Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from Sunday, November 7, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today Christians around the world celebrate the festival of All Saints Sunday. This ancient festival of the church began more than sixteen hundred years ago as a way to honor the martyrs of Roman persecution.
Over the centuries, however, the emphasis of the festival has evolved to a much broader theme. In modern practice, All Saints Day commemorates not only all the martyrs but all the people of God, living and dead, who form the mystical body of Christ.
You may note, reading the Celebrate carefully, a slightly different emphasis this year. The celebrate points out that this year’s readings have the most tears. Isaiah and Revelations look forward to the day when God will wipe away all tears. John’s gospel describes the weeping of those who mourn the death of Lazarus.
On All Saints Sunday we remember those individuals who have died for the faith, but we also recall those who died in the faith. Several weeks I decided to attend my college homecoming. Unfortunately, no one came back to the reunion whom I knew or remembered. Therefore, I had some free time on my hands. I decided to drive west of the college to see the countryside along the scenic Illinois River Valley on my return trip to the Quad Cities.
I couldn’t help but drive down a narrow country road on my way back and stop by a small church in the rolling hills near the river. This white clapboard church was the first congregation I served while in seminary. Surrounding the church are rolling fields of corn and nearby thick woods. The church structure has not changed much in the intervening years, except for a small addition in back to house a fellowship hall and kitchen.
While church building may remain the same, the congregation itself has changed dramatically. Children of the original farm families have moved away to find work in larger cities. Only several widows still worship at the church each Sunday. No pastor lives in the parish anymore and a neighboring church has closed entirely.
But what always fascinates me about this church is the small cemetery on the property. I took time to get out of the car and walk among the tombstones. The people I had known, as a young man, have now died and been buried in that cemetery. There was Edwin Ommen and his wife, Doris. Edwin was wiry, skinny as a rail, and Doris was plump and good natured, but they welcomed my wife and myself into their homes many Sundays for a meal. Edwin was a talker and had a comment on every subject. Doris had a gravely voice and a hearty laugh.
For the first time I saw the graves of Fred and Hazel Heitbrink. They lived in the town of Meredosia and kept a small cabin on the Illinois River. Fred loved to fish on the river in his john boat; we often had a fish dinner with them in the summertime They always invited us to stop by for a meal at Christmas, when we visited my wife’s family. We knew them so well, but it was strange to see them no more, but only their tombstone.
I thought it interesting that this church and its’ cemetery lay beside each other on top of a hill. On a Sunday morning, when the hymns are played, the music drifts out the church window and over the graves. The congregation is all still there, but in two different places. There are those members in the flesh and those who have received the gift of the resurrection; but both the living and the dead are part of that one mystical body of Christ. When you stand in the graveyard, no stone may have been rolled away, but you feel the presence of the resurrection.
Our Gospel for this Sunday also takes place in a small country cemetery not far from Jerusalem. The Gospel of John tells us that Lazraus, the brother of Martha and Mary had fallen serious ill. The two sisters quickly send Jesus a message about their brother. Now Jesus is not that far away from Bethany where the sisters live. Certainly not more than a days walk, but Jesus does not leave immediately, but stays two days longer where he is.
But those two days longer were two days two much; Lazarus dies and is buried. By the time Jesus, arrives Lazarus has already been in the grave four days. Martha meets Jesus on the way and tells him Lazarus has died. Martha gently reproaches him when she says: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” But then she makes a testimony of her faith:
“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him. Jesus responds by saying her brother will rise again. Her faith has been rewarded.
Jesus makes a declaration to Martha that has rung through the ages and stands at the epicenter of Christian belief. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” To this proclamation, Martha replies with these words: “Yes Lord I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It is a confession of faith rivaling that of St. Peter.
Any time you stand in a cemetery, pondering the grave of someone you loved, recall again the story of Lazarus. Are we not like Martha who wishes that Jesus had come quickly to heal our grief and restore our loved one to life? That’s a natural human reaction to a tragedy. We want God to do what we want. We want him to take all the bumps out of the road of life.
But we need to remember that something very different happened in that cemetery outside of Bethany. Martha expected Jesus to do as she asked him to do. But Jesus had a far greater purpose in mind and Martha’s recognizes this fact, when she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask. God will act on her behalf through Jesus Christ.
Then the totally unexpected thing takes place. Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave. Who would have expected that to occur. Even more importantly Jesus tells her this is no trick. He says he is the resurrection and the life and all who believe in him shall never die. Lazarus anticipates the gift of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. We learn, therefore, what it means to be a saint in Martha. A saint is the follower of Jesus who trusts in the power of God made visible in Jesus Christ. You and I will encounter life’s tragedies, but may we be a saint like Martha who believes Jesus to be the Son of God sent to save us from our sins and bring us the resurrection. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.