November 4, 2018, All Saints’ Sunday The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
From The Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” I speak to you in the Name of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, the most Holy One in whose hand we truly dwell. Amen.
Today we observe one of the church’s most precious festivals – a festival steeped in the promises of God. For All Saints’ Sunday reminds us, and all people of faith, that, as described in the Letter to the Hebrews, wherever we are in our lifelong journeys into God, we are utterly surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses that encompassesus” (Heb. 12:1). And that promise is at the heart of today’s celebration. God’s people are surrounded by the millions and millions of faithful who have gone before us: martyrs, patriarchs and matriarchs, apostles and teachers, and, in the words of that old Hymn, everyday folk like you and me, and all of them continue to pray for us and the Church here on earth. And All Saints’ Sunday affirms that not only dothey pray for us, but also, that Jesus Christ himself prays and intercedes for us eternally. All Saints’ Sunday reminds us that no matter what happens in our particular earthly pilgrimage, we are never alone in this life nor in the life to come.
Yes, this is a day of celebration and yet, the question remains: for all its promises of prayerful and intercessory support and its hope for us in the world to come, what difference should this feast make in our lives in this moment, in this day when we are so often torn apart by politics and religion, and we see so much human suffering all around us? Our gospel lesson suggests an answer.
I have shared with you before that, like many of you, I grew up in the days when the King James Version of the Bible was the norm in our churches. In fact, most modern translations of scripture were generally treated with some level of revisionist suspicion. Now, I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of modern biblical scholarship this morning. Suffice to say that when it came to Martha’s response in John’s gospel to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, I loved how the King James Version translated Martha’s words. I don’t know about you, but in our church, Martha’s words set every child in the room to giggling. In the King James Version, Martha cries out, “But Lord, he stinketh!” And “he stinketh” became the most quoted verse of scripture among my childhood peers. We couldn’t tell you a thing about what today’s gospel meant to us as Christians, but we loved to say that somebody “stinketh.” And oh my, how appropriate that phrase is to us on All Saints’ Sunday.
Now, our Old and New Testament readings this morning affirm the blessedness of the Communion of Saints: the pure of heart who embodied God’s values of love, mercy, grace and justice. The Book of Wisdom says that while the world often scoffed at these righteous persons and considered their lives a complete waste – that they were persons of no lasting value – they were precious in the sight of God then and still are today. Solomon says, “(Their) souls are in the hand of God.” They are at peace and the Psalmist says they forever stand in the presence of the God in whom they put their trust and who continues to bless them forever.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ describes the Communion of Saints as the Church Triumphant: that great company of souls redeemed by Him who is called the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end: Jesus Christ our Lord who, through baptism, has grafted us and all who believe into his body and marked us as his own forever. The Revelation says that while we only know this company as spiritual companions and prayer partners in today’s life’s journey, we will, someday, be physically joined with them and live forever as one united family of redeemed and blessed children of God.
These lessons echo the words of St. Paul (Rom. 8:38-39) who said, nothing in all creation; nothing on earth, above it or below it, nor principalities, nor powers, nor even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So, today’s scripture lessons affirm the promises of God to the Saints. Again, these are all wonderful promises but, what on earth does our gospel story about a dead man who “stinketh” have to do with us and All Saints’ Sunday?
Well, in one word: everything! See – all of us- are Lazarus. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we will recognize that we are all bound up by something that tries to get in the way of our relationship with God, one another, and our neighbors. My colleague Rick Morley describes Lazarus this way: “We are all … bound in the grave cloths which the world lays on us. We are stiff and we have begun to stink. Until – until!- Jesus orders the stones that entomb us to be rolled away. Until Jesus calls us out from our tombs of death: our tombs of complacency; of addiction; of dependency; of consumerism and selfish pride. We are lifeless and stink until he orders everything that binds us and holds us down to be stripped off of us and tossed aside; Until Jesus breathes his holy breath into us and makes us a new creation.”
See, the story of Lazarus is our story: yours and mine. It is the story and promise shared by the entire Communion of Saints. Like them, we were once dead and yet, in Christ, have been made alive again. And that stench of hopelessness that once engulfed and oozed forth from our bodies has been overcome by the sweet smell of wine and fresh bread presented to us as the Body and Blood of him who offered himself and redeemed us once and for all at Calvary: Jesus Christ our Lord; the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. Christ unbinds us, redeems, sets us free, and welcomes us into that goodly fellowship of apostles, martyrs, prophets, evangelists, confessors, matrons and patrons, holy people of God– the Communion of Saints and he does so with a purpose. He calls us forth tobeChrist’s light and God’s presence, to be a visible Communion of Saints in this world today.
In these days when grief enfolds so many around us: the death of loved ones; the loss of life, home and income through not one, but two, terrible hurricanes; and the horrific murders of 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters simply because they were committed to demonstrating the biblical mandate that God’speople welcome and care for the alien, the stranger, the immigrant in their midst; it seems that now, perhaps more than ever before, that the world needs visible saints: saints who will stand up, and make a difference in our communities, state, and nation, and do so with boldness right now.
You know, I saw a visible Communion of Saints in action this past week. On Monday evening many of us gathered with hundreds of others throughout the High Country to not only keep silent vigil with the slain of Pittsburgh, but also, to stand up and proclaim that there is no room for hate in our communities, especially hate directed towards those who are different from ourselves. And in that candlelit moment, standing shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, praying and singing, people of all faith traditions were united and shone forth with the healing and redemptive light of God – the light of God that always brings hope. In that moment we demonstrated that not only is the Communion of Saints a scriptural reality, it matters because it is very much alive and at work in us, and desires to make a difference in our communities.
I’ll be the first to admit that while we are Saints of God, we continue to be works in progress. At least I know I am. There are times when I, when we, still “stinketh” as we resist God’s on-going work within us reshaping our hearts and minds – our thoughts, our words, our deeds - into the very image of Christ. And yet, in spite of our own selves, in spite of our tendency to remain bound like Lazarus, we - all of us– are still Saints of God. And that is cause for celebration, thanksgiving, and action because that’s what saints do.
Solomon said, “the souls of the righteous - the souls of the Saints - are in the hand of God:” and, beloved, so are we. May God grant us the grace to not only abide in God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace, but show the world what saints look like by demonstrating and sharing that love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace to and with everyonewe meet. Oh what a different world, a different nation, we couldbe, and if we so choose, by God’s grace and with God’s help, we shall be today and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Rick Morley, Reflections on John 11:32-44 (paraphrased and embellished.)