Growing in Love of God and Neighbor

All Saints Sunday

The Rev. Leslie Mazzacano
Trinity Episcopal Church
Moorestown, New Jersey
November 4, 2018

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.  AMEN

As I shared last month I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. I was ordained on All Hallows’ Eve, 1998 with twelve other classmates. That date was chosen because the Bishop at the time, Bishop Joe Doss was also consecrated as Bishop on October 31, 1993, we then processed out to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I want to share with you a portion of the ordination service called the Examination that the Bishop addresses to the ordinand…

My sister, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.

It continues: As a deacon in the church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned…At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself…do you believe that you are truly called by God and His Church to the life and work of a deacon?

And with a resounding…I believe I am so called…was my response.

I have felt that God has truly led me through my ministry and all that I do responds to my calling of serving all people, and in particularly the poor the weak, the sick and the lonely.  And all of you as part of my Trinity family assist me in the ministry of the food pantry, food drives, Christmas, Christmas in July, visiting and caring for the shut-ins, the youth and the list goes on and on.  Without your love and support my ministry would not be thriving as it is today.  Thanks be to God and to Trinity.

With my ordination on All Hallows’ Eve that made my first Sunday as a Deacon “All Saints Day.” It was the first time I read the Gospel (which was year A, so it was the Beatitudes), set the communion table and gave the dismissal.

Since then I always think about All Saints, Day and today…All Saints’ Sunday.  It has a special place in my heart and I think of the many Saints that have gone before me. It is also a day that we celebrate bringing new members into our church family through baptism and today we will welcome John Porter Francis.

In today’s Gospel the passage is taken from the raising of Lazarus as Jesus fulfills God’s promises to bring Resurrection and life.  The raising of Lazarus took place as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. As the last of the seven miracles or signs recorded by John, it foreshadows the Resurrection and sets the stage for the plot to crucify Jesus.

The setting of the story is the village of Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, at the home of Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary and Martha are deep in shock and lost in grief for their brother Lazarus. The sisters had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. On receiving the message, Jesus had waited two long days. By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days.

“If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” This quote is from the opening paragraph of the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The author, who writes dark tales for children under the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” explains that this is how the Baudelaire children felt when they became the Baudelaire orphans after both their parents died in a house fire.

Those words of how difficult it is to convey a sense of loss fit with today’s gospel reading. Martha is hurt when she sees Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then she calls for her sister Mary who repeats that same accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Then John tells us that, “When Jesus saw her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus weeps as he approaches the tomb. This emotional response on the part of Jesus is unusual in the Gospel of John. There are several possible explanations offered by the scholars. Perhaps it is heartfelt human grief over the death of his friend—or anger at the power of sin and death that held the world captive until Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

Those witnesses that are standing nearby comment on his love for Lazarus, but question why Jesus did not prevent the death of his friend—since Jesus was able to open the eyes of the man born blind.

Jesus loved Lazarus. He weeps at the grave of his friend. Yes, this makes sense in Jesus’ humanity. This shows us that grief is not unchristian. Christ wept at the grave of his friend. We too weep over the graves of those we love. On this All Saints Sunday as we remember not just the great saints of the church, but also the saints in our own lives, we remember those we love who have died. That remembrance comes with sorrow.

It is a sorrow that does not go away. Real grief stays with you. In fact, not only can one not expect grief to go away completely, we also shouldn’t want it to. For as the person you loved is not returned to you, how can you stop grieving? The loss remains, and so does the sorrow. But grief can and does change. We pray not for an end to the grief, but for an unbearable sense of loss to be replaced by a sorrow we can bear. And in this, we are helped by the hope of the resurrection.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest, for the first time in my twenty years of being a deacon, a newborn.  This newborn who was premature and lived for three and one-half hours to me was a great gift from God. This tiny child was born and died so that his mother could live.  While his mother was lying in a hospital bed trying to save his life she started to bleed heavily, and the Doctors feared they would have to do an emergency C-section, but this baby decided that he would save his mother and was born at 3:08 am. The mother had to have a blood transfusion and she was able to hold her son for those few precious hours.  As painful as it was for his mother and family to see him slowly fade into death, he was a miracle and a saint, who sacrificed his life to let his mother live.  What a gift.  In that short time, he touched so many lives and will be remembered as a remarkable little child of God.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus knew people would continue to die. Jesus taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is Christian teaching and it is why even at the grave Christians can and do praise God.

So, while grief is a Christian response to death, Mary and Martha’s line of reasoning is filled with grief and emotion. They said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They assume Jesus was absent from the situation. But we know he was aware of what was happening in Bethany and waited two days before going.

After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is even more fully present by the power of the Holy Spirit with those we love at the time of their death.

To quote again the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

It might be hard to imagine that I am an orphan.  My father died at the age of 58 and my mother died 11 years ago at the age of 82.  It is very hard, and every time I read the gospel at a funeral I get choked up because I feel the family’s loss, feel the grief of the families who are mourning.

That grief and loss is so true. Scripture tells us that in Jesus, God knows how it feels as Jesus experienced real grief. Jesus experienced not just the death of Lazarus, but also the loss of his father, Joseph. There would have been others whom he loved who died as well. In becoming human, God was and is with us in Jesus in a way that caused him to experience the depths of human pain and loss. God can readily imagine grief as our “with-us” God has known that pain firsthand.

God is not distant and reserved. God is close, caring, and compassionate. Scripture tells us that the time is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and when even death itself will be defeated. Yet, in the here and now, there are many tragedies, personal and even national or international, which cause people to question their faith.

In all these cases one hears people ask, “Where is God?” And the answer is “with us.” God was there when the towers fell on September 11. God was there when the flood waters rose following the recent Hurricanes Florence & Michael. God was there in the recent shootings. God is there in the tragedies large and small that have us wondering why. God is there during suffering, present with those in pain, as one who learned the depths of human suffering while living among us.

Knowing that Christ knows how it feels to experience the death of a loved one, we can hear more clearly Jesus’ call to put away the fear of death. Jesus calls “Come Out!” Come out from the grave. Grief is real, but that loss is not the end. Don’t let grief overwhelm you. Grab hold of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” to those around Lazarus, and he says the same to us. We are to be unbound, set free from the power of death. For even as we find death in life, we find life in death. We know that Jesus is resurrection and life, and those of us who believe in him, even if we die, we will live. AMEN

 

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