Tears (All Saints)
There is a common thread running through our readings today, and that common thread is tears. Tears are the very human response to pain and death, the shroud, to use the words of Isaiah, that is cast over all peoples. In our gospel reading, Jesus confronts the reality of the death of his young friend Lazarus, and the tears of the sisters Mary and Martha, and he is deeply moved. Jesus weeps. In our first two readings, both the prophet Isaiah and John, the author of the book of Revelation, are speaking to peoples under siege, people who weep, and they both in turn promise a day when God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Later in our liturgy we will read the names of those who have died. We, in our time, during these past twenty months of pandemic, we have been touched more than in previous years by illness and death. We too have wept. And it seems to me that wherever and whenever such tears are shed, we as humans are put in touch with a yearning deep inside each one of us, a yearning for a world where death and pain are no more, a world in which every tear is wiped away.
A number of years ago, as part of my pastoral care work at a high school, I received an emergency call to come into the school. One of the students had been killed in a car accident overnight, and the students and staff, understandably, were having a hard time of it. I spent a lot of time at the school that week, and there were a lot of tears. And in the midst of those tears many of the students asked the same question, albeit in a variety of different ways. Is this all there is, or is there more? Is there a heaven, is there life after death, is there a time or place where all tears will be wiped away, where death and suffering will be no more?
Throughout the ages, across continents and cultures, there have been prophets and visionaries who have answered these questions with a resounding yes and have offered up visions in response to our yearnings. In our readings today we heard two such visions, one from Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet who lived in Judah some 2600 years ago, and the other from John, the apostle who lived in exile on the Greek island of Patmos some 600 years later.
Each use a variety of words and images to convey their vision of a world, of an end time, where every tear will be wiped away. It will be a great feast on God’s mountain. It will be a new creation, in which death has been swallowed up. It will be a new heaven and a new earth, where the sea’s forces of chaos and destruction will be no more. It will be a holy city, the river of the water of life will run through it, the leaves of the trees will bring healing and God will dwell there with his people and wipe every tear from our eyes.
Is it helpful to have these visions of the future? Is it good for us to know how our story ends? Does it make a difference in our lives today?
I’m reminded of a popular book by Steven Covey that many people of my generation will know, called 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. The second of his seven habits, you might recall, is this:
“Begin with the end in mind.”
His advice was that rather than let ourselves be swept up and tossed to and fro by the chaos and events of our lives, we should have a vision of the future, we should look towards the end, and then live each day with that end in mind.
Knowing the end helps us to move forward. We begin with the end in mind because these visions that God has given us, through Isaiah, John and others, aren’t meant to be a just a spoiler. No, they are intended to reach back through time and shape who we are today, so that we as a church might provide a glimpse of that end and a foretaste of where it is we are going. It is the end that gives us our purpose and our meaning both as individuals and as the body of Christ, as we try to live our todays in harmony with the vision we have been given of tomorrow.
What do these visions teach us about being God’s people in our time and place? Can our church be a source of that abundant, vibrant life that Revelations envisions, flowing like a river which has God as its source? Might our churches offer a foretaste of the healing that is promised? Might we be able to offer the world a glimpse of God with us, in our midst? Can our Sundays become miniature versions of that great feast for all peoples that Isaiah envisions on the mountain top?
And can these great visions give us the hope that we need to persevere and not fall into despair on days when our lives are full of tears?
It’s difficult living with pain and death. That’s why Isaiah and John hold out for us the end of our story, to help us to get through these days. The day is coming when God will wipe away every tear.
We long for this vision to be true.
But can we trust it? John asserts that these words are trustworthy and true, but can we know them to be trustworthy and true? Are these visions simply the product of fertile imaginations or were these visionaries truly in touch with a greater reality? Is there a basis in history for believing this to be true? Do we have reason to believe that there is a God who will dwell with God’s people and wipe away every tear?
These are the questions we wrestle with, just as many of the teens at that high school wrestled with these same questions in the wake of the tragic death of their friend. Where do we begin? John, who in today’s second reading gives us the vision, that same John in his gospel points to where we might want to begin our search.
John’s gospel is the account of the life, death and resurrection of a man from Nazareth who was born some 2000 years ago. The opening lines of that gospel tell us that in this person, the Word who was God became flesh and dwelt among us.
We as Christians tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth. We tell the story of his wisdom, of his compassion, of his love and forgiveness. We tell the story of those who followed him, those like John who realized that when they looked upon him, that was as close as they were going to get in this life to seeing God. In today’s gospel reading John gives us an account of Jesus’ own encounter with death. His friend Lazarus, was a young man who also died too soon in tragic circumstances. Jesus experienced death and responded to it in the same way that we do: with tears and with deep emotion that cries out that this cannot be the final word on human existence.
In today’s reading, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is a stunning event, but it is not a solution to the human problem of death. Wonderful as it might have been that Lazarus was returned to his friends and family, everyone in this story knows that this is but a temporary reprieve, that death had been put off but would come again.
The story of Lazarus is not a solution but rather a sign. It is a sign which points to yet another story which unfolded in history in the weeks following the raising of Lazarus. It is the story of another group of men and women who suffered as yet another young man died in tragic circumstances.
It is the Easter story, the story of men and women who responded with tears to the tragic death of their friend and teacher, men and women who scattered in fear, men and women who asked the same questions that we do and who longed in the same way for something more when faced with death. And then, something remarkable happened. These men and women experienced Jesus as alive, as living beyond death. In ones and twos, in larger groups and finally to a group of 500 at one time, Jesus appeared, risen again on the other side of death. And though these witnesses struggled to put what they had experienced into words, put it into words they did, and these words have been proclaimed around the world, and we have heard them in our own day. Was their experience real? Was it trustworthy and true? For those who were there, this experience of life beyond death was so real that it changed them, and they were compelled to share what they had seen and experienced with others, even, in many cases, at the cost of their own lives.
I believe that this vision that we share of a world where God dwells with his people, where every tear is wiped away, where death and suffering will be destroyed, this vision is trustworthy and true. We have felt it in our yearnings, we have heard it in the visions of the prophets, we have glimpsed it in history in the Easter story, we continue to experience glimpses of it in our own lives. We are an Easter people, we are a people of hope. One day, all our tears will be wiped away.
Today, we will persevere, in faith and in hope. And we are called to raise people up, to unbind them and set them free.
Homily: All Saints Day, Yr B, Oct 31 2021, Trinity
Readings:Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24; Rev 21:1-6a; John 11.32-44
Image by Kindel Media