Philip and I went to see the film “Suffragette” earlier this week. It was a powerful film which followed the lives of some of those who fought for equal rights for women in the early part of the 20th century. They endured imprisonment and force-feeding, but perhaps worse than that many of them found themselves cut off by family and friends. The central character in the film faces losing her marriage and her child because of her involvement in the struggle for the vote – her story was fictional, but based on fact. As the story unfolds we watch her wrestling with herself. Is it right to pay this price?
We might like to think that those who struggle heroically for what is right never have doubts about what they are doing, but that isn’t the case. Physical pain is bad enough, but perhaps it is worse to lie awake in the dark hours of a sleepless night, wondering whether it is worth it, whether it will make any difference.
That dilemma isn’t a new one. The writer of our first reading, from the book of Wisdom, knew it very well. He was writing sometime in the century before Jesus was born. Israel was under foreign occupation for much of this time, and there were civil wars and rebellions. Many Jewish people had been executed for fighting for freedom. Yet nothing seemed to change. They would have recognised the words of the torturer in George Orwell’s novel, 1984 who said, “ If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” That was how it felt to them too. There seemed to be no hope.
What made it even worse was that many people at the time assumed that suffering was a sign God had rejected you. What did that say about those who had died in the struggle for freedom? Were they cursed by God? Had they sinned in some way?
The writer of the book of Wisdom was having none of it. “In the eyes of the foolish,” he says, “they seemed to have died, and their departure from us was thought to be a disaster” but it wasn’t so. He didn’t know why bad things happened to good people, any more than we do, but he believed that these painful deaths were not the end of the story. He believed in God, a God who was bigger than the forces of evil, who would not reject those who were faithful to him. “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,” he said, “and no torment will ever touch them.” Eventually that would be obvious to everyone. “In the time of their visitation” – on the day of judgement, he means – “they will run like sparks through the stubble,” . They would light up the world one day.
As Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He didn’t live to see that justice, but his work was part of that arc, and it changed the world.
The message of the book of Wisdom is that what we see is not necessarily all there is to see. We are stuck in the middle of our stories – it can’t be any other way. We may not be able to imagine how the problems that beset the world can be resolved, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. Our calling is to do the right thing anyway, to work for justice anyway, and leave the rest to God.
The book of Wisdom was very popular in the early Church, and it’s easy to see why. Many of the first Christians also suffered and died for their faith. Was that a sign that they’d got it wrong? No, they said. Jesus himself had been crucified. He’d died a shameful death – but God had raised him up, and he would do the same for those who followed him. God was in the business of bringing life out of death.
The Gospel reading today gives us the same message. Lazarus has died, Lazarus whom Jesus loved. Couldn’t Jesus have saved him? If so, why didn’t he? Why did he wait to turn up until it was too late? Why let Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, go through the experience of losing him? Why didn’t God stop him dying in the first place? But the raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of Jesus’ own resurrection, a reminder that resurrection is in God’s nature. It’s the way he works. When all we can see are barriers, stones rolled across tombs, God sees a gateway to new life. God’s voice rings out in the silence of death to call us out of our graves. Life-giving is his stock in trade.
We may not face the kind of persecution and martyrdom that the first followers of Jesus faced, though plenty of Christians around the world do, but this message is still just as vital for us to hear. We are all called to work to set right what is wrong in the world. However great or small the challenges there are things that we need to do, tasks that are ours alone. Perhaps we know we should blow the whistle on some injustice at work. Perhaps we need to stand alongside someone who is being victimised or bullied. Perhaps we need to stand up and be counted in some campaign for justice. Perhaps we need to tackle some family problem. We know what we should do, we know what’s right; we are just scared to do it. It’s going to cost us. It will make us unpopular. It will bring trouble down on our heads. We fear for our job prospects or our friendships or the image people have of us.
At that point , the deciding factor – to act or not – will be whether we believe in resurrection. If what we most fear happens – as it might – do we believe that will that be the end of the road for us, or can we trust that God will still be holding us in his hands when the world crashes down around us, ready to lead us into new life?
Jesus speaks often in the Gospels about seeds, tiny, apparently dead things which are buried in the ground. When you look at them it seems impossible that anything can come of them, but they sprout and grow and bear a rich harvest. The Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alves said “We must live by the love of what we will never see… Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (Rubem Alves quoted in There Is A Season by Joan Chittister).
His words reminded me of a poem by the early 20th century poet, Muriel Stuart. It’s called The Seed Shop, and to understand it you need to imagine yourself holding in your hand a handful of seeds – all different. There are tree seeds and flower seeds. They look dead, like dust and rubbish, but the reality is quite different. This is what she wrote.
Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry—
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee find here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.
Today we celebrate All Saints. We thank God for all those who held in their hands the seeds of a future world and had the courage to believe that God could bring life out of what looked like death to them and those around them. We thank God for the fruits of justice that were born through their courage and faith.
But we also pray for ourselves that we would learn to trust in resurrection too, in the life that comes out of death. Because today each of us holds seeds in our hands just as they did, the things that might happen if we have the courage to do what we are called to. There might be things that feel like death along the way, challenges we don’t want to meet, things we have to let go of, sacrifices we have to make. But beneath our hands are the hands of God, and those hands will never let us go, no matter what happens. They will hold us through life and through death, and on into resurrection too.