All Saints

November 4, 2018


A couple of months ago, Pastor Joel preached about a mentor of ours by the name of Antti Lepisto. Antti was a pastor, who shaped and impacted both Pastor Joel and my life deeply in many ways. Antti was born in the US to Finnish parents, so he spoke Finnish from the start and followed in the footsteps of his father who was also a pastor. He served many congregations in the US and Canada where he preached and taught in both Finnish and English. Antti was true to his Finnish roots. He was quiet, reflective, and theological, but had very profound ways to explain and connect his faith to everything in this world. He was passionate, caring, kind, and had a great sense of humor. Pastor Joel and I got to know Antti in his later years, when he was in his 70’s. We served on church boards with Antti and his wife Jane, traveled to Russia and Finland on a mission trip with them, and spent time having coffee and conversation many times at their kitchen table in Duluth, Minnesota.

In all of our conversations with Antti, we saw and witnessed how his years of life and encounters with grief, sadness, and tragedy had softened him. On those rare opportunities when we would get to listen to him preach, we would watch the tears fall from his face as he spoke about his faith in Jesus and how much he had learned to trust that God’s hand was in everything. When Antti would preach or speak in a one-on-one conversation, there would sometimes be long silences in which he was formulating his thoughts. We would hang on in the silence to give him space for quiet reflection, not interrupting, waiting, waiting, waiting for witnessing words of wisdom, faith and love of Jesus. He shared and filled us with the Good News. Sometimes pastors also need to hear the Gospel preached and this is what Antti did for us.

One day, Antti let us know that he was not feeling well and after a recent visit to the doctor, discovered he had pancreatic cancer. He told us, “I don’t know how long I have, but I am not going to treat it, as the odds aren’t good and I don’t want to suffer more trying to prolong my life. I have had a good life and I am almost 80. That’s long enough.” While we were shocked and saddened, we also understood that this is where Antti was, he had made up his mind and wanted quality of life, not quantity. In the coming months, Joel and I tried to make more frequent visits to Antti and his wife Jane, knowing that the end would be at some point and we wanted to support him as much as we could.

A couple of months after his cancer diagnosis, we showed up at his house for a short visit. Antti had lost a lot of weight because he didn’t want to eat. His pants were held up by a belt that was as tight as it could possibly go. Dressed in a flannel jacket because it was cold outside, he met us when we got out of our car and said, “Before we go into the house I’ve got something to show you two in the garage. I’ve been working on it for a while now, but I am really pleased with how it has turned out.” I wondered, what is it? We walked by his Porche (Antti had an old Porche convertible which was his pride and joy) parked in the garage and off to the right was a long wooden box, a casket. He put his hand on it and smiled.  I tried to take a breath in, but it got stuck in my throat. The tears surfaced for a moment and I swallowed hard. I hardly had words, but said, “It is beautiful, Antti.” He said, “It is birch. The wood is so nice and soft to work with. I have been working on it, for weeks now, sanding it, and putting some finishing touches on it. He opened it up and continued, “Look, my daughter made a quilt to go on the inside. When I go, I want to be buried in this, something I made with my own hands. This is how it used to be a long time ago.”

There it was: death. Antti didn’t shy away from it and in our conversation over coffee and while eating Finnish cardamom bread that morning, he embraced it. He knew and said with confidence, “I am not afraid.” I stood there looking at my mentor, whose death would arrive at some point in the next few months. He spoke about it as if he was going to usher it in whenever it arrived. He shared that he had spent time deliberately trying to figure out how he wanted to exit the world. He wanted to be surrounded by family and friends. He wanted there to be tears, but also laughter. He wanted support and love and would work to keep his routines, particularly his Tuesday morning prayer group with a group of men he had been meeting over breakfast as long as he could remember. He still wanted to share about Jesus love for the world and would keep on doing it as long as possible. He knew that God’s work was not done and he still had a part to play, as long as he was alive and maybe in death too. We sat at the table and the tears flowed a bit, but for the most part, we spoke about death as if it was the most normal thing ever and perhaps even a friend. He kept reminding us that Jesus meets us in death and resurrection. Our last conversation included these words, “I have hope and great faith that I will meet my Lord and Saviour. I will not be alone. Whenever it happens, I will be ready for new life. Jesus said, for I will make all things new. Won’t that be great?!”

The story from the Gospel today, is all about death and resurrection. The raising of Lazarus is the seventh and last miracle Jesus does in the book of John.  The cast of characters involved in this story come to the scene from a variety of angles. And while the people in this story may not recognize it, Jesus may be foreshadowing his own death and resurrection because this final act of a miracle starts the beginning of his own journey to his death on the cross.

Mary and Martha are in deep grief because of the death of their brother. Their grief is real and raw as when Jesus shows up. Mary’s response to Jesus of, “If you were here sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.” was definitely a response that most of us might have if we were in the same situation. When you are in shock and deep grief people often reach for anyone to blame to bring their loved one  back. Grief is deeply emotional, can feel out of control, nothing makes sense and minutes just pass.

Upon hearing the news from Mary, we know Jesus is overcome with emotion. He wept, maybe out of his sadness and the death of Lazarus, but also maybe out of his sense that people still questioned and wondered if he really was the Son of God. Using his emotion, Jesus becomes the strong and calming force within the situation of deep grief and chaos. He takes the chaotic, dark, mystery, and these moments of unbelief and transforms them into something that makes sense, gives light, provides definition and witnesses who he is. Jesus prays to God and commands that Lazarus comes out and for the sake of the crowd and community to hear, they are to unbind him and let him go.

Through this act of raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus has taken the sting out of death. Because we know what happened after this event and how the Jesus story unfolds, we are assured that death does not have the last word. Jesus did the hard work for us, as he went to the cross, died, and was resurrected. This is the Easter story. Death and darkness have been overcome. I have presided at many funerals and looked into the eyes of so many who have lost their loved ones, who are deep in despair and I want them to know that there is more. Their loved one’s story doesn’t just end there.

On this All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints who have gone before us, but because of Christ, we can have faith that we will one day see them again. But, I would like you to take just a moment and look around you, not just rhetorically, but really look at those sitting around you.  You see, we are the saints and sinners of today. I know most of us have a hard time thinking of ourselves as saints, but we are. We aren’t perfect and of course, we are also sinner as well, but we live as both. We also live in the freedom to live without fear because Christ has already conquered death. And what is it like to live a life without fear?

It means we can walk forward, in the midst of this messy and crazy world we live in and know that we are called to be Easter people, proclaiming resurrection and new life. God’s work is not yet done. Just like Jesus commanded the community of people to unbind Lazarus, God calls each one of us to go back out there into our daily lives with direction and purpose, to unbind what we ourselves and others hold onto. We saints all have things that bind us and keep us in the grave and darkness; addiction, wealth, status, self-involvement, image, you name it and the list of things goes on and on. When we work on, and recognize our sinfulness and go back to the foundation of our identity in Christ, as beloved children of God, well, only then we can truly let go and move on in freedom and new life.

My friend Antti, both saint and sinner is one of those special people of faith I remember today, and long after his earthly life ended, he keeps reminding me that nothing, not even death, separates us from God, who loves us. The promise of resurrection has given all of us new life, and we can have faith, hope, and assurance that our Lord and Saviour will do for us and the world what he did for Lazarus, every single day. God’s work in this world is not yet done. So, it is our job as The American Lutheran Congregation, to Unbind and let go. Let that be the idea that gets you through this week. Unbind and let go.


Bible References

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



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.