In a book called “The Mission Table: Renewing Congregation and Community” (Augsburg Fortress, 2013), former Metro NY Synod Bishop, Stephen Bouman, tells a story about a funeral. He was presiding graveside for a Korean Lutheran family and when the service was over people started heading to their cars, and he assumed they were leaving. Only, they didn’t get into their cars. Instead, they started bringing things out of their cars – cloths and blankets, baskets full of food and drink – and they sat there among the graves and they held a feast. This, dear ones, is an act of defiance in the face of our last and greatest enemy, death.
And it’s an amazing way of living into the vision the prophet shares in Isaiah chapter 25. The vision is of a mountain shrouded in death, and of all peoples covered with a sheet or shroud. And it’s on this mountain, it’s in this place of death, that God comes and prepares a rich feast for all peoples. Only, notice, God doesn’t eat the rich food that God prepares. No. God swallows up death, forever, and wipes away tears, and removes disgrace, and in response, the people say: Lo, THIS is our God! We have waited for this God to come and save us, and
- now we rejoice!
- Now we set a picnic blanket down in the place of death, and we hold a feast, and we tell stories of our beloved dead.
- Now we say to death: you are vanquished! You are finished, done in, wiped out, conquered, defeated, swallowed down whole by the Lord for whom we have waited!
Let us be glad and rejoice in the salvation of the Lord!…
There’s a tension in our keeping of this day, and in the readings from Scripture that we read on this feast of All Saints. Jesus, the resurrection and the life, God in flesh, demonstrates God’s power over life and death, by raising Lazarus from the dead, but the reality is that poor Lazarus had to die again. He didn’t live forever after this. And Isaiah and Revelation point to a time and place beyond our time and place, a time secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also a time that is unfulfilled – not yet fully realized. We know the promise of eternal life, and we confess that God in Christ, by his dying and rising, conquered sin and death once and for all, but we also know that we and our loved ones still die. The promise, in our daily experience, remains unfulfilled.
We read Isaiah, and we hear all of this future tense language about what God will do on the mountain, but it’s not happening yet. We read Revelations, and we hear the one on the throne, the Alpha and Omega, say: It is done! Finished! Completed! Ended! Over! No takebacks! and yet, in the past 12 months, 22 people – members, friends, family members – 22 from this community of faith have died. We’ll name them in our prayers in a little while. That is our daily reality in this world still struggling with sin and death, still awaiting the final act in this great drama of salvation…
I know a family that keeps an empty place at their table, when they gather for holiday meals. They’re not awaiting the coming of the prophet as Jews do at Seder. Instead, they’re trying to be honest about the fact that there are people, loved ones, who used to be at the table with them, who are no longer there, for a number of reasons
- Changed circumstances
- New jobs or living situations
- Broken relationships
There are lots of reasons, death among them.
In my own family, we share a common cup at the start of our Thanksgiving meal each year, and, even as we give thanks for what we have in the now, we remember those who no longer gather to share this cup.
And we know and we remember those who used to stand or kneel beside us at the Lord’s Table, who now stand on the other side of this Table where we share in this foretaste of the feast to come…
But what do we do with this knowledge? How does this compel us out in mission and ministry? Well you’ve heard me say it before, and, on this day when, as part of our annual stewardship emphasis, we consider how God places God’s gifts in us for the sake of the Gospel and the good of all the needy world, I say it again: we are incomplete unless we are all together, each and every member of Christ’s Body. When we choose to absent ourselves from this assembly, when we separate ourselves from the rest of the Body, when we do not freely share with the community that which God has first given to us – our time, and talent and treasure – then we are all less than we are meant to be. We need one another to be fully who and what we’re meant to be in Christ.
As you all know, I hope, and if you don’t, count this as your invitation, we will be gathering after worship today to share in a time of Asset Mapping – a time of intentional, guided conversation meant to help us uncover God’s gifts in us, and to help us think together about how those gifts might be used, that is, how God might be calling each of us to share those gifts, to advance the mission and ministry of the Church in this time and place. It should be fun. And, there’s going to be a wonderful and abundant brunch served, as well. And there’s no reason at all we shouldn’t all be home in time for kickoff, well-fed and nourished and ready for whatever it is we do with our Sunday afternoons and evenings…
On a related note, then, I want to point out one last thing from today’s Gospel, which you’ve probably heard before, but which certainly bears repeating.
Jesus doesn’t act alone in John 11
- First he has members of the community roll away the stone
- Then he prays to the Father
- Then, after calling Lazarus forth from the tomb
- He tells those gathered to unbind him and let him go
We’re not in this alone, and we were never meant to be. Doing the gospel, living into the people and community God has called us to be, proclaiming peace, and liberty, and forgiveness of sins, and grace, and abundant eternal life in the name of Jesus, isn’t something we do alone. We didn’t set ourselves free on our own. No one does. We need to stand together, and, having heard the resurrecting word of grace, we need to unbind one another, so that we will be free to be all that God in Christ has called us to be together.
Here and now.