Sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday, November 4, 2012, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: John 11:32-44 (a version of this sermon was also preached on All Saints' Day at meeting of the Monroe and Rochester Districts of the Diocese of Rochester.
Unbind him, and let him go.
I have always found those simple words of Jesus at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus deeply moving. And once heard, and once moved, my mind almost always goes to another Gospel, our Luke’s, and Jesus speaking critical words to religious people.
Woe also to you teachers of the Law! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. (Luke 11:46 with a rough parallel at Matthew 23:6)
I would like to say that what we followers of Jesus have to offer is an unbound life, rather than a burdened one. I think that is theoretically true, but practically, we have a long, long way to go.
How we talk about sainthood is a case in point. Most of us are probably aware that within the last month, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters canonized a new set of saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, born in upstate New York. Talking with a Roman Catholic friend of mine the other day, he enquired how Anglicans canonized saints. I said he probably did not want to know, like all things Anglican it is very murky and messy.
I could have said simply that we do no such thing. We put people on the calendar to keep their memory, so that their relationship with God might inspire ours. We do not give them the title “saint.” The only persons in our tradition with the title “saint” are those remembered on our major feast days, and they are the apostles and other New Testament figures.
But I didn’t tell him that. I really did not want to have the conversation. But he persisted.
“What criteria do you use?” he asked. Feeling a bit uppity I said, “Birth. Birth will do, and baptism helps.”
I was being snarky, but I wasn’t lying. Our tradition is what it is because we have always known that we do not make saints. I could no more make myself into a saint than I could make myself into a German shepherd.
It is not my job to make myself into a saint. It is my job to live into the sainthood I have already received as a gift. Believing that we have to achieve the perfection—even the plain old goodness—of sainthood is another heavy burden hard to bear. This why people protest, “I’m no saint!” and you can hardly blame them.
But of course the good news is that they already are. It may be the greatest shame of the Christian Church that so very few people—even good church people—do not know that.
God loves us first. The saints are simply the people God loves, and that is all of us. Why is it so hard for us to tell that simple, good news? I expect because if we truly believed it, we instinctively know it would turn our worlds upside down.
One of the reasons we keep the discipline of remembering the victims of homicide in this city and county on All Saints every year is so that we do not forget how desperate the world is for this good news. I am reasonably certain that most of the people I will name later died not knowing that God made them and loved them just as they were. I trust in a good God, so I trust they know it now.
It makes All Saints’ Day a bit sobering here. This year the numbers are back up after declining for a couple of years: from All Saints’ Day 2011 to All Saints’ Day, 2012, 55 people were murdered in this county. 69% of them were under the age of 30. 31% of them were under the age of 20. The vast majority of them were African-American men.
They were saints too.
There are many things we can do to stop the violence, although what those things are seem to elude us. It seems an intractable problem. But if nothing else, there’s good news to tell my friends. And I think the obligation to tell it is part of what it means to live into our Baptismal Covenant that we will renew in a few minutes. And I’m not talking about the part about proclaiming the good news. I’m talking about respecting the dignity of every human being. It is that inherent dignity that makes us saints (and them too, whoever “them” is).
If we would only tell the news we have to tell and be the Church and unbind them and let them go.
But that requires us, the Church, to hear Jesus’ call to “come out.” Come out and be unbound from the grave clothes of religion, the grave clothes with which we have bound ourselves, the belief that God only loves us if we try hard to become saints.
Let us live, my sisters and brothers, by the freedom of the gospel, the whole point of which is that the saints are not people who are good enough to be loved by God, but who know they are loved enough by God first.
In this stewardship season this is also an important point to make. God asks us to be generous givers not in order that he will love us more, but as a response of gratitude for the love we have already been shown, and will continue to be shown, no matter what.