All Saints 2015

A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
All Saints’ Day 2015
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11: 32-44
The Reverend Tyler Doherty, Assistant Priest

            In our Gospel for today, we encounter the story of the Raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, of course, was the brother of Mary and Martha, and the whole brood were friends of Jesus. I’d like to zero in on the Jesus’ last words in the story—“Lazarus, come out!” and “Unbind him, and let him go”—to reflect on what they might have to tell us about Christian discipleship, baptism, and the life of the saints.
 In particular, I’d like to think through the story of Lazarus as an existential statement of our own spiritual condition before God. In this context, Lazarus’ story embodies a narrative of dying and rising—of being estranged from the life-giving power of God, and then being restored to right relation and new life. What, we might ask, brought Lazarus to that place of living death? Well, we can’t be sure, but Jesus’ words—“Unbind him, let him go.”—give us a clue. One way to look at Lazarus’ tomb is that it is a symbolic representation of a state of spiritual death, a cocoon of alienation, dislocation, and separation from himself, his community, and from God. Lazarus’ smelliness—“Lord, he stinketh!” is how the King James Version renders it—is a powerfully visceral metaphor for the way in which our repetitive, self-centered patterns of relating to God and the world create a kind of stale odor to the way we conduct our lives. Predictable, safe, secure, this world of our own making with our selves at the center is also more than a little noxious.
Lazarus’ predicament reminds me of the steadily worsening descriptions of Raskalnikov’s room in Crime and Punishment meant to capture his progressively more tormented psychological state. Dostoyevsky starts off describing the room as hot, and stuffy. Later, the tortured anti-hero’s room is described as cramped and claustrophobic, and finally it is compared to coffin.  Lazarus’ tomb serves a similar function in our Gospel for today. In Luther’s words, Lazarus’ life is one turned in on itself—homo incurvatus se—forgetful of the ground of Being. This story can be read as the symbolic and metaphoric representation of the spiritual state of loneliness, alienation, and separation from relationship to the living God.
The question for us to ponder prayerfully is what are the attitudes and dispositions in our life that keep us bound? What strips of cloth constrict us from being fully alive? What are the habits of body, mind, and spirit that contribute to that little whiff of staleness we exude when we are not living our lives to the fullest? What might happen if we took a risk and allowed ourselves to die to those preoccupations that keep us separated from God, from loving our neighbor, and embracing ourselves as beloved children of the Most High? What might happen if we allowed ourselves to be unbound by the love of God in Christ so that we might be a set of helping hands to unbind those who are similarly bound? Might we be looking out the window, I wonder, at a new heaven and a new earth?
            It’s here that we might sniff out the connection between Lazarus coming out of the tomb and baptism—the process of dying and rising with Christ as we are incorporated as members of the Church, gifted with the Holy Spirit, and nourished with the sacraments that help us fulfill our mission and vocation as God’s hands in the world. In baptism we are washed clean, we die to our old selves as we plunge under the surface, and rise out of the waters as new people, the people God originally intended us to be. This descent beneath the waves, this dying that we enact in baptism, is really a dying to self, a dying to self-enclosure and stubborn self-reliance.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), often referred to as, “the father of modern of theology,” claims that the central feature of the religious life is a “feeling of absolute dependence,” of knowing oneself as a being always-already in relation to the creator and sustainer of universe. Perhaps, then, the dying of which we speak in baptism, and which is so dramatically portrayed in the Raising of Lazarus is a dying to a false sense of independence. Like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost who rebels at this sense of dependence on God—“And what I should be, all but less then he/Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least/We shall be free”[1]—it is this mistaken sense of prideful self-mastery that we must die to in order to be brought into the dazzling newness of life that our passage from Revelation captures so beautifully—“See, I am making all things new.”
            Just as Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb of stench and death to a new life unbound by those habits that keep his life turned in on itself and away from God, so in baptism as we rise out of the water do we emerge as a community of new people turned to God as our hope, our help, and our guide. But as a community of new people born of water and the Spirit, we don’t exist as a kind of privileged elite, a club of self-congratulatory insiders separate from the rest of the messy, complicated world. As Rowan Williams points out, the paradox of baptism is that while it cleanses and purifies, it also contaminates us with the world. Baptized into the life of Jesus we come to stand where he stands—simultaneously in the midst of human misery, neediness, and suffering, and in the midst of the divine delight and love that characterizes the life of the Trinity.[2]
Here the words of the Baptismal Covenant, which we will soon recite, should be ringing in our ears. We are propelled by virtue of our immersion into the life of Jesus (perhaps in the same way that the Spirit drives Jesus into the desert in Mark’s Gospel) to immerse ourselves in all those places and situations we’d rather keep at arm’s length or avoid altogether. Baptism, and openness to the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and the world around us calls us out of our warm little rooms, and our comfortable little tombs where the all-too-familiar fusty smell of our self-preoccupation perfumes the air. Baptism calls us in that same loud voice with which Jesus called to Lazarus (the Greek is actually μέγας φωνή from which we get “megaphone!”). This loud voice penetrates our deafness to the world’s cries, and lures us out (often kicking and screaming) into the risky, bracing freshness of the contingent world where we join God in the mutual adventure of making the Kingdom manifest.
            And folks who feel this call impinge upon their lives, people who—with God’s help—find their unique way to live into the unbound freedom of Christ’s call to us, these are the people we call “Saints.” Now I think we sometimes have a rather puritanically distorted view of what it means to a saint. On our wall at home we have what the Eastern Orthodox call an iconostasis—a collection of icons that depict the life of Christ interspersed with various saints. Some of the saints on our wall include St. Seraphim of Sarov, Theophane the Recluse, St. Silouan the Athonite and other rather rigorously ascetic types. All lived lives of deep prayer, mostly in isolation, and attained great heights of personal holiness.
But as Laura Reilly was putting the finishing touches on the Parish Directory this past week, I got to thinking that perhaps that collection of faces from our very own parish, those icons, might serve as a different kind of iconostasis, one that celebrates the work of the Spirit in and through the blessedly ordinary and mixed-up lives of each one of us. For in the final analysis, saints aren’t the kind of people who live out a “ten point plan to holiness” and hold to a rigid set of rules. There is no one pattern for what the life of a saint looks like. Contrary to our attempts to legislate holiness through the imposition of Victorian-era morality and assert our human control over how God works in the world, God meets each of us where we are and from that flawed, eccentric, and all-too-human mix of wheat and chaff draws us out of ourselves and into the love of Christ.
As the lives of the saints certainly attest, being a saint in one area of one’s life doesn’t mean that one is without faults and flaws in other areas of their messy human lives. Saints, as Rowan Williams says, are people who are willing to stand in the light and let the light of God shine through. He continues, “Alleluia for saints, for saints who are ready to carry the cost of standing in the light, even when the light shows up their own inadequacies and oddities”[3]. And so it is not the particular attributes or behaviors of the saints that we must strive to emulate, as if holiness were a type of Miss Manners guidebook to the spiritual life; that would be mere legalism after all. Rather, it is the saints’ willingness to draw near to Christ, their intensely intimate relationship to God, that we must follow. It is from the quality of that relationship that God’s unique vision of sanctification for each one of us will be slowly brought to fruition.
The light of God shining through the broken glass of our lives manifests in all sorts of different ways. Indeed, God seems to delight in the teeming diversity of the expression of holiness. Our God is not a God of cookie-cutters and abstract ideals. Rather, in baptism God works through the Spirit with our unique individual character and personal history to make manifest God’s love in and for the world. So with Lazarus, may each of us heed the megaphone call to new life in Christ and learn to let go of those funeral cloths that bind us to a life of isolation, loneliness, and self-concern. May we, with all our foibles and quirks, learn to see those places in our lives, and in the lives of those around us, where God’s light shines through. And may we as people still dripping from the waters of Baptism and keenly open to the promptings and leadings of the unpredictable Spirit, have the courage to go where polite company tells us not to, confident that even as we journey to that far country[4], even in the midst of forsakenness, suffering, misery, and death, the God who weeps with us is at our side slowly making all things new.

[1] John Milton. Paradise Lost. Book 1
[2] Rowan Williams. Being Christian. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 6.
[3] Rowan Williams and Joan Chittester OSB. Uncommon Gratitude. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 72.
[4] Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics IV.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 157.


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