God is within reach

All Saints' Sunday
John 11:32-44 

In the name of the God of our ancestors and the God of our descendants.  Amen.

All Saints’ Sunday is a curious observance in the life of the church.  It comes sort of outside, or beyond, the rest of the liturgical calendar – it doesn’t really fit in to this particular place in the year for any reason, other than it’s just when we do it.  And in the midst of the long season of Ordinary Time, it feels almost like a speed bump – a hiccup.  It interrupts the stories we’ve been working through and working on, and puts our minds in a different place for a moment.

But I’ve always liked All Saints Sunday, because unlike a lot of other Sundays and other observances in the church year, remembering the saints from our own lives – and even the Saints recognized by the broader church – remembering these real, accessible people makes this faith we share and practice a bit more local.  It puts it all a bit more within reach.

People sometimes gently tease me for my propensity for using things like Facebook memes and movies and television shows in my sermons as frequently as I do.  It’s not just because I have some superficial desire to seem relevant or relatable.  I’m certainly not trying to come across as cool – that would never work, anyway.  But I use those sorts of images and examples because I approach this faith from the deeply held theological perspective that God is available to us.  God is within reach and accessible – even right here!  It’s the same reason that I talk about experiences that Michael and I have in our lives, and things about our dogs, and our nephews, and whatever other mundane aspects of life that I talk about.  I truly believe in my core that that is how God interacts with us – by meeting us wherever we are.

Preachers who spend most of their time quoting dead theologians and obscure theological concepts and identifying ancient heresies the way a paleontologist might identify fossils – it’s not that they’re wrong, it’s just that I think they accidentally convey that God is somehow out of reach; that access to God is reserved for those who came before, or for the few who get the luxury of extended, in depth academic study.

That’s why I love this day.  Because it’s a day when the church says, explicitly, that we aren’t separated from God because of the centuries that have passed since Jesus; that we aren’t separated from God because of a lack of understanding, or access to extensive study; that we aren’t separated from God at all.  We know God through real people.  Through our parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings, through the children who’ve gone before, through the teachers, and colleagues, and friends, and even adversaries whom we remember.  All Saints’ Day says that God was right here, in the midst of us, all along.

And even more, this day points us to the future.  It reminds us that the glorious company of saints is still growing.  That the great cloud of witnesses will someday include those we love now, and God-willing, even ourselves.  Someday, people will be praying on this day remembering us, and the ways that we made God real, present, and available for them, too.  We are that thin, vital thread that connects all that was with all that can be.

Those saints from our own lives that we remember today – they show us how much a little influence can mean.  The small choices that people make can leave lasting impacts.  The everyday steps we take can forge a path.

Recently I read about a museum in Leeds.  They placed a large stone at the entrance to an exhibit and asked each visitor to just use a single finger to trace along a line.  Over time, the line began to deepen.  Now it’s a deep trench through the rock.  With just their fingers, the museum’s visitors are literally slicing the rock in half – with their bare hands!  Each person’s influence is imperceptible, but all of their influences together are leading to seemingly impossible change.

It’s not unlike one of my favorite images from traveling to Jerusalem and to Europe’s ancient cathedrals.  In many of those holy places you can see places where stone steps are polished and worn down by the footsteps of the faithful.  We talk about the power of prayer – these prayers have literally hewn stone.

So All Saints’ Day also reminds us of the power of this faith.  It’s not a power that rests in any of us alone, but a power that comes when the body of Christ is formed by the union of God’s people, past, present, and yet to come – joined for a single purpose; joined to glorify God and to bring God’s mission into the world.

In the Gospel today, we hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  In it, we’re told that Jesus wept on hearing about his departed friend.  Of course, Jesus knew they would be reunited.  Jesus knew that death wasn’t the end.  But even so, his grief was real.

And that’s another point where this day connects us with the truth of our faith – a faith not reserved for some other person, or some other time, or some other place, but a faith available to us, here and now.  We are connected with Jesus through the experience of grief.  Everyone we name today is remembered by someone in this community.  Everyone we name today is the subject of grief in one way or another.  We may not all be outwardly weeping, but we certainly know the feeling.  We know what it’s like to lose someone important.  And our faith tells us that it’s not the end of the story.  Today’s celebration tells us that it’s not the end of the story.  But even so, the grief is real; and it connects us more concretely to this lineage of faith.  That doesn’t mean we don’t feel it, or that it’s magically taken away – but it does mean that we’re not alone in our grief.  It means that we’ll never be alone.  We’ll always have companions on this journey: like the saints we know; like the unknowable saints whose footsteps are strong enough to wear down the stones.  With them, we walk.  With them, we pray.  With them, we bring God’s truth closer, still.  Amen.