Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
In this poem by WH Auden we can feel the grief of loss. A loved one has died and with it love itself. And the world must know, He is Dead. Auden goes on:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
It is such a scene of grief that confronts Jesus in our gospel reading. The air is thick with anguish and the sound of wailing. A beloved has died. Jesus weeps. Weeps for his dead friend, and weeps, it seems, because no one understands that this is not the end.
In the verses just before our gospel reading, Martha tells Jesus that he has arrived too late, four days too late. Jesus then says to Martha – “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. Do you believe this?” 27 She replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When we sing the creed on a Sunday morning it is good to remind ourselves that Martha has gone before us – to remember that her creed, our creed, are words hewn out of the struggle to affirm God when it seemed God had come too late.
It is not the end, the sky does not fall, God is not too late. Jesus raises Lazarus – a return to life, a restoration of love.
Yet the raising of Lazarus is a symbol of something greater. Of a greater unfolding drama, where death and life intermingle, like water and wine in a cup. After the miracle, the religious authorities redouble their efforts to have Jesus killed. They are afraid, we are told, that Jesus and the witness of Lazarus will lead to a crackdown by the occupying Roman forces, where the religious authorities will lose their power. It is better that one should die for the sake of many they say. Religion and politics intermingle like water and wine in a cup. So soon after rejoicing at the raising of her brother, Mary will anoint the feet of Jesus in preparation for his death and burial to come.
The authorities want to kill Lazarus also but, like so many in the gospels, he drops out of sight, never to return.
One tradition claims he lived another 30 years as a Bishop in Cyprus. It is said that during that time he did not smile, because of what he had witnessed in the land of the dead. An apt figure, perhaps, for those who dress up for Halloween today.
Another tradition is that Lazarus was beheaded as a martyr in Marseille, France, during a persecution. And this is our link into the festival of All Saints, which we celebrate today.
The origin of All Saints is traced back to the many local customs of celebrating the life and witness of church martyrs. Most countries across the world today have people they consider martyrs and saints. In the West, Rome became the confirmer of sainthood. Although Luther, at the Reformation, advised that we should leave the saints in peace and concentrate on the cultivation of our own saintliness.
What does it mean then to be a saint in our own time and place? It is taken for granted that people like Lazarus, Martha and the Apostles are saints. They were close to Jesus, they experienced a bond of love and loyalty: Jesus was their East and West, their North and South.
Yet in 1995, during some restoration work at Westminster Abbey, instead of having the traditional saints carved above the West Gate, they put up 10 modern day saints –like Martin Luther King for his civil rights work, Oscar Romero in El Salvador for his option for the poor and assassination by the military, and Maximillian Kolbe who gave his life in place of a condemned prisoner in Auschwitz.
The saints are the churches special ones. And as we come to the end of the church year, a season of remembrances, we remember the saints as those who seek to know and do God’s will in the midst of life’s challenges. They are the unforgotten because their teaching and their witness, often in the face of injustice and suffering, continue to inspire and encourage our faith. They remain a living witness.
Who, then, do we personally count as our special ones? Who would we place above the West Gate of our own journey of faith? Lazarus, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King? Yes, all of these. But mixed in with them, there are ordinary people, not well-known, who have played a large role in our lives. Saints can be found in all times and all places, in Jerusalem and Damascus, in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
When you are put forward for ordination, you are asked to identify some special ones in your own spiritual journey. The first person I put down was my grandmother. She was a typical working class granny from central Scotland, and had remarkable courage.
One of her sons – I don’t think he will mind me saying – caused her a lot of worry. He was a local gang leader. I remember as a child, I think I was 12 at the time, hiding behind a wall, peering over to look at what was to become a key moment in my life. A group of about 20 teenagers with various weapons and knives had come to look for her son. She met them alone on the common green in front of her house. She faced them down, she told them they looked stupid, and said their weapons were a sign of cowardice. She commanded them to leave…And, much to my astonishment, they did. I remember her shaking afterwards, but I recall the look of conviction in her eyes. So, today, when I think of the saints, when I recall Lazarus and Martha, St Ignatius and St Francis, there along with them stands my grandmother, St Peggy. The measure of saintliness is expressed in the small as well as large deeds of courage.
In the light of the witness of all these saints, how do we respond to the words “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong” of WH Auden? Yes, love does appear to die, the pain can be unbearable, God does seem to arrive too late. But our special ones, the saints, give us a glimpse of a love that is able to conquer evil and death itself, a glimpse, as the Book of Revelation puts it, of a new heaven and a new earth where death will be no more.
I thought that love would last forever: And it does…..Amen