What I said this Sunday – All Saints Sunday

We kept All Saints Day on the 1st November, but as I know attendance at a weekday feast is always low, we also kept All Saints Sunday as the Church of England allows us to do.

John 11.32-44

Today is a day for thinking about heaven. This morning we celebrate the great feast of All Saints, as we remember those great heroes of the Christian Faith who have gone before us. And tonight, at our evensong for All Souls – the annual commemoration of the faithful departed – we remember those dear to us who have also gone before us and who join with those great saints we remember this morning in the worship of God in heaven. For all are now equal and worshipping God for eternity. Today we think about heaven.

The Co-operative Funeral service recently undertook a survey of the music that people choose to have played at funeral services. It was widely reported in the news. One thing they discovered is that pop songs now outnumber hymns by two to one. On the whole, while they might not be everyone’s choice, most people pick songs that are favourites of the person who died, or that express some emotion or sentiment on the part of the mourners. Top of the list for the seventh year running is My Way by Frank Sinatra which, apparently, is now played at one in every seven funerals. At number two, from Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli comes Time To Say Goodbye. At least I suppose you can say it’s relevant. However, several of the songs express – even though they may not be hymns – profoundly Christian sentiments. At number eight comes Vera Lynn’s song with the very Christian sentiment We’ll Meet Again, for as Christians we believe precisely that. Just ahead of that was Gerry and the Pacemakers, boosted no doubt by the number of Liverpool Supporters, with You’ll Never Walk Alone, which again is actually surprisingly Christian – for we believe that when we pass through death we are not along but walk with God.

Sometimes, though, songs are not appropriate at all – and clergy are sometimes put in the position of having to refuse them. And one of the most refused songs is John Lennon’s Imagine.
Imagine there’s no heaven,
it’s easy if you try,
no hell beneath us,
above us only sky.
For Christians, of course, can never imagine there is no heaven.

There’s one song in the top ten which rather appropriately fits with today’s gospel reading – or at least the title does – the song by Westlife – You Raise Me Up.  It could almost have been sung by Lazarus as he emerged from the tomb.

Today is a day for thinking about heaven – it’s a day of celebration. The feast of All Saints is a day when we rejoice, we celebrate, the future that awaits us – the day when all of the saints of God – and that includes us – are united at that great and unending party in heaven. It’s a celebration at which we could all sing You Raise Me Up for we believe that one day that is precisely what Jesus will do. And yet today’s gospel reading, while it ends on a positive note is about – not celebration – but grief and despair and death.

Mary and Martha of Bethany are deep in shock and lost in grief for their brother Lazarus. The sisters had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. On receiving the message, Jesus had waited two long days. By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. Mary and Martha are struggling to cope. In the passage preceding today’s gospel we read how Martha is hurt when she sees Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then she calls for her sister Mary who repeats that same accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then John tells us that, “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.’” And then comes the verse that crops up in pub quizzes – the shortest verse in the Bible. We are told that “Jesus began to weep”, or, as the King James Bible has it, “Jesus wept.”

Jesus loved Lazarus. He weeps at the grave of his friend. Jesus was fully a human being. Like anyone else he is disturbed, upset, and grieving at the death of a friend. But if anyone believed in the resurrection, it should have been Jesus, who was also fully divine. Yet even though he knew he was about to bring Lazarus back to life Jesus wept. This shows us that grief is not unchristian. There seems to be a growing tendency, when someone dies, to desire a service of thanksgiving for their life rather than a funeral, and relatives often say to me, “We don’t want people to be sad.”. It’s as though the very human act of grieving is something that people no longer can face, and so people want to replace the funeral with something more uplifting, so as to hide the grief. It is right to recall someone’s life – their achievements, all that they meant to us. But it doesn’t help when we try to behave as though all is well. We can celebrate and grieve at the same time.

Jesus wept at the grave of his friend. We too weep over the graves of those we love. On this All Saints Day as we remember not just the great saints of the church, but also the saints in our own lives, we remember those we love who have died. That remembrance comes with sorrow. It is a sorrow that does not go away. Grief may go away, but the sense of loss stays with you. For Mary and Martha their loss lasted a few days until Jesus returned their brother Lazarus to them. But that’s not how it is for us – our loved ones are not returned to us, and we won’t see them again this side of the grave. And as the person you loved is not returned to you, how can you stop missing their presence in your life? The loss remains, and so does the sorrow. But grief can and does change. We pray not for an end to the loss, but for an unbearable sense of loss to be replaced by a sorrow we can bear. And in this, we are helped by the hope of the resurrection, and the knowledge that separation is temporary.

I said earlier that several of the songs in the top ten for funerals express profoundly Christian sentiment. Back to that Westlife song – for in a way it expresses the reality that when we grieve we know that Jesus comes to be with us. And that he holds out for us, just as he did to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, the promise of new life, the promise of resurrection, the promise that he will raise us up.

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up… To more than I can be.

Jesus said, “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.” Jesus knew people would continue to die. He knew that in time, Lazarus himself would die a natural death, and his family would grieve again. And he taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is Christian teaching and it is why even at the grave Christians can and do praise God. For we know that Jesus will raise us up to more than we can be in this life – he raises us up with all the saints to worship God and enjoy him for ever.

Today is a day for thinking about heaven. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” to those around Lazarus, and he says the same to us. We are to be unbound, set free from the power of death. For even as we find death in life, we find life in death. We know that Jesus is resurrection and life, and those of us who believe in him, even if we die, we will live with all the saints for ever.