Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, MS.
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Anticipating our annual observance of All Saints Sunday, you surely stayed up late (after all, you had an extra hour!) last night polishing your golden halo, yes? No? You brought your crown of glory, right? You have a miracle prepared to share with everyone? You remembered, didn't you, to wear a pious expression this morning, and to dress in stained glass or the gilded jewel tones of an icon? Didn't you?
Because it's All Saints Sunday, and we are all of us saints of God, and I mean... Well, we don't look much like it, I'm afraid. We look nice, sure, but...saintly??
The answer, of course, is yes. We are all of us saints of God, and I mean... Before anyone ever lifted Andrew of Mary or Peter up on their pedestals, we were all called saints, in Greek hagios, meaning holy, set apart. Over and again in our Christian scriptures, the whole church, all of the followers of Jesus Christ, all of us are called saints. But when we stand beside the giants of our faith, whose halos through the centuries have not dimmed and whose names have not been forgotten...Andrew, Mary, Peter; Francis, Julian, Joan...we feel conspicuously underdressed.
Still, we are all of us made in the image of God, and I mean... God is, after all, holy and set apart. Maybe that's how the stained glass saints do it, reflecting in their lives all the holiness, all the purity and grace and goodness of God. God, who will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, who will swallow up death for ever. God, who will make a new heaven and a new earth, who is making all things new. God, who is extraordinary. So many of the saints on our calendar of holy women and holy men are remembered for the extraordinary things they said and did.
But we are all of us made in the image of God, and I mean... God is far more than simply extraordinary, far more than just set apart. If the prophet Isaiah is to be believed, God who made the heavens and the earth, who destroys death and creates life, God in whom is our salvation...the same God is in the kitchen preparing a feast for us, Isaiah writes, a feast of rich food filled with marrow. God is straining well-aged wines for us. There's grease on God's apron, a smudge of flour on God's face, as God moves between the cutting board, the sink, the stove, the table, the most familiar places we know. God is profoundly ordinary, set not just apart but among us, so near as to wipe away tears from our eyes. Maybe there's something to our sainthood after all, then, if we can be remembered for being ordinary.
Did you notice, though, that this morning's readings, appointed for All Saints Day, have little to do with any saints at all, ordinary or extraordinary. Mary and Martha are named, but the twelve disciples aren't mentioned, and we don't hear a single word from Paul. In fact, in all three readings, in Isaiah and Revelation and John, all we see and hear the faithful do is suffer disgrace, mourn, cry, hurt, die. Mary is weeping as she falls at Jesus' feet. Martha almost sounds bitter, even though she has just proclaimed her belief that Jesus is the Christ. Others look on in doubt and disgust, for surely the one who opened the eyes of blind Bartimaeus could have kept poor Lazarus from dying. None of them understand that they are the ones who cannot yet see. None of them know that they are the ones who have not yet come alive.
How ordinary, how common this story is. Not, perhaps, in its particulars, although I daresay most of us have grieved the loss of a loved one. How ordinary, how common it is to weep. To hurt. To feel helpless. To be bitter. To be angry. To doubt. To despair. To die. With our nation, we looked on in horror this week as Hurricane Sandy wrecked coastlines, communities, cities and souls. We wept, heartbroken, for the losses we have witnessed from so far away, here where the weather has been safe and sunny and unseasonably warm, here where the storm, though many hundreds of miles distant, nonetheless surfaced familiar wreckage and loss and grief of our own.
But we have witnessed something else familiar. Photographs of Red Cross shelters. Daring rooftop rescues by first responders. Tallies of donations of money and food and supplies. Convoys of power trucks. Stories of helping hands lent to neighbors who lost everything. Volunteers sifting through debris to help salvage what they can. Medical professionals healing what hurts they can. Strangers offering electricity to charge cell phones, or showers to wash clean, or shovels to dig out, or coffee just to have a cup of hot, steaming coffee.
Saints, right? All of them, saints of God. Too solid for stained glass, too fragile to be carved in stone, these saints in the face of death and destruction are alive, made of beating hearts and helping hands...and the possibility of coming undone at any moment, of feeling insufficient to the task of cleaning up the mess, of healing what is hurt, of working in the kitchen, of wiping every tear.
So it is that sainthood must be about something other than what we are capable of doing, for if sanctification relied on human effort alone, our calendar of holy women and men would be empty, and All Saints Day just wishful thinking. This morning's readings have very little to do with saints at all because they have everything to do with God, with how God is at work in the world in the most extraordinary and the most ordinary ways, calling us to come alive, unbinding us and letting us go from the strips of fear and hesitation that cover us. In this morning's readings it is God who acts every time, making all things new, making life where death has been, making hope where despair has been, making courage where fear has been, making faith where doubt has been.
Lazarus, come out, Jesus cried, but he may as well have been talking to anyone else who has ever been bound and buried by whatever it is that wrecks our lives, disasters that are sometimes natural and sometimes of our own making. Lazarus, come out!
Jennifer, come out...
We are all of us dead sometimes, and I mean... Jesus is calling me, calling you, too. Come out... We can stay in the tomb, or, like Lazarus, we can stumble forward, transformed even if still tripping over our sorrow, weary but waking to new life.
I saw a new heaven and a new earth, says the writer of Revelation. A new life, where death would be no more. There are last things in that vision, glimpses of what will be at the end of the ages. But the God who will act then is the same God who acted in the beginning, the Alpha and the Omega. The God who will make a home among mortals and dwell among us has already done so in Jesus Christ, and through him God has put away death that we might have life, and through him God has taught us how to live. How, like Martha, to prepare a feast. How, like Mary, to wipe away tears.
Sainthood isn't about what we are capable of, or how extraordinary we are, or how ordinary for that matter. It isn't about how we die. Sainthood is about how we come alive when we are called, and then it is about how we live. Like the Velveteen Rabbit becoming real bit by bit and not all at once, so does sainthood grow in us as we are daily transformed from death to life by God's action in us, unbinding us, letting us go. Frederick Buechner explains, "The forgiven person starts to become a forgiving person, the healed person a healing person, the loved person a loving person. God does most of it," Buechner explains, until one day life becomes eternal.
Leave your halos at home, if you've got one. Put your crown of glory away. God does not expect a miracle. Though our calendar only lists so many holy women and holy men, saints are as common as they come. What is extraordinary about them is that when Jesus calls - and he will, he does - they come alive. And if we remember them at all, it isn't, for most of them (or for most of us) as a figure in a church window or a candle-lit icon. We remember them as the person who mucked out our flooded homes. The one who drove us to the doctor when we were sick. The stranger who welcomed us when we were new to the church. The friend who brought us lunch on a busy day. The teacher who made sure we understood. The godparent willing to bring us up in the Christian faith and life. We remember them as Andrew and Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who came alive so long ago, and as James and Noah who will be baptized today.
We are all of us saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one, too. Amen.
Artwork: Photographs of relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy. Photo #1 shows volunteers who went door-to-door before Sandy hit warning residents to take precautions. Photo #2 shows volunteers and United States Army National Guard members preparing MRE's to deliver in neighborhoods damaged by the storm. Photo #3 is a volunteer with the Grand Central Partnership mucking out a flooded building. Photo #4 shows a Red Cross volunteer helping young shelter residents enjoy Halloween. Photo #5 shows NY Marathon runners preparing to volunteer on Staten Island. Photo #6 shows Grand Central Partnership volunteers unloading donations of food and supplies.