As always, take a look at the texts for this week – All Saints - by following the link below…
And, now, let’s take a look at what I think the texts are trying to tell us…
Isaiah 25: 6 - 9
Two things to note about the prophets, especially Isaiah. The first is that they seem to find resonance with almost any age. That is in large part due to the fact that these messages are rooted in the social and political crises of their specific times, and I guess that means you could infer that times have not changed much in some respects. In the case of this text, the Assyrian Empire is on the move and the northern kingdom of Israel has been swept away. Not good. And now Judah is being threatened, and Jerusalem is in the Empire’s sites. But, perhaps the Assyrians have overreached – or so Isaiah can hope – and the seeds of the empire’s downfall have been sown in their ambition.
Our text reflects that hopefulness. “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations...” The mountain is of course, Mt. Zion, upon which the city was built and the Temple rests. And the shroud is he threat of death that hangs not only over Jerusalem, but is spreading over all the nations.
The second thing to note is about Isaiah’s style. The prophets were the poets of their people, and as Patricia Tull notes:
“Lofty poetry does matter. It may even change the world. For instance, the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” have been reutilized several times to envision equalities that lay well beyond the imagination of its original writers. These words were invoked in 1848 by women’s rights advocates in Seneca Falls, New York, who paraphrased: “all men and women are created equal.” They were invoked at Gettysburg in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln shortly after he signed the proclamation emancipating slaves, and again a hundred years later by Martin Luther King, describing his dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all are created equal.”
Who am I to argue?
Revelation 21: 1 – 6a
From one of my favorite websites, a quote or two from James Alison, author of Raising Abel, concerning this text (quoting the book): … “this is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers, because we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person, but the excluded one himself gives the identity by allowing us to share in the gratuity of his self-giving.” (p. 108)
The language of this text recalls our Isaiah text – the wiping away of tears, the making new of all things for the whole earth (Isaiah’s dream realized), the in-dwelling of God with God’s people (In Isaiah we all sit down for a meal together on the mountain; in this text, the same intimacy is achieved as the new city comes down to earth, where God will now dwell. The meal is implied, I would say. We will still have to eat in the new age).
But, the shroud being lifted is not the threat of war and destruction in a particular time and place, but involves a deeper, systemic healing. As Alison notes, the empire extends its boundaries by creating victims, imposing culture. But what happens when the victim creates the culture and it is based on inclusion and reconciliation? Then I guess we no longer need boundaries or impositions, do we? All bets are off. As one of my professors once asked – the Rev. Ed Rodman – “What will America look like when we have defeated racism?” The answer, of course, is… that it won’t matter. Lofty prose…
John 11: 32 - 44
I love the way that Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, ties this text to the answer Jesus gives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew when a disciple wannabe asks for time to bury his father before he follows Jesus. What he says is, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” which of course is an absurd possibility, but that’s not the point. Rather he is saying: “this piety of burying the dead is proper to a culture based on death, and has nothing to do with the piety of those who are building the kingdom which knows not death. Get out of the culture of death, leave it behind, and build with me the culture which is coming into existence. This is who we are. Which is why we are to be unbound, and freed from dead existence…” (p. 281) Just like Lazarus.
Again, like the shroud of Isaiah and the deeper darkness banished in Revelation, the question is posed for us – what kind of hold does death have on our lives? Well, look at the headlines. We have built our culture on it. As I have said many times, our systems thrive on it, profit by it, are kept in check by it. On a personal level, we do all we can to avoid it, ignore the possibility and the consequences of the aforementioned corporate fascination with it. We work to delay, defeat, deny. And, what does that do to us emotionally, physically… spiritually?
And again, as in our other texts, God is in both revealed to be quite beyond any human understanding that is not marked by death, and simultaneously the God who is marked by unbound love and possibility. Death – as one author puts it – is accidental to humanity, not essential. The message of this Lazarus story, then, is more than a simple admonishment to ‘not fear death’ - or to allow it to be used as a tool to ensure my own security – but an invitation to actively build a culture based entirely on life.