All Saints, Year B
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
All Saints, Year B
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Last week, we spoke of the Christian life as a journey, an adventure into belovedness that we might be bearers of that same belovedness, that light, for others. In the story of the blind beggar Bartimaeus, we saw enacted the process of what it looks like to become love. Knowing ourselves to be loved in the depths of the heart, leaving behind old, limiting conceptions of self, other, and God, flinging off everything that separates us from transformative encounter with Jesus, and following Jesus down the path of becoming love, becoming a truly human human person.
On this Feast of All Saints, the Church turns its attention to the deceased saints (known and unknown) of her long and storied past—men and women whose lives bear witness to a hope rooted in the gospel that proclaims God’s victory over death. In an age of war, famine, genocide, religiously motivated hatred and violence, the Church, standing with the saints offers its persistent counter-testimony to the voices of greed, hatred, consumerism, division, and fear. In the raising of Lazarus, God steadfastly refuses to allow scapegoating, violence, and death to have the final word. Christ—who is resurrection and life—enters freely into the suffering of his friend, takes it into himself, transforms it, and draws new life from the stench of the tomb.
When I was growing in Canada, whenever there a question of etiquette—“Is it permissible to eat asparagus with your fingers?”—my mother would always reply by pondering not What Would Jesus Do, but What Would the Queen Do? With our Puritan heritage in this country, we tend to have a rather Victorian picture of who saints are and how they behave. In the popular imagination, saints are a prim and proper lot with beatific grins plastered across their faces who never get annoyed, and whose table manners are impeccable. Saints in this picture are more like graduates of a blue-blooded east coast finishing school than real-life, flesh and bone human beings with faults and foibles in whom love is powerfully, transfiguringly at work.
Sanctity and holiness aren’t really about a set of behaviors to be performed. Rather, sanctity and holiness are about the ground from which we live. Sanctity and holiness are about where we come from more than what we actually do. And what is that ground from which the saints live? Where do saints come from? The ground of love and letting oneself be loved unconditionally, just as you are, and letting that love transfigure you in your uniqueness, your unrepeatableness.
Saints, in a certain way, are those people who have the courage, the boldness, the audacity, the fool-hardiness to stand in the light of God’s love and let it change them. I sometimes think of prayer simply as the process of letting God get at us—opening, receiving, allowing and yielding to the love of God that has been poured into our hearts and letting God pray in us, letting God shape us according to his will and purpose. Saints are those people who have made “letting God get at us” a habitual orientation.
They aren’t saintly primarily because of any work of their own as if sanctity were like running a four-minute mile or losing twenty pounds at the gym. Living as we do in the age of the Self-Improvement Industrial Complex, we automatically assume that saints are those who just tried harder than rest of us poor schleps. They are the spiritual warriors, the elite athletes of the faith who feats are so far beyond our ken that their relevance quickly recedes and prefer to see them as exemplars to place on a pedestal (with a votive candle of course) rather than ordinary folk whose only distinguishing feature is their willingness to surrender, to become poor, to become like little children abandoned to the arms of God, that God might do God’s work in and through the very human lineaments of their lives. Saints are those who live in the vicinity of Jesus and breathe the same air. They stand in the light and let themselves be transfigured by that light that they might be that light for others.
When we step into the light of God’s loving presence and remain there, when we drop our defenses and our own frantic efforts at becoming “holy” under our own steam and instead simply open ourselves to God to let God do the work of sanctification, we quickly discover within ourselves a good deal that is counter to the light, a good deal that hinders the light of God from shining unimpeded through us. If there is any heroism at all in the lives of the saints, it’s the willingness to allow these habits and patterns that are counter to knowing oneself to be loved and being that love in the world to fall apart and fall away. It takes guts to stare down our peevishness, our anger, our impulse to control others and create “The World According to Ourselves” and let God transfigure it.
That, I think, is why we have the story of Lazarus from John’s Gospel read on this Feast of All Saints. Yes, saints are those who have been freed from the power of the fear of death to live from the ground of love that makes them difficult to bully and push around, to control, and compel to step in line. When we live from the light of the Resurrected Jesus who has trampled down death by death, the powers and principalities of the world lose their sting and we aren’t dragged around to same extent. There is choiceless fearlessness to the freedom of such a one. But saints are also those who in a certain way have died and been raised to new life in Christ. They have died to self-sufficiency and do-it-yourselfness. They have died to thinking that power and control, safety and security, affection and esteem will bring any lasting measure of happiness and joy. They have died to living from the ground of power, prestige and possessions, of securing their identity according to their own frantically scrambling efforts and surrender to love.
Jesus’ call—“Lazarus, come out!” is symbolic of this shift in the ground from which the saints live. And it’s what unites the raising of Lazarus with the basic shape of the Christian life of each of us. Lazarus dies to everything that gets in the way of knowing his own belovedness—everything that makes the four-day-old tomb fester and stink. Jesus rolls away the stone and call Lazarus to new life—a new life with Jesus’ unconditional love for him as the ground. He is unbound from what keeps him trapped in isolation, fear, alienation, self-condemnation. He accepts his acceptance and steps into the light.
Today we are baptizing Naomi and Julian. All Saints is wonderful day to baptize because it sets squarely before us the grand sweep of the Christian life as an adventure into love. The Feast of All Saints reminds us that baptism is no mere family affair, or a rite of passage, but an invitation to renounce all that is not love and live instead from the indissoluble bond of God’s love for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Just as the tomb of Lazarus becomes the womb for his new life, to waters of baptism enact a dying to all that is not God, to all that is not love and a rebirth into fullness and flourishing life with the Risen Christ at its center. It’s not that these beautiful children won’t face challenges, but that the challenges they face will always to held in the quiet confidence that the powers and principalities of this world never have the final world, that love is stronger than fear and that even death has lost its sting.
Part of what it means to the gathered people of God in this place and utter those powerful words, “We will!” in response to the question, “Will you do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” is to remind and uphold each other as we walk and grow in love. We give our brothers and sisters a little nudge into the light when they are pottering about in some dark corner with the dust bunnies. We help them take off those strips of cloth that bind and entrap in patterns that fall short of flourishing, of “Glory of God [which] is the human being fully alive.” We can’t unbind ourselves. Jesus rolls back the stone and calls us forth, but it is the community around us who helps unfetter us from all that hinders fullness of life. It’s the community who gently, lovingly, consistently, and persistently coaxes us out of our sunglasses, floppy hat, long sleeve shirt and baggy trousers that we might step into the light of love and let that light heal us, make us whole, and make us holy.
Gracious God, help us to remember that saints are sinners like ourselves who have accepted their acceptance. With Lazarus, may we die to all that prevents us from living in your image and growing into the likeness of your only-begotten Son. Give us the gentle courage to be still and simply open to you just as we are that we might like your saints in light be open places in which you can act. Help us to unbind everything that distorts the dignity of your children and your good creation. May our lives, and the lives of the newly baptized be lived in nearness to Jesus. May we stand where he stands, go where he goes, and breathe the same air he breathes.