Sermon-All Saints B
November 7, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Several years ago, when I was living in NYC as a seminarian, I was on a walk with my dog and ran into a fellow-dog-walker whom I chatted with from time to time. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and so of course, on that day our talk turned quickly to how we were each coping with the aftermath of the storm. Her biggest disappointment she said, aside from having to walk up and down 10 flights of stairs with her dachshunds, was that she would miss Bible study that night.
“The pastor himself called me just to see how I was doing,” she said. This had meant a lot to her but the real disappointment in not going was that she was supposed to have been taking a young man from the next block over who not long ago had been in a near fatal accident. He had been a coma for nearly three weeks and when he came to he said that he had had a religious experience. He had been raised Christian but he hadn’t set foot in a church for years and then, and coming out of the coma and having this near death experience on his mind he felt as if he had nothing to hold on to. He wanted to learn everything he could he had told this woman, and she thought she should do what she could to help.
But then, what she said next really surprised me. “But, you know,” she said, “I don't really believe in any of that stuff. I think that when you die, you're just dead.”
The conversation continued a bit longer and she peppered me with questions because she knew I was a seminarian and thought I must have strong opinions about such matters. I have to admit, though, I couldn't give her any answers that satisfied her. I don't know that anyone could ever give her answers that might satisfy her, but that encounter has always stuck in my memory and, as I've reflected on today's celebration of All Saints, I've found a lot of value in that short semi-contentious conversation. You see I think that this woman’s attitude is not all that uncommon. Certainly, I have atheist friends who say such things but I've also encountered others of various faith traditions such as the woman I've just described, who find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept common ideas about an afterlife.
This is a day, you see, when we celebrate the lives of those who have died. It is a day when we not only pray for them but also pray that we might one day be in heavenly community with them and so, unlike my dog-walker friend, not only can I not believe that when we die we are simply dead, but rather my faith tells me that when we die we have hope of new life, new being. As Christians we await resurrection.
In our Gospel reading for today we hear the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It's a familiar story but yet I find it strangely illuminating each time I hear it. This time it's that last sentence that Jesus utters: “Unbind him and let him go.”
Jesus is referring literally to the strips of burial cloth that still cling to Lazarus' face and hands; figuratively, however, Jesus' words point us elsewhere―Lazarus has been freed from death. No longer is Lazarus or any of us bound by death for in Christ we have eternal life.
Death, as one might ordinarily think of it, isolates. It's a drastic severing of relations that can never be healed. I don't think my dog-walker friend would have used such language but when I think of what she said, “when you die you're just dead,” that's it. That's death as the ultimate isolater.
But consider those saints we remember today, the faithful as well as the not so faithful. Those whom we've known and loved, even those we haven't known whose lives continue to give us gifts. Far from isolating, in their deaths they continue to be with us, to be in our hearts and on our minds, even in prayer with us.
Almost twenty years ago my father died of lung cancer. The months leading up to his death were agony for him and for the whole family, but something happened to him and to us in his death. The father that had raised me and cared for me, the physical being of that father was gone. What remains, however, what lives on in my heart and in the communion of all the saints, the part that I pray for today, is a part of him that I never knew until his death.
In an early phase of my discernment process for the priesthood, in a meeting with the commission on ministry, I was asked about my relationship with my parents. Specifically, I was asked about how close I had been with my father, what things had brought us together. I surprised myself, and I know the committee, when I said it was his death. I say that not because I don't wish he were still living but because in his death I became aware of a far deeper presence of which his physical being was only a shadow. He is with me and delivers me from separation so that I may be brought back to myself and to God. For me, for him, for all the saints, death is not an isolating event. On the contrary, the central concept of our faith is that we are liberated from death. We are unbound and set free, and in death we continue on in communion―not isolation.
Today, All Saints Sunday, is one four Sundays in the Church calendar that is designated as most suitable for Baptism, or as is the case for us today, renewal of our Baptismal vows. You see, as we commemorate those who have gone before us, we celebrate their witness so that we may be brought with them in unity to God. Baptism brings us into communion; it’s what unites us as the whole Body of Christ, both living and dead. As we renew our Baptismal covenant we are reminded that we share in the Risen Life of Christ right here and right now and that when we step forward to this table, when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, we participate in God’s love not only with one another who are gathered here but with the faithful from throughout history. It’s a bit of a foretaste of that heavenly banquet of peace to which Isaiah alludes, where all people are gathered for a feast of rich food and well-aged wines, gathered together and not separated by time—or even geography or doctrine for that matter. There is no separation. We are made new and raised to new life with us here gathered and with all the company of Heaven. All Saints Day connects us to the past as we remember those who have gone before us and, at the same time, connects us here, in the present, to the hopeful future where all things and all peoples are united in God’s love.
It’s common on All Saints Sunday to pray for those loved ones who have died, and you have the list in your bulletin. What I want you to remember is that though we don’t recite this list each week we remain united with them. We join with them and they pray with us as we offer our worship each week. Bodily death is a reality but it is not the the last word; it need not bind us or isolate us.
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go.” Amen.