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Summary: For all the Saints, who from their Labors rest...

All Saints Sunday November 1, 2009 “Series B”

Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for all your saints throughout the ages, both great and small – all who have revealed your word in faithfulness and who have enabled the proclamation of your redeeming grace in Jesus the Christ to be passed on from generation to generation. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, inspire us and encourage us to continue to witness to the message of the Gospel, so that it might continue to nurture faith for generations to come. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

In my previous parish, the congregation maintained two cemeteries, in which many of the members over the years had been buried. Several times a year, we would receive requests from persons who were trying to trace their family tree, for information recorded on the tombstones. That would require a trip to the cemetery to hunt down the headstone, make a tracing of it, and mail it out to the family member making the request.

But I never had the experience that Dr. William H. Willimon reported in his commentary published in Pulpit Resource. Dr. Willimon wrote, and I quote, “One of the strangest requests that I ever received was from a woman who wanted me to accompany her to the cemetery. There, I was to say a prayer, and be with her as she attempted to contact her recently deceased father.

She had hired a professional “medium,” someone who offers to help people contact the dead. The medium was to offer some sort of incantation, enter into some sort of trance, that would enable us to hear the dead person speak. I never got to see the medium at work,” Dr. Willimon reported. “I told the woman that I was a Christian minister, and that we don’t do this sort of thing. So she went out to the cemetery without me. When she returned, she was very disappointed. She didn’t hear the voice of her father.

Yet as we talked, I came to understand some of this woman’s desire. She had a great relationship with her father, and often turned to him for his guidance and advice. She was at that time facing all sorts of decisions, had some problems to solve, and longed for his paternal advice. She wanted more than ever to hear his reassuring voice again, and be the recipient of his wisdom.” End quote.

Well, I would agree with Dr. Willimon that the Christian faith does not rely on the use of mediums in order to receive specific directives from those who have died. And yet, as Dr. Willimon later concluded, in a way we Christians do communicate with the dead. As Christians, we believe that we can hear the dead speak to us.

As Willimon points out in his commentary, what is it that we do every Sunday morning, but open up the Scriptures, and read the words of those who have lived centuries before us, as if they have something meaningful to say to us. “We have acted as if these ancient people with names like Isaiah, John, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha know more about God than we do. We have acted as if they have something to teach us that we could not learn any other way.”

Take our Gospel lesson as a example. We are told that Jesus comes to visit Mary and Martha, after they have just buried their brother Lazarus, a friend of Jesus. The sisters are distraught with grief. In fact, John tells us that even Jesus wept with them, a clear sign of his identity with our humanity. But Jesus didn’t leave them in their grief. He talked about the hope of the resurrection, about the hope of being in his presence in God’s kingdom forever. And then, as if to give them a sign of this promise, he called Lazarus to come out from his grave. And he did.

Of course, Lazarus, as well as Mary and Martha, would eventually be placed in a tomb, from which their bodies would not emerge to resume human life here on this earth. However, what Jesus does do in this story, is assure us that he identifies with our grief, and through his compassion and grace, through our baptism into his death and resurrection, offers us the hope of life eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

Think about this for a moment. We would not have this hope, this ability to live our lives trusting that there is more to life than birth and death, and the struggle to exist that fills the days between these two extremes. And it is not just a passive hope that informs our faith, but a hope that is given flesh and blood by the real persons who have filled the pages of Scripture, testified to their encounter with the grace of God, and passed on their experience to us.

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