11/04/18 – All Saints For All Time


November 4, 2018
All Saints Sunday
Sermon: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 146; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


I don’t remember my All Saints Day services during my childhood and youth attending Protestant churches; but like so many of the worship practices of the early Church, the liturgical renewal movement, which began in the 70’s brought All Saints’ Day back into the lineup of significant celebrations in the Christian Church year. I have my grandchildren and the Disney Channel to thank for my recent education in cultural celebrations of the dead. Recent Disney movies like Mulan, set during the Wei Dynasty in China, Moana set on a South Pacific island, and Coco, the movie set in Mexico during one year’s celebration of Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead piqued my interest in the subject. The first few decades of Disney movies always seemed to start with the same set up to the plot – young ones were orphaned and had to fend for themselves in the world. More recently, Disney seems to have become more sensitive to spiritual and cultural beliefs as well as child psychology. Now, sage advice and protection from deceased loved ones is “in.”

I have learned that most cultures across the globe have a festival to venerate their ancestors or the dead in general. All religions which believe in an afterlife in some form, of which resurrection is one, include thanksgiving for the deceased in worship. In early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death. Yet, by the 4thcentury, when the Emperor Constantine enacted a decree of tolerance for Christians with the Milan Edict of 313, there were too many Christian martyrs to give each a special day. The answer to this problem was the institution of All Saints’ Day to honor all martyrs, known or unknown. The date of Nov.1 was set in the ninth century.

The Reformed emphasis on All Saints’ Day is not on men or women, but using the Apostle Paul’s definition of a saint, we give thanks for the whole people of God. We give thanks for the lives of all faithful Christians of the past. It has become a common practice to name those in our congregations who have died in the past year.

As referenced in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, Jews light a candle for deceased loved ones on the four Jewish strictly religious holidays. (Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot). As with the candles we lit at the beginning of this worship service, the candle flame represents that our deceased loved ones are spiritually present with us in our worship. Jewish ideas about the afterlife are even more vague than our own. As the wisdom literature we have read recently, most notably Job, I believe knowledge of the nature of eternal life is “above our pay grade.” Or, as the Apostle Paul put it: “12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah is only one of two references in the Hebrew Bible to an afterlife — the other is in Daniel. Jesus would have known these scripture passages. Jesus was particularly fond of quoting from Isaiah. Most of Judaism’s concepts of an afterlife were developed after their bible was written and accepted as canon.

I speak about Jewish customs regarding the dead, not only because Jesus was Jewish, and our faith is deeply rooted in Judaism; but also because of the recent mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. Presbyterians have been hot on the internet after a Presbyterian pastor shouted angrily at President Trump and his entourage of secret service vehicles entered the neighborhood street of the synagogue. The PCUSA Facebook page had to be taken down for a few days because so many vitriolic statements were posted. I wish the news cameras had not captured her at that, very emotional, moment. I wish she had not used the words: “You are not welcome.” But, I believe it is important to understand the context of her words so that we have a better understanding of what was happening.

It is important for us to learn about other religions because we do not exist on an island of Christianity. We share this world with many religions. And, we know all too well, that many more Americans, who might check off Christian as their religion on a survey, do not attend worship regularly or even are a member of a congregation than those that do. We are challenged by Christ to faithfully in a secular society, just as he and his Jewish disciples were called to do in the first century of the Roman empire.

We have read in our gospel reading that Mary and Martha, as well as friends and family members, were in their house mourning the death of Lazarus. This is the Jewish custom of sitting Shiva. In one of our recent readings from Job, we read that Job’s friends came to sit Shiva with him when all his children were killed in an accident. This is ritual dating back to the earliest evidence we have from Jewish antiquity.

The Pittsburgh neighborhood, in which the Tree of Life synagogue was situated, is a close-knit culturally diverse neighborhood. This was the real Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The Presbyterian pastor and children’s television producer, Fred Rogers, had lived in that neighborhood until his death. The Presbyterian pastor who has been vilified for her angry remarks toward the President when his motorcade filled the street, lives across from the synagogue. Her husband is Jewish. Rev. Rothenburg was protesting an offense against the Jewish faith. The President’s motorcade required that all the neighbors be on lockdown. This meant that they could not sit Shiva with their neighbors who had lost loved ones. They could not bring food to the homes of the mourners, which is another custom. This is a very important Jewish ritual and it is strictly observed immediately following the death and lasts for 7 days.

Jesus was called to heal Lazarus, but he arrived three days after his death while the house he shared with his sisters was filled with mourners sitting Shiva with Mary and Martha. Jesus’ reaction gives us the shortest verse in the Bible, using the King James translation, but one with great theological significance: “Jesus wept.” Jesus the divine, the son of God, was also human. He grieved for his friend Lazarus.  Why did he grieve? Because he loved. When we love we make our selves vulnerable to suffering, to mourning loss. The paradox is that without love, there is no life.

I believe God wept this week. First the murder of two black people by a white supremacist at a Kentucky Kroger grocery store. The shooter tried first to enter a black church, but the doors had been locked. Had the doors not been locked, many more people would have been killed. The gunman announced he was only targeting black people. Then, eleven Jews were killed in their synagogue by another racist. What a sad commentary on our society when houses of worship are used as shooting galleries for men filled with hate. The week ended with another American citizen, again a white male, this time one who hated women, shooting at a Tallahassee, Florida yoga studio. Two women died, one a college student who had her life before her with all her hopes and dreams and the other a physician, a healer. Jesus wept.

Jesus also became angry when Lazarus died. Not angry at the crowd, but angry at death. Who hasn’t experienced anger that death has taken someone we believe was gone from us too soon. The translation we read stated that Jesus was “moved,” but the Greek word here can also be translated as disturbed or angry. Death had bound Lazarus in its clutches. Then, Jesus used this tragic circumstance to demonstrate the powers that God demonstrated through him, as well as to provide a preview of his own death and resurrection in three days. Jesus ordered the stone to be removed, as it would be for his own tomb. He called Lazarus by name and commanded he walk out. Though still wearing the linen bindings of his shroud, Lazarus was freed. Death no longer held him. Yet, Jesus made a point of ordering, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus frees us from whatever form of death imprisons us. Christ frees us now, in this life, if we do not cling to the ways of death. Today we are seeing the death-dealing ways of fear, bigotry, selfishness and greed. In Christ, we are freed to a new life that recognizes the image of God within all God’s children. We are freed to a new life that risks loving our neighbors as well as suffering with and for them.

Jesus’ first disciples began with missteps in their quest to follow Jesus; but, they stayed the course providing a strong enough witness for the next generation of disciples, which grew in numbers and served as witnesses to Christ and an exponential increase to the next generation. More than two millennia later and here we are – the current generation of saints that will one day become part of the cloud of witnesses for future generations.

We come to Christ’s table of love and reconciliation, cognizant that we share this table with those that came before us and will come after us. We would not be who we are, we would not be where we are today, if not for that cloud of witnesses to Jesus Christ that came before us. We all have people for whom we are thankful and who, in some way, shared their faith with us. They are with us at this table and will be there to sit beside us in the heavenly banquet where all death bindings are released, all tears wiped away and a rich feast of divine love will be set before us to share. We thank God for the people that continue beyond the grave to share in the journey of faith and life with us.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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