All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2015
A Homily by Emily Rowell Brown
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 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.”
Let’s talk about miracles. Do you believe in them? What even counts as a miracle, anyway? On the one hand, we all know stories of miraculous cures for terminal illness and resuscitations of people who have left this life. But, on the other hand, we could also think about more banal instances that contain a hint of the miraculous: the reuniting of two sisters estranged for 27 years; cancer survivors, sustained and healed by loved ones, doctors, and modern medicine; airplanes and spaceships, and even trains and cars, for that matter. Caterpillars transformed into butterflies. Each and every new life.
For many people, miracles are how we can know that God exists. It is the vastness and near unfathomability of creation that points to God’s power and splendor. It is the healings and turning of water into wine and raising of Lazarus from the dead that demonstrate, especially in John’s gospel, that Jesus is God. It is the answered prayers for relief from pain and suffering that assure that God is here with us, that we matter to God.
But all this begs the question about the miracles that never come–the miracles that we desperately want, that God never provides; the sick who never find wellness again; the wrongs that are never righted; the evil that persists.
In today’s gospel, Jesus delays his trip to visit the sick Lazarus, and Mary and Martha call him on it. They ask why he did not come in time to save their brother but held on to the faith that he could save Lazarus still. Why did Jesus wait to go? And then, perhaps even more puzzling, when Jesus does go, for the first and only time in the New Testament, Jesus breaks down himself. Jesus walks into a whole crowd that is weeping and joins them.
We don’t know whether Jesus cried tears of sadness or remorse or something else, but see that our God does not will or accept death as a final reality. Lazarus teeters on the edge between this world and another, passing from one to the next and then returning back again thanks to Jesus’ miraculous intervention. Our text from Revelation describes an unfolding future where justice and beauty reigns, where God and humanity experience no separation. There will be no more weeping because there will be no more death. Wholeness, togetherness, newness: these are the words invoked to explain what God desires for us, what God draws us towards all the time…what we hope for as Christians.
Right now the line between what God promises for us and what actually is is blurry, and we live in that tension. We highlight the struggle on days like today, when we remember all those who have come before us and reflect on how they are no longer with us. At the same time, we affirm that Christians–the living and the dead, the communion of saints–do still share common ground because we are all mixed up in the glorious mystery that is God’s work but none of our legacies is yet complete. In that way, perhaps we can relate well to Lazarus, for we have one foot in this messy, imperfect world and one foot in the world that could be, that we believe on day will be. We have Jesus standing beside us as we negotiate this in-between space, telling us to have a little faith, have a little faith, because good claims victory in the end.
Why, then, if God intends to usher in a kingdom unmarred by suffering and evil, does God not just do so already? Why help sometimes and not others? Why grant miracles so gratuitously?
I wish I–or any other theologian, for that matter–had good answers to give. But, then again, maybe we are asking the wrong questions. What if, instead of focusing on why Jesus waited to come until Lazarus had already died, we dwelt upon how he wept with Mary and Martha and their community? What if, instead of wondering why John describes such a faraway, unattainable world in Revelation, we delight in the tenderness that characterizes the relationship between God and humanity, intimacy not unlike that between a married couple or parent and child? What if, instead of relegating God’s role in hurricanes and tsunamis to their creation, we found God in the relief efforts, in the hands of nurses, carpenters, firefighters, mayors and volunteers that labor tirelessly in the aftermath?
Miracles are about God showing up in extraordinary ways when we do not expect it, but the thing is, God is showing up all the time, we just don’t bother to notice. Miracles are everywhere, if only we look closely. And it is the saints–both those among us and those preceding us–who help us to develop the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the hearts to know.