All Saints Day 2018
The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 4, 2018
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. (John 11:1-45)
Well we have a beautiful passage to reflect on today, which is All Saints Day on the Liturgical Calendar, one of the high feast days of our church. This passage has got just about everything going on in it, so let’s fill up with some of its pieces and then I’ll offer some reflections.
A friend of Jesus’ was ill, his name was Lazarus and he was the brother of Mary and Martha. And because of this illness, the sisters sent a message to Jesus who was moving about various towns with his disciples and the message said, “The one whom you love is ill.” And so Jesus made his way to Bethany and when he arrived, he found that Lazarus had already died, and that he’d been in the tomb for four days.
Martha met Jesus on the road as he approached their home and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Martha then, after a brief but significant theological exchange proclaimed to Jesus, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha then went and got her sister, Mary. Mary came out of the house to meet Jesus and many followed her because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary got to Jesus, she opened with the same line, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And at this moment Jesus was “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and Jesus wept. Which was also a theological conversation of sorts, just without words.
They all went to the tomb and Jesus told them to take away the stone. Martha (who had just proclaimed him the Messiah) reminded Jesus of the practical reality that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days and that there would be a stench. And so Jesus reminded her of their earlier conversation. And they took away the stone. Then Jesus 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.”
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.” And I find that last line to be one of the most powerful in all of Scripture.
Now part of why I love this passage and find it perfect for today is that running throughout the entire story there is this beautiful presence of that which is human alongside of, even woven together with that which is holy. This gospel story is both messy and miraculous all at the same time. And so is life! And so this story resonates in profound ways.
There was the death of someone who was brother and who was also friend. We know that story, each of us knows that story of grief and loss. And in the midst of weeping, there was the embrace of those who had become family to each other. We know that story too. When love meets loss. There is that beautiful moment when the whole community followed Mary and they followed her “to weep with her at the grave.” They followed before they had any idea that they were actually processing their way into a miracle. We know that story of “being with.” And we need to also go beyond my own story or our story with this, because this week when I hear about communities and loss and love, I think about the people of Tree of Life Synagogue who have spent the week processing and weeping and mourning, after the deaths of their brothers and sisters too. And I think of the embrace offered them by the Muslim community in that city who raised tens of thousands of dollars to care for their Jewish neighbors, and in their gifts vowed to process forward with them.
I also know as this gospel story laid out what it’s like to proclaim the presence of the Messiah one moment and then later that very same day feel concern about the stench that could be released if we open our tombs. I know what it’s like to be called out of a place that feels like death, to take the risk of walking forward and to allow others to unbind me. I know the story too where we all come together to unbind one who needs to be set free.
We know this story, the mess and the miracle of it all, the profound integration of that which is human with that which is holy. And maybe saints are the people who remind us of this. They manage in extraordinary ways to shine light on the messy and the miraculous all at the same time. And saints help hold us in those places, because saints know or at least trust that in those places there is amazing grace to be had.
A few weeks ago I read an article about an extraordinary person. He’s not on the calendar of saints. I don’t actually know what religion he followed if any, but this man was a saint in this world. I’ll close with his story.
His name was Chiune Sigahara. He was born in Japan and he ran the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania during World War II. And as the article I read stated, “He saved 6,000 Jews with his handwriting.”
Soon after arriving in Lithuania in 1939, Sigahara was confronted with Jews fleeing from German-occupied Poland. His country discouraged him from offering what would very literally be life-saving visas. Sugihara talked about “that refusal to receive” with his wife, Yukiko, and their children and decided that despite the inevitable damage to his career, he would offer these people safety and freedom.
The author of the article described it like this, “Most of the world saw throngs of desperate foreigners. Sugihara saw human beings and he knew he could save them through prosaic but essential action: “A lot of it was handwriting work,” he said.
Day and night, he wrote visas. He issued as many visas in a day as would normally be issued in a month. His wife, Yukiko, massaged his hands at night, aching from the constant effort. Maybe she was a saint too.
“When Japan finally closed down the embassy in September 1940, “Sugihara took the stationery with him and continued to write visas. When the consulate closed, Sugihara had to leave. .. and while leaving, he literally threw visas out of the train window to refugees on the platform. At least 6,000 visas were issued for people to travel through Japan to other destinations, and in many cases entire families traveled on a single visa. It has been estimated that over 40,000 people are alive today because of this one man.”
After the war, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign office. Not suprising. He worked at menial jobs for the rest of his working life and it wasn’t until 1968 when a survivor, Yehoshua Nishri, found him that his contribution was recognized. Nishri had been a teenager in Poland saved by a Sugihara visa and was now at the Israeli embassy in Tokyo.
The author speaks of “moral courage” in this article, but I think can be described by us today as “what saints do.” Sugihara saw the mess all around him and the miracle that was being asked of him. He saw the life-saving unbinding that was being asked of him. And the ability to respond in the way that he did requires what this author called, “mysterious and potent combination of empathy, will and deep conviction that social norms cannot shake.” But I would add, communities of faith can help teach and nurture
“How would Sugihara have responded to the refugee crisis we face today, and the response of so many leaders to bolt the gates of entry? There is no simple response adequate to the enormity of the situation,” said the author. “But we have to keep before us the image of a single man, overtaxed, isolated and inundated, who refused to close his eyes to the chaos outside his window. He understood the obligations common to us all and heard in the pleadings of an alien tongue the universal message of pain.”
Finally from this article says its author, ‘When I was telling this story to college students I told them that there would come a time in their lives when they would have to decide whether to close the door or open their hearts.”
Saints help us decide which of those options to take. They remind us of what is possible when we process together with empathy and love. The don’t pull the shades, they look out their windows and notice the mess and the miracle, the human and the holy. And they give whatever gift they have to the ones seeking to be unbound. They embrace the neighbors with whom they are faced and offer the gift of presence, joining in the procession that longs to bring us all into miracle.
For Sugihara it was handwriting. For Martha it was proclamation. For Lazarus it was allowing himself to be called out and unbound. For Mary it was a quiet embrace and a community that gathered with her. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”
May there be no other way for us. May that mysterious and potent combination of empathy find its way into our hearts and out through our actions. May we be the saints God is calling us to be.