All Saints’ Day

Jane Strohl—November 1, 2006

John 11:32-44

I am not much of a correspondent, but one evening this winter I unearthed a Christmas greeting from the pile of papers on my desk. It was from one of my college roommates and it included her new e-mail address. I was checking a mountain of accumulated e-mail, none of it very interesting anyway. So I decided to send her a line or two because I think of her and her family more often that one would ever guess from my communication habits. The next day I received a reply, expressing wonderment at the appearance of my words, since just six ours before my e-mail arrived her only child had shot himself. He was one of the statistical 15% of persons with bipolar illness who commit suicide. He was just 24. Emmy wrote back, “It helped to hear from an old friend, someone who knew my boy when he was a child. I pray for him; I pray for Lucy; I pray for our children.”… “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The world yields up countless numbers of unquiet dead, and it is right that we remember them on this All Saints’ Day. Perhaps it is true that people in our society don’t think much about dying and what happens afterwards, but there always come times when you can’t help but contemplate those questions. And today is one such occasion.

In the appointed Gospel we hear an extraordinary story. Jesus calls the four-day deceased Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, and the he rises from the dead to obey him. “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” Jesus tells Martha, one of the grieving sisters. She has apprehensively reminded Jesus of the reality of the decomposition of the body that by now will have set in. And he proceeds to keep his promise despite the fact that Martha seems more incredulous than confident. The language of the story is so rich in significance. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” We habitually confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But we are just as much in bondage to death, tangled hand and foot. And it is by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that the trappings of mortality are torn away so that we may see and move with perfect freedom.

There is a familiar picture that I have seen in many a church and home depicting Jesus holding a lantern, inclining his head toward a door and lifting his hand to knock. I was told that the point of the thing was to remind you that when Jesus comes a-knocking, you better be unlocking that door and letting him into your heart. It was the ultimate form of hospitality. But I love another version of the image that I have found Luther using: that Jesus will come and knock insistently but gently on the door of the grave and call us, just as he did Lazarus. And we will come forth, unencumbered, unbroken, no longer unquiet. “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

And so we shall: a new heaven, a new earth, a dwelling place for all creation now made whole, a dwelling place for God with us. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” On this day we remember the saints who cry out in anguish, who weep with no respite, who mourn without rest. Today we remember the unquiet dead whom the world casts out so pitilessly. Today we say to the grieving mother, “It shall not always be so. What your son could not find on earth he will be given in the kingdom of God.” The mortality rate is not 15 but 100%, but then so, by the mercy of God, is the survival rate.

My mother owns this antique doll, dating from the early 20th century. It is about the size of a three-year-old child. It has a china head, the face very pale with high flushed cheeks and glazed wide open eyes. Her mouth is slightly ajar containing two rows of flawless teeth, and she wears a white gown touched with gold trimming. She looks the way I picture the consumptive Little Nell of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. Lucy, my daughter, always pronounced the doll “creepy,” so when we went to visit my parents, she would hide her in the closet. But the last time I was back in my girlhood room I was alone, and the doll lay on the bed next to mine. I left her there, and later I noticed when I had turned out the light and a few rays slipped in from across the hall that she was transformed. Her body was motionless and chipped, her eyes still dull and cloudy. But her gown was radiant. The doll embodied the two natures of our human lives—fragile, mortal, corruptible AND clothed in splendor. The white robe of the righteousness of Christ for the saints on earth. The white robe of Christ’s resurrected life for the saints in light. And the loving kindness of God for us all.