Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Saints Show Us God


Today, our office staff is dressing up in the costumes of some of my favorite saints: the characters from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up adoring Mr. Rogers. He helped kids (and parents) believe that all people, each with a unique contribution to the human race, were good and, although he did not use religious language, made in the image of God. Mr. Rogers and the other characters on the show told us that our ideas, our hopes, and our imaginations had value, and our struggles, our fears, and our pains were significant. They did not distort reality by pretending hardships did not exist, but they shifted our understanding of reality so that we could see the good in it and learn to believe that in time all things would work together for good. That's what it means to be a saint.

This year, as we celebrate All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), we hear the story of Jesus calling Lazarus back from the dead (John 11:32-44). At first, I wondered whether this gospel lesson might be more appropriate for All Souls Day (Nov. 2), when we commemorate the lives of all the faithful departed. Of course, in Protestant (including Anglican) theology, there isn't really a difference between the two. All people made holy in Jesus Christ are the "holy ones" or the "saints," and some of them have stories worth telling to the whole church (e.g. the Virgin Mary or Martin Luther King, Jr.) and some of them have stories worth telling in our own family or community (e.g. Granny or Cousin Elmer). In the biblical account, Lazarus' story isn't one of working miracles or bringing the gospel to far-away lands. He isn't persecuted for his faith, nor does he bear witness before the rulers of this world. But he is one in whom the world sees the power of God, and that is exactly what makes him a saint.

"Lazarus, come out!" Jesus exclaims before the opened tomb, and "the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth." Of the mummy-like figure, Jesus says to those looking on, "Unbind him and let him go." And that's the last we hear of Lazarus. He was Jesus' friend, the one for whom Jesus wept, which is enough, I suppose, to make one pretty famous in Christian circles. Legend has it that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in Cyprus. Supposedly, haunted by the sight of the unredeemed souls in hell (think "place of the dead" not "place of torment"), Lazarus never smiled again during his whole life except once, when he saw someone stealing a pot and proclaimed with a wry smile, "The clay steals the clay." (Thanks, Wikipedia.) We don't know what happened to Lazarus. We don't know whether he ever did anything remarkable in his whole life except being raised from death by Jesus. But that is exactly what makes him a saint--one in whose life the power of God is clearly manifest--and that's why he's the perfect person to remember on All Saints' Day.

In the Episcopal Church, the closest we get to commemorating Lazarus is the lesser feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany (LFF 2018). When it's time to tell his story, there isn't much to tell--at least not a lot that Lazarus did. Instead, we tell the story of what was done to Lazarus, what happened to him and in him. He was brought back from the dead. The power of God to defeat the oldest human enemy--death itself--is brought to earth in Jesus and becomes clear in Lazarus. He is a vessel for God's power. He is a mirror that reflects to the world the resurrection power of God. For the rest of his life, people must have come to Lazarus and asked him about it. They must have wondered what it felt like to be dead and then to come back to life. I don't know whether Lazarus had much to say about that, but his identity as the receptacle for Jesus' greatest miracle helps us see in him God's will for our own lives. That makes Lazarus a saint.

We, too, are saints. You are a saint, and I am a saint. All of us in whom God's power is manifest are the holy ones of God. We are made holy not because of something we've done--not because of our contribution to humanity--but because of what God has done in us. Like Lazarus, it doesn't matter whether we've done anything exciting. What matters is that God has done and is doing something exciting in us. We, too, have been given the power to defeat death. May we, like Lazarus, show the world that power during our lifetime.

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