St. Paul’s 11-4-2018 – All Saints Sunday
Can I have a tear for our tear jar?When I was a child, my grandfather, Papa Art, often asked me this question when I had been crying. As far as I can recall, I always answered yes. After all, my tears didn’t seem to be doing me any good, and they were only going to splash down onto my clothes or onto the floor otherwise. Having received my consent, Papa Art would rub his thumb across one of my lower eyelids—saturating it with brine—and then plunge it into a jar.
Even after he had performed this same ritual many times, it still had the remarkable effect of slowing my stream of tears. It was such a bizarre request and action that it jolted me out of my sorrow. Why would my grandfather want a tear, of all things? And why for a collection in a jar?
But I also felt that this recognition of the value of my tears was, more broadly, an acknowledgment of the sorrow I was experiencing and an expression of my grandfather’s love for me.
Here is where this comes from. In Psalm 56, the psalmist declares to God, You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?(56:8). God’s esteem for our tears is an acknowledgement that our sorrow and our very lives are precious in God’s eyes.
Perhaps now is a time for tears in our lives. Eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue are dead, gunned down by an anti-Semitic man with an assault rifle. Over the past couple of weeks, at least a dozen prominent American Democrats, including two former presidents, have been the targets of assassination attempts. We have seen tears of children who have been separated from their parents, tears of parents who have lost their children to our epidemic of violence, tears of refugees forced to leave all they have ever known, and all other tears shed by the downtrodden and the marginalized.
Even a cursory glance at international news headlines yields stories just as horrific: dozens dead in Eastern Syria; millions starving in Yemen; widespread killings, kidnappings, and communal violence in central Nigeria. In the midst of life, we are in death.
This past week, Christians around the world have been celebrating All Souls and All Saints. In a world that fears, cheapens, and desecrates death, the Church invites God’s people to linger at the grave in grief, remembrance, gratitude, and hope. In a world that mistreats and abuses countless men, women, and children, the Church affirms the value of every single soul, every single life. In a world that privileges the individual, the Church honors the deep interconnectedness of God’s family across time, culture, history, and eternity. Yes, it’s true: in the midst of life, we are in death. But All Souls and All Saints remind us of a deeper truth: in the midst of death, we are promised life.
Our Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday — the story of the raising of Lazarus — is one of the most dramatic and difficult in Scripture. There are many questions which come to mind in trying to understand this powerful story. Why does Jesus dawdle when he first receives word of Lazarus’s illness? Why does Jesus tell his disciples that Lazarus is asleeprather than dead? Why does he choose to bring Lazarus back at all — does a man who’s been dead for four days even want to come back? I definitely don’t understand why Lazarus virtually disappears from the Gospel narrative once his grave clothes fall off. Why is he never heard from again?
In many ways, the story is shrouded in mystery. But today, this week, now, I cling to the two words in the narrative I do understand: Jesus wept. For me, this is the heart of the story, that grief takes hold of God and breaks him down.
Jesus not only values the tears shed by Mary and others but also responds to them with tears of his own. Jesus sheds these tears in spite of the fact that he will soon raise Lazarus from the dead, offering a foretaste of the time spoken of in Revelation when all things will be made new and every tear will be wiped away.
The raising of Lazarus points to God’s ability to overcome death, both in the soon-to-occur resurrection of Christ and in the still-yet-to-occur new creation. It also fulfills the purpose ascribed to it by Jesus when he prays that this miracle will enable the crowd tobelieve that you sent me.
But this narrative also suggests another truth about divine power. Jesus does not just wield power in order to offer another sign pointing to his identity. He acts in response to real human suffering and actual human tears. Twice in this passage we read that Jesus is greatly disturbedand deeply moved.His own tears must have been still wet on his cheeks when he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
When Jesus cries, he honors the complexity of our gains and losses, our sorrows and joys. Raising Lazarus would not bring back the past. It would not cancel out the pain of his final illness, the memory of saying goodbye to a life he loved, or the gaping absence his sisters felt when he died. Whatever joys awaited his family in the future would be layered joys. Joys shaped by the sorrows, fears, and losses they’d just endured. In Lazarus’s case, his future would be nothing like his past. Forever afterwards, he’d be known in his village as the One Who Returned. Perhaps that bizarre fact would make him a hero. Perhaps it would make him a pariah. Whatever the case, Jesus’s tears honor the reality of human change: he grieves because things will never be the same again.
When Jesus cries, he honors the nuances of faith. At no point does he expect piety to be disembodied or sanitized. He recognizes that all expressions of belief and trust come with emotional baggage. Martha expresses deep resentment and anger at Jesus’s delay, and in the next breath voices her trust in his power. Mary blames Jesus for Lazarus’s death, but she does so on her knees, in a posture of belief and submission. Likewise, Jesus’s face is wet with tears when he prays to God and resurrects his friend. This is what real faith looks like; it embraces rather than vilifies the full spectrum of human psychology.
When Jesus weeps, he acknowledges his own mortality. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the precipitating event that leads to Jesus’s own arrest and crucifixion. When word spreads about the miracle in Bethany, the authorities decide that enough is enough; Jesus must be stopped. So essentially, Jesus trades his life for his friend’s. Given this fact, I imagine that Jesus’s tears are an expression of grief over his own pending death. He knows that the end is imminent, he knows that his time with his friends is almost over, he knows that it’s nearly time to say goodbye to the lakes and skies and hills and stars he loves. In crying, he asserts powerfully that it is okay to yearn for life. It’s okay to feel a sense of wrongness and injustice in the face of death. It is okay to mourn the loss of vitality, of intimacy, of longevity. It is okay to love and cherish the gift of life here and now.
And finally, when Jesus weeps, he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change. In the story of Lazarus, it is shared lament that leads to transformation.
It’s because Jesus experiences the devastation of death that he recognizes the immediate need to restore life. It is his shattering that leads to resurrection. Perhaps Jesus’s tears can provoke us in similar ways. What breaks our hearts? What splits us open in sorrow? What enrages us to the point of breakdown? Can we mobilize into those very spaces? Can we work for transformation in our places of devastation? Can our sorrow lead us to justice?
Though we often fail to recognize and value those who sorrow, their tears are not lost on God. God’s bottle of tears must be nearly full to the brim. But God does not merely collect tears. The tears of suffering humanity cause God to be greatly disturbedand deeply moved.They call God into action—to restore that which has been lost, to bind up the brokenhearted, to usher in a new creation in which every tear shall be wiped away.
And we are called to be more than onlookers in this drama, to do more than pronounce our judgment about which people God loves and whether God could have done more to prevent certain tragedies. We too must allow the tears being shed around us to disturb us greatly and move us deeply. We need to recognize the tears that God is collecting and shedding, and to choose to take part in God’s redemptive and restorative activity on behalf of all those who weep.
Today, as we gather to honor All Souls and All Saints, as we take time to remember, to mourn, and to celebrate those who have gone on before us, I hope that Jesus’s tears can be our guide. I hope his honest expression of sorrow will give us the permission, the company, and the impetus we need, not only to do the work of grief and healing, but to move with powerful compassion into a world that sorely needs our empathy and our love. Yes, we are in death, but we serve a God who calls us to life. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it. The Lord who weeps is also the Lord who resurrects. So we mourn in hope.
Let us pray:
Lord, beloved God,
since all communion with you is prayer,
may even our tears be psalms of petition
and canticles of praise to you.
This is a prayer that you value greatly:
the prayer of our tears;
it is a prayer that you always hear
for you are a compassionate and kind God.
And, Lord, we know you understand
that when we are overcome by our tears —
unable to speak or form a prayer —
that these very tears voice volumes of verse.
All truly great prayer
rises from deep inside
and springs spontaneously to the surface.
It would then seem
that from among the many beautiful prayers,
the sacred songs and canticles of praise,
our tears may be the best worship of all.
Help us not to be ashamed of them;
show us how we can let go of control
and let this prayer of our hearts, our tears,
flow naturally and freely to you,
our blessed Lord and divine Lover.
In times of joy or sorrow,
blessed be our tears,
the holy prayers of our hearts.
They are gathered around you,
God of Forever and Ever.
Some are well known, like
C. S. Lewis,
and so many more.
Some have been forgotten, like
Agnes and Cadoc,
Tuda, Mary of Egypt,
while others have days named after them.
But many are ordinary folk,
such as the teacher from second grade
who guided our fingers under the words;
the nurse in the hospital
who held our hand while blood was taken;
the coach who trusted us with the ball,
not the end of the bench.
There is an old man who left retirement behind,
and a barren woman who laughed at your promise;
there are popes, princes, and power-brokers
who are taught heaven’s hymns
by the paupers and pretenders;
there are those who moved mountains
and those who murmured in the wilderness;
there are those who founded the church,
and those who floundered on the waves of Galilee.
just like us,
singing your praise forever and ever,
and we join in their anthem
Now, as God’s saints in this time and place,
we have the opportunity to feed others
from the abundance of all we have,
to swallow up the pain and suffering of others,
to wipe away the tears of children who are lonely and fearful.
May the gifts we offer, and the lives we lead,
reveal the One for whom we have waited
and who invites us to spread grace over all the world.
God’s people have celebrated all that God has done,
from creation, to the cross,
to the saints who have lived among us.
Now we go from this place to the work place,
the home place,
the market place;
every place living as God’s own people.
As we go forth with the blessing of God Almighty…..
The invitation is simple: come and eat of the feast.
Not a meal to nourish the body, but to feed the soul.
We receive the bread and wine connected to the ages:
to the saint of old who felt unworthy,
to the seeker eager to know God,
to the teenager who wonders what it’s all about,
to the child who eats with unburdened faith.
Woven into this time, the hopes and tears of generations.
There is great joy here.
No one is turned away for God is the host!
For this bread and this wine are the Gifts of God for the People