This Sunday many of us will be celebrating the festival of all the saints, the saints known and admired and acknowledged by the church, those known personally to us, and those known only to God. This festival can have a sombre sad feel to it, especially in our world where we have lost, and continue to lose to the pandemic and violence, so many. But our readings this week point to a joy that is deeper than whatever sadness we feel at the separation we experience from our particular loved ones. For those of us living through this time, as many moments in history before, we are asked to hold the tension of great sorrow and great hope. (RCL All Saints: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; and John 11:32-44.)
All our readings this festival point to the life that is not contained by death. In the wonderful Isaiah reading we are swept up into the image of a future banquet in which all peoples will feast on rich food and well aged wines and death will be swallowed up forever. It is an image of how things will eventually be, in the fullness of God’s time. And the reading from the Revelation of John also points to a future time when all shall be made well and God shall wipe away every tear. It is an essential part of our faith that we trust even when we do not really understand how, that death and loss and sadness are not the inevitable end point of human existence, that things end well, that we flourish in love beyond the grave.
In the gospel story we are promised and challenged even more deeply I think for we are told that death is interrupted and restored by life in the middle of ordinary human experience – not only in some dream like future time. That in the middle of illness, death and grief Jesus brings restoration and renewal to his friends and his followers, in the case of Lazarus with miraculous physical resurrection which is a visible example of what can also be the spiritual truth even when physical death is not reversed. We believe, and I hope know for ourselves, that renewal and resurrection is experienced in the everyday for those who seek the Christ despite whatever very real losses may be suffered.
The life of the saints, those from long ago and famous and those from the recent past that we have known and loved for ourselves, bare witness that resurrection is experienced by those of faith even in the midst of death and loss, ending and apparent failure: insights that come in the reflection on life toward the end, words and acts of reconciliation between alienated members of the family, love that eases a difficult illness or death, generosity beyond the grave as gifts and wisdom go beyond the short allocation of years.
And of course this gospel story foreshadows Jesus’ own death and resurrection in which we all have the hope of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and life without end. In the meal of bread and wine that we share we are reminded that we live between the events of that last shared meal between Jesus and his disciples and the eventual banquet it provides a glimpse of. And so we and all the saints gone, here now and to come, live and work out our salvation in the place of struggle and at times desperate faith, as we live and die and are reborn on our way toward the new creation.
Each one of us needs to be unbound and let go to live anew. On this festival we reflect on what we need to be unbound from – what dream, regret, old hurt, unfulfilled desire, almost forgotten failure do we need to be unbound from? To be healed we need to be unbound and in order to be so we need to allow God to loosen what we hold onto so tightly. For all that we want for the hurt to stop how often do we hold tight to one, the deed, that hurts because we fear who we might be without that part of our experience. Who would we be if not the one who was wronged by such and such?
I sometimes wonder how much joy, power, love, healing is waiting inside the kernel of each of our faiths, and our communal faith, waiting for us to let go of what we have so that we can have more, new, eternal being? As we prayed for new ways of seeing last week, maybe we can dare to pray for new levels of letting go and of being available to what might be waiting to emerge within and from us.
To let go need not be to forget, indeed we may be freer to remember more truly when we allow ourselves to be unbound from the hurt, the pride, the fear. Many of us will be lighting candles for the departed (literally or figuratively, on our own or in community) this All Saints day. Some of whom we will have loved and been parted from without doubt or regret but for other relationships there may be regret and maybe even guilt at last words or moments. But it is never too late to bless on their way those who have gone and with whom we were not at peace with or ready to let go. We can do that now. Knowing that in the fullness of God’s time we shall be reunited. I believe that union with God is what heals and that can be in prayer now, in community, even beyond the grave. Mercy can reach us where ever there is need. Life without end or without limit to hope.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.
Advent will soon be with us. This year I have prepared two courses to help us go deeper into the season and if you are a worship leader to inspire you in your own work. Take a look and consider.