Dear Working Preachers, again this week I am going to straddle two Sundays, All Saints Sunday and the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Because the brief passage from the raising of Lazarus and the conversation between Jesus and the scribe are so very similar, spiritually so, in fact. At stake in both is the meaning of life.
Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus realizes the reality of death. Mourns it. Is angered by it. Rejects it. The question to Jesus by the scribe inquires about the meaning of life — the love of the neighbor. Or, we might say, how we stave off death, even for just a little bit by the ways in which we honor life in the present. Holding both of these together this week seems right, even necessary.
Death, of course, is inevitable, and its pain, its loss, its cause for anger is all true and real. And the hard part about death is that you are in the business of tending its consequences, without, I suspect, taking enough time for your personal sadness and grief. I encourage you, Dear Working Preachers, to acknowledge your own loss this year and you own sense of what gives life.
We live in, exist in, this constant state of inbetweenness, don’t we? The certainness of death but also how to live the most of life here and now, how to give witness to the promise of the resurrection without it dismissing the reality of death in our midst here and now. Believing that loving our neighbors is never for the sake of eternal life after death, but always because it is a means by which death itself is overcome here and now.
Today, in this world that witnesses the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue, the “caravan of migrants” traveling north seeking asylum from violence, the ashes of Matthew Shepard interred at the National Cathedral, loving the neighbor as yourself is the means by which we fight off death every day and we are able to see the saint in all. Without this mandate, this principle, we allow death to infringe on our lives prematurely.
We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.
The whole story of the raising of Lazarus is for us to realize that resurrection is not just our future promise but our present reality. The whole story of the conversation between Jesus and the scribe is for the man to realize that life with God, because of God, lived in the promises of God, is here and now when our neighbor is loved, that we are all made in the image of God.
Loving the neighbor and Jesus as the resurrection and the life are synonymous claims. Resurrection here and now, what Jesus promises to Martha, means that life, and life abundantly for all, is what is at stake. It is so very easy to postpone abundant life to life after death. But a close reading of our Gospel texts this week reveals how misguided this belief is. The life of the saints is now. The life of saints is that which we witness. Lives lived as saints is what we are called to do and to be.
The question is, do we believe it and are we willing to preach it? Are you willing to preach out of your grief, the grief you share with every single person sitting in your pews, so that you and they might truly believe that the resurrection of God matters now? That takes a kind of vulnerability that many will perceive as weakness and yet, is demonstrable of courage and strength. Are you willing to preach that how we live life now matters, not for the sake of promised life, but because promised life now is and has to be for our neighbors?
Dear Working Preachers, you can do this and you need to do this. Preach the good news, which is, at its heart, that God is here. Preach that the resurrection promise is not some sort of transactional or meritorious reward but the grace that enables us to see the saint in all. Preach the truth — that the operative commandment in the world today is “hate thy neighbor,” that death to many is acceptable for many, that the worth of the other is being assessed consistently and completely outside of God’s mandates.
The insistence on the value of life and all lives, the determination to recognize all as saints in our midst, the charge to embody the life-giving love of God, not one of these is easy to preach. Why? Because there are powers at work, Dear Working Preachers, that are actively trying to upend the power of the Kingdom of God. Don’t let them have the upper hand. Don’t stop preaching the truth, the truth that the world still doesn’t believe — death has been overcome.