All Saints / Leaving Service

Sunday 31 October 2021

All Saints / Leaving Service

St Mary’s Hadlow

Isaiah 25:6-9 & John 11:32-44

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today is one of those days that goes into the diary, and which are an inevitable milestone to the next stage of life, but which you think will never really happen.  

And even though I am standing here and saying these words right now a part of me still thinks that I shall be here again next week and speaking about something else.  But I won’t be.  The next few weeks are going to be a whirlwind of taking things off walls, recycling things, moving things and, at some point in the middle of all that, getting myself mentally and spiritually ready to take on a big new role.

And at times I have asked myself why am I putting myself and everyone else through that?  

I am not breaking any confidences when I say that I have had a good number of Vicar-friends who have had a terrible time in their parishes.  Some have moved parishes every couple of years for all sorts of reasons and I have known some who have left ministry permanently because of the stresses and strains of parish life.

But that is not me, and I never want you to think that I have moved on because of any unhappiness here.  Although there have been some ups and downs along the way, this has been a good place, a good church and I shall miss you all terribly.  As I said in my email to the church a couple of weeks ago, this has been the place that the children had their formative years, and it has also been my formative place as an incumbent.

Despite the challenges of covid we have held together and kept going and everything works smoothly and I have every confidence that St Mary’s will grow back into the thriving community that it was at the end of 2019 and then way beyond.

Which brings me back to the question of why I am putting everyone through this now.  I said that to someone I have come to know well over the last 9 years and he said something which I found incredibly helpful.  He said that if we stay in our comfort zone for too long then we can never grow or change.  Sometimes we need to be stretched and even to feel uncomfortable in order to do new things.

So, I am moving from a comfort zone into a stretch zone and that also applies to you.  An interregnum can be a time of challenges, but it should also be a time of people pulling together with their eyes fixed on the future.

And, whilst it ought to go without saying, I shall say it anyway: this is not about personal preferences, but it is about seeking to follow God’s call on my life and I have no doubt that God is calling us onto the challenges of Rye and is also calling you on through the interregnum to the plans he has for St Mary’s in a new incumbent.  God never calls us to sit still in our comfort zones but always wants us to stretch us and to grow into being the people he called and made us to be. 

But, that doesn’t mean that parting is without sorrow.  When I take funerals I often say that even though we believe that our loved ones are now dwelling with the source of all love that doesn’t mean that we can’t weep at the loss.  And we know that there is nothing un-Christian at weeping, even when we know that God is at work in the situation, because Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew what would happen next. 

We are told in John’s gospel that Jesus was friends with the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. At the start of chapter 11 the sisters sent a message to Jesus saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But rather than rushing to help a person we are told that he loved Jesus did something which appears a little odd – he stayed put for two days and said “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory.”

But this did not seem to be true because after two days Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus was dead and that they should set out to his hometown.

This was obviously some distance away because by the time Jesus reached the place Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days – a day longer than Jesus himself was laid in the tomb.

Both Mary and Martha are obviously upset not only at the death of their brother but also at the slowness of Jesus to arrive – they both say to him separately “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Death seems to have had the final word and Jesus’ own friends seem to be waving their fists at him and saying – ‘where were you when we needed you – we asked for you and you did not come and now the one closest to us is dead.’ 

As you can imagine I see many people who are dealing with the death of a loved one and many people feel these same emotions but are sometime guilty about expressing them. Here we see that grief and anger are perfectly biblical responses to death.

We then have an exchange which reflects, albeit through a glass darkly, the events of Easter Sunday.

Jesus asked: “Where have you laid him?” and he is led to the tomb of Lazarus. However, unlike the tomb of Jesus, this one is still firmly shut with the stone at the door – it had not been rolled away. When Jesus asked them to take away the stone it is clear that the sister’s pragmatism is their dominant feature as they are worried about the smell.

But Jesus insisted, and when the stone is rolled away, Jesus prays to his father and then calls Lazarus from his tomb. And there then follows a scene which seems worthy of any Halloween film – the man Lazarus comes walking from his tomb, still bound in his grave clothes (unlike Jesus whose grave clothes were left neatly folded) and he must have looked like a low rent Mummy.

But, and this is the important difference, this is not a story of the dead raising to come and haunt the living – this is a story of life penetrating the tomb and overcoming death. Lazarus is not a dead man walking rather he is a man who has been brought back to life by Jesus, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus himself who foreshadows the resurrection of us all. From the Christian perspective the opening up of tombs and the rising of the dead is not a horror story, rather it is the promise that death does not have the final word.

Technically today is Halloween, a day in which death and darkness seems triumphant, but we are celebrating it as All Saints, a day in which we remember that the light of Christ has the final victory and that all those who have gone before us are part of the great cloud of witnesses who worship with us.   God is not God of the dead but of the living, that the resurrection of Christ, as foreshadowed by Lazarus, means the trampling down of death and the eternal life with Christ of all the saints, which includes everyone here.

In this life we are all called to other things, whether it is to Rye or to supporting the church during the interregnum and beyond, but our ultimate call is to find our place amongst all the saints and to rise to new and eternal life through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit and to the honour and glory of our loving Father.

Amen and bless you now and always.