From the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 2015.
From the gospel according to John “Jesus again, greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone.”
“Take away the stone,” Jesus says. Jesus comes to the place of death and says, “Take away the stone.” Jesus come to the place of mourning and loss and says, “Take away the stone.” Jesus comes to the place where everyone is weeping and wailing and not seeing any possible hope, and he says, “Take away the stone.” Jesus comes to us in our lives, in the places where we have been laying low, in the places of darkness, and Jesus says to us, “Take away the stone. Come be a part of my work of raising the dead.”
Today is the day when we remember the dead and the living saints. Today is All Saints Day. It is a wonderful day in the church, and we have a special procession and incense to remind us of the great communion of saints and our prayers for one another. We remember the saints with a big “S”: St. George, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Mary, all the saints. We remember the saints with a little “s”, the folk “just like you and me, and I want to be one too,” all the saints. We remember the great statement of our Faith that we say in the Creed, “We believe in the communion of saints,” that great and holy fellowship seen and unseen, the dead and the living, all gathered together in one holy fellowship. It’s a wonderful day to be a saint. Good morning saints. Please remind yourself that you are saints. Turn to your neighbor and say, “Good morning, saint!”
I don’t feel like a saint some days. Maybe you’re with me there. You wake up and you know that you’re part of a holy family, but you say, “I just don’t know if I can do it today, God. I don’t feel very saintly.” How many of you say, “I’m no saint.”
I tried to explain this to children in preschool. I was doing a lesson on All Saints Day and I tried to come up with the best way possible to explain what is a saint. The word saint comes from sanctify, meaning we are holy, we are God’s holy ones and again in a way where the young ones are going to understand that idea of the holy one, so I tried to think what holy means. It means set apart for God. Well even that is hard to get. Special for God. That seemed to work. A saint is someone with the baptism in faith is special for God. Today we are going to welcome another saint into the house of God. He’s already special, we are just going to name it through the visible sign of water and the inward grace of God.
I don’t always feel special for God. There are plenty of times where I’ve got my own agenda, I’ve got my own ideas about the way the world should be, and I’d rather go with those. That might be where Martha, in the story we heard this morning in the gospel, is. The story we are picking up in the middle of things. Martha and Mary of Bethany, their brother Lazarus, was sick, and they sent for Jesus a few days ago and Jesus kind of dragged his feet and got there too late. Lazarus had already died in the place of the tomb. Martha meets him on the way and has some words with Jesus, when Martha makes an amazing confession of faith. “You,” she said, “are the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world.” Martha has an amazing epiphany about who Jesus is, but then just a little while later that same day, Martha is at the tomb. Jesus is saying, “Take away the stone,” and what does Martha say? “It’s going to smell!” She got that idea in her mind about what is going to happen and the way the world works. Lazarus is dead and that is that. There’s no sense in taking away the stone. No sense in causing a stench.
Isn’t that the way we are sometimes in our lives? We think we know how things are going to work. I’ve got this part of myself that I keep in a cave, and I don’t really want to take away the stone because it’s kind of smelly in there. I’ve got parts of myself that I’m not proud of, parts of myself that I’d rather not see the light of day. I don’t want anyone coming in and taking away the stone because that would just stir things up, create more mess.
How many of you have ever said, “My life stinks today?” We’ve had those stinky days. Jesus comes and says, “Take away the stone.” Maybe we have a relationship with someone that long ago was broken, dysfunctional, and we try to hide it safely in a cave, but Jesus comes and says, “Take away the stone. There’s hope for reconciliation.” Or we have some behavior or habit or something about ourselves that we are not very proud of, and Jesus comes along and says, “Take away the stone. There’s hope for healing. There’s hope for change.” Or maybe we have that in our world, we have so many problems, so many ways we have put people in a cave, we have bound people up, we have made people sit in the darkness and there are complicated issues of our world and we have said, “Please let’s not go there. Let’s not talk about politics or race. Let’s not talk about money. Let’s not talk about those issues because there could be a stench. It could be smelly.”
Now I know you all are tired of talking about stewardship and money and giving to the church, but I want to do it one more time. Our relationship with money is one of those things where we sometimes have a hard time connecting our thoughts about money with our thoughts about faith. We hear people go and make testimonials about giving 10%, making tithes to the church, and we say, “Whoa, whoa hold on. Let me worry about my money. Let’s not talk about money in church.” And that just feels impossible, to give 10%. There are things in this world that feel impossible, and Jesus comes and says, “Take away the stone.”
The good news is that Jesus came to the tomb, not to tell them to raise Lazarus from the dead. He didn’t come and say, “Ya’ll raise Lazarus from the dead.” He just came and said, “Ya’ll take away the stone, I’ll do the rest.” He came and said, “I don’t want you to participate with me in this act of raising the dead, just take away the stone.” That’s what Jesus is saying to us, Jesus is not saying I want you to do the impossible. Jesus is saying, “Remove the obstacle that gets in the way of the light so that my light can shine through,” said Jesus. “Remove that which keeps people trapped in the darkness so that together we can set them free. Remove the obstacles that would keep people bound up in the complicated ties of this world so that I can call them out the way I called out Lazarus and I can tell you, unbind him, let him go.”
Today is All Saints Day and it is a day for us to all be called out of whatever tomb we sometimes feel like we want to crawl into. You know, Lazarus could’ve stayed in the tomb longer! Jesus calls out “Lazarus, come out” and Lazarus could have said, “I’m doing fine in here.” He had to participate as well in that act of coming out into the light. Those words that Jesus uses when he says take away the stone, “take away”: he uses them also in Chapter 5 of John’s Gospel, with the man by the pool of water. There’s a man who has been waiting there for years on the mat, he’s terrorized and he just wants someone to stick him in the healing pool, the waters are all stirred up and he keeps complaining about, “I only want to sit in the pool.” Jesus comes along and says, “What do you want?” He says, “I just want someone to put me in the pool.” Jesus says, “Take up your mat and walk.” Those words “take up” are the same words that mean “take away.” Take away your stone, take up your mat, and participate in God’s healing work. Be the saints of God.
There is a quote that is sometimes attributed to Nelson Mandela because he used it in a speech once. It was actually written by a woman named Marianne Williamson. You may have heard it before. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”
So on All Saints Day today, we may be asking ourselves, “Who am I to be a saint?” Who are you not to be? We are children of God. We are called to be saints so today is our great saint coming out day. Come on out, saints! Come on out and be part of Christ’s holy mission. Come out and be healed, come out and be part of the healing of this world. Take away the stone so that those who have been bound may be set free. So that we may unbind them and we all may go free. It’s time for the saints to go marching in, and we want God’s grace so as to be one of that number. When we take away the stone, God can heal more than we can ask or imagine. When we clear the way and we open the way of God’s grace, we open the way for new life.
I was yesterday in Washington, DC, at a service of prayer for our new presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and there was a lot of talk about saints and ancestors, the men and women who came before, who brought us here to this point. We are connected to so many saints, ones past and ones present and ones yet to come. We are the saints. We have been brought here by so many in past generations, and we are the ones who will continue this place going forward. We are the ones who will continue what Bishop Curry calls the ‘Jesus movement’ going forward we are called to be saints. We are called to be one body in Christ. We are called to give. We are called to love. We are called to serve. We are called to take away the stone.
Brothers and sisters, let us take our place in the great communion of saints. Let us hear the words of Jesus, “Take away the stone” Take away the stone so that all may come to the light and all may be unbound and all may be free and all may love and all may give and all may share and all may praise the greatness of God that all may see God’s glory. Take away the stone!