from the Creator God himself to the divine spark he places inside each human being. The mystery level surrounds the Bible. The mystery wraps around us whenever we hear or read the Bible, from the time we hear our first Bible story in Sunday School until the last Psalm is read at our funeral.
Today, we remember our dead. Some have died this year, some recently. Others whom we love or knew well may have died long ago. But we especially bring them to mind today. They surround us, encouraging us to go on in love and faith. The writer of the Letter to Hebrews tells us about our departed, how they are looking on and in a sense, rooting for us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Our reading from the Prophets today, Isaiah 25 describes a wonderful party on a magical hillside. What is being celebrated is the death of death. And, this party is for everyone, not just some special elect.
Every translation says the party is for ALL, not just the beatified few officially called Saints, or only for those singled out for special honors by men. This party, this celebration of joy is for all – all who have died, all who are now in the process of dying, and all who will die. It is for you and for me, as well as for those whose earthly companionship we have lost.
Let’s connect this prophecy with today’s Gospel reading in John 11. First we’ll look at the story at the moral level, the teaching level. Jesus waited there, by the Jordan, for two more days before he set off for Bethany and Mary, Martha and their dying, soon to be dead brother Lazarus. On the way, Jesus tells the disciples of a light by which he could see clearly, not the light of this world. Then he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” But, Jesus had been speaking of Lazarus’ death, so he told them straight out: “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Jesus goes to Bethany with the disciples, speaks with the mourners, and directs the stone be rolled away. Then Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out from the tomb.
At the moral level, we see the power of God to restore the dead to life. As the dry bones of Ezekiel became re-clothed in flesh, Lazarus arises from the tomb. We also see a pre-cursor of the resurrection. But, Jesus made it clear to Martha, that this was different from the resurrection. This was restoration of life within this life.
What a story! Let’s now look at the story at a deeper level, and see what hints and glimpses we are given. Bethany was a small town at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Lazarus had been dead for four days by the time Jesus showed up. There was a crowd of mourning Jews sitting Shiva with the sisters. The Jewish custom is to bury immediately and sit in mourning with the family for seven days after the burial. Martha, ever the activist, went out on the road to meet Jesus. Her faith was strong, but incomplete. She complained to Jesus; “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But, I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” A bit passive/aggressive, but understandable.
Jesus answered her simply, “Your brother will rise again.” “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” she counters. Maybe Martha was a bit petulant that Jesus was slow in coming; that he didn’t act as she expected him to act. Don’t we often complain to God about why He lets something bad happen and doesn’t intervene? Jesus gives Martha the answer that rings in our minds throughout the centuries. An answer that speaks to life in this life, and the life continuing beyond this life.
Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Mary, the contemplative, had stayed at home, mourning. Perhaps waiting for Jesus to come in his own time. Martha calls Mary aside and says, “The master is asking for you.” Mary gets up quickly and goes to meet Jesus, accompanied by the mourning Jews who had been sitting Shiva with her. All are weeping. Mary falls at Jesus feet and says, as did Martha, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” She acknowledges the power of God, but, unlike Martha, she does not complain. Jesus sees Mary and the crowd weeping; he is deeply moved. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” Mary: “Come and see, Lord.”
Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out from the tomb wrapped in grave clothes. “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Let’s go deeper into the connections and glimpses the Bible gives us:
By allowing Lazarus to die, and then restoring him to life with a powerful word, Jesus demonstrated the restoration to life of sleeping, dying Judaism. And he showed that God can save and restore. Jesus restores God’s People and prepares the way for a new understanding of God’s purpose for all people, all the nations, not just the Jews. The trigger to Jesus restoration to life? Not Martha’s accusation that Jesus could have prevented this death. No. It was the sorrowful weeping of the faithful and the weeping of sister Mary. Mary wept, the people wept. Jesus wept. Then Jesus with a mighty word called Lazarus to life.
There is great power in mourning and weeping. We weep for those we have lost. We miss them, we miss them terribly. We don’t have to weep for the dead loved ones; they are in God’s hands. We weep for our loss and our loneliness. God weeps with us. And, God will bring our faith back to life with a powerful word. With our faith, we can see the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. We experience this presence now, in this life. And we are assured that someday we will join that great cloud of witnesses, enjoying the great feast, the party, the celebration on the mountain of God described through the prophet Isaiah. We will enjoy this feast with all our ancestors, with our fathers, our mothers, our children, our sisters and brothers and our friends. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.
We are told the key to heaven, the invitation to this party on the mountain of the Lord, is forgiveness. Jesus freely died to set the cosmic balance right, to compensate for our sins. But we have a part to play. In addition to belief, we are called to repent. Repentance is the acceptance of God’s sacrifice for us.
Like Mary, we weep for our dead. We remember and honor our dead. There is something else we can do. Sometime in the life of our departed, we did something we wish we had not done, or we failed to do something we should have done for them. No matter how great or small. This is true for everyone. It is also true that sometime in the life of that person, he or she did something to you – whether thoughtfully or unintentionally. Or they failed to do or give something to you that you needed. Today, All Hallows Day, is a good day for that repentance, to make amends – to forgive and to be forgiven for any slights, any harms, any lack of love shown, any injury caused. Either by you, or by the departed. Forgive them. Forgive them in your heart. Let it go. Just love them.
And, then, ask their forgiveness for any slights, any harms, any lack of love shown, any injury caused by you, either thoughtfully or unintentionally. Now that the dead see and know clearly, they are eager to forgive – and they have already forgiven you. We still here on earth can only see imperfectly. But, the perfect word of God teaches us the power of repentance and the power of forgiveness. And the power of unconditional love.
This is the mighty word spoken to Lazarus and to us: “Come out!” Wake up! Forgive and ask for forgiveness. Become free to love unconditionally as we are loved unconditionally. Be restored to life. The great cloud of witnesses surrounding us is cheering us on.
May God add his blessing to these words.