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Sermon: All Saints' and Iconography

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on November 1, 2015.

All Saints' Sunday-23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Wisdom 3:1-9; Ps. 24; Rev. 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

        On All Saints' Day, we celebrate the victory won for all the faithful departed, but we also grieve for our beloved dead, knowing that God honors all our tears.  We bring our grief to this table and find here a foretaste of that heavenly banquet to come foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

       We see that glorious vision of the righteous, resting and at peace, in the hand of God, in our Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, written shortly before the time of Jesus.

       The New Testament reading from The Revelation to John is a vision, written down shortly after the time of Jesus, of the new heaven and new earth in which God fully resides with God’s people so that mourning, despair, and pain have been eradicated.  The renewing words from our God who spans all time are trustworthy and true.

       And from Jesus' own story, we have John's Gospel which tells us that Jesus weeps along with Mary and all the gathered mourners before he demonstrates his power over death. And finally, through the raising of Lazarus, Jesus offers the world a vision of the life to come, when death and weeping will be no more.

      No doubt by now, you have noticed the projected image on the upper walls of this nave.  This is one of the wonderful features of this new Immanuel Chapel to have the option of using walls as canvas to accentuate our worship.  I've wanted to put an image up on these walls and use it in a sermon.  Thankfully, the Rector found this for today.  I think we can use this image to explore why we celebrate All Saints'.

Icons for the Feast of All Saints' that developed from the 9th century onward vary little in content, but do differ in style.  The setting is Paradise, reflected by the presence of trees and shrubbery in the foreground.  Abraham is in the lower left-hand corner holding a righteous soul to his chest which reinforces the place as Paradise: the "Bosom of Abraham" is a name given to that place where the righteous dead rest until Judgement Day (Lk 16:19-31).  The lower right-hand figure is Jacob, holding the "Twelve Tribes" of Israel in a cloth.  The central character at the bottom is the penitent thief who was told by Christ on the cross, "This day you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:39-43).  These three represent the saints of the "Old Testament," before Christ's Resurrection.

Central to the icon is the great "cloud of witnesses" described in the letter to the Hebrews (11:33-12:2).  Saints gather around Christ, who is seated in glory on a rainbow.  Beneath Him are Adam and Eve bowing to the Throne of Preparation, while the Cross is also present (sometimes supported by Helena and Constantine.)  These images are all present in the Last Judgment.

The Saints themselves are gathered into ranks according to their "type:" Martyrs, Ascetics, Holy Fathers, Apostles, and so forth.  Some saints are recognizable, but the intent of the icon is to represent the number of Saints as being uncountable, as beheld by the Apostle John in The Book of Revelation.

The "four living creatures," the lion, ox, man, and eagle, are depicted in the corners of the rainbow bearing Christ, and various kinds of angels surround Him.  The resemblance between the iconography of All Saints' and the vision from Revelation is another clear reference to the Last Judgment.  So Christians cannot escape these reminders for the need of repentance, even in triumphal icons such as All Saints.

In the top corners are King David the Psalmist, and King Solomon.  The scripture verses describe the scene observed by the two prophet-Kings: "God is wondrous in His saints" and "The righteous shall live forever."

Some icons show an organized hierarchy of the saints in heaven, giving the impression of order and completeness in a great heavenly temple with Christ reigning over all.  The circle of light, called a mandorla, is a perfect circle and does not look unfinished, yet there is promise for that circle of saints to grow.  This great shining cloud reminds us that there is still room for many and for all.

In today's Gospel, confronted by uninhibited weeping, the loud, unrestrained wailing of Mary and her friends, Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  He shuddered with grief and anger.  Who can imagine the depth of Jesus’ human emotions at this moment?  He is face to face with death.  Not only is He confronting the power of darkness, but He is surrounded by unbelievable grief.

Now he begins to move toward His direct encounter with death by asking for directions, the only time He does so in this Gospel.  “Where have you laid him?”  Their response, “Come and see,” is reminiscent of the same invitation Jesus extended to His first disciples at the beginning of His ministry.  However, they found life and light, and this invitation can only lead to a grave.

Now Jesus weeps quietly.  And His tears here are like those He sheds over the unbelieving city of Jerusalem which will reject Him, missing its day of opportunity, its only hope for peace and healing (Luke 19:41).  This crowd wrongly assumes that Jesus weeps because He loved Lazarus whose death is so final.  And knowing about His healing of the blind man Bartimaeus, they wonder why He could not have kept His friend from dying.  Instead, we know Jesus grieves at the tomb because of the darkness which blinds the people to the Truth.  They cannot see who it is that has come and what God will do through Him.

What a lesson Jesus’ tears are for us and for the church, we who are so unbelieving and sterile, so unconcerned and indifferent.  How bereft we are of honest emotion.  We can neither laugh nor cry.  When was the last time we stood with Jesus before death and unbelief and wept openly?

But then Jesus takes over, and what a difference that makes! When He gets to the tomb He simply commands that the stone be removed from the cave.  Here the gruesome finality of death is made vividly clear.  But Martha, who has expressed such loving faith in Jesus, protests.  The body will stink.  Her brother has been in the tomb four days!  What can anyone, even Jesus, do with a decomposing body?

But Jesus reminds her that she will see the glory of God if she will believe.  As the shining radiance of God’s power will be seen here in this tomb, so a few days later, His greatest splendor will break forth at another tomb.  So often God has chosen to reveal God’s majesty unexpectedly in lowly places.

In spite of Martha’s misgivings, the people obey Jesus’ command and the grave is opened.  And in the midst of the stench of death and the unbelieving crowd, Jesus lifts His eyes upward and offers a vibrant, believing prayer.  One can sense the intimacy and union between Father and Son and the warm gratitude that the Father has already heard and answered.  Jesus constantly abides in His Father’s will, so everything He does is prayer.  Jesus longs that all who have heard Him conversing with His Father, these wondering, grieving people, will know that He has been sent by God, His Father.

Then comes the cry, that loud shout, “Lazarus, come out!”  The prayer and the act of obedience now become one.  The Greek word for shout or cry is used only eight times in the whole Bible, and six are in John’s Gospel.  Four times the word is used in the 18th and 19th chapters (18:40; 19:6; 19:12; 19:15), when the crowd cries out for the crucifixion of Jesus.  Theirs is the cry of death.  His is the shout for life.  Miracles of life do not need verbal embroidery.  God spoke and something happened.  The dead man, called by name, heard the voice of the Shepherd and came to life.

It has been said it’s a good thing that Jesus called Lazarus by name, or else ALL the dead would have risen from their graves.

Lazarus comes forth, still bound in his burial dressings.  And Jesus gives those in the crowd an incredible opportunity to participate, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Certainly the very act of taking off those cloth wrappings could have been part of His miracle, but in His amazing humility, Jesus allows some in the crowd – maybe Martha and Mary, or some new believers? – to be part of His work.  'On The Job' training always helps the newcomers.

I have seen Jesus call both men and women, young and old, out of spiritual death into new life.  I have never lost the wonder and excitement of that kind of resurrection.  But then I have also seen loving, caring people reach out and welcome these people, helping them to meet new friends and develop new life-giving habits, calling forth gifts in them and encouraging them to discover their own ministries.  This is one of the true miracles of All Saints'.  I have witnessed that in you, in this parish family, and I have benefitted from your care, help and engagement with me to inform me in my own ministry.  By helping me learn how to be a priest, you helped me take off the burial clothing of my old life.  In all of this, whenever we assist the faithful to take up new life, we take off burial clothing.  This is some of the miracle workings to call a living, Spirit-filled congregation into new ministry.

Later today, at the Washington National Cathedral, the installation of the Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry as the Twenty-seventh Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and Primate will commence.  The nine-year term of leadership by Katharine Jefferts Schori changes to the new ministry of Presiding Bishop Curry leading us on in "The Jesus Movement."  This is another example of the Body raising up new life.

All Saints' is a convenient occasion for autumnal baptisms, for it emphasizes the union of all who have been baptized with Christ and with one another in the communion of saints.  We believe the saints intercede on our behalf because of our union with them in the mystical Body of Christ.

Today we have great hopes for Katherine Collins Groth as she is “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Today, she takes her place among the saints of God, with those who were before, are now, and always will be part of the Household of God.  I charge all of us who say, “We Will!” to be ready to share with Kate the hope that she has entered into and the Promise she has before her as a new member of the Body of Christ.  Let us all help Kate find her place in this icon of All Saints'

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.