The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dancing with the Saints

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Icons of the Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA
All Saints' Sunday, Year B


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

All Saints’ Day is about dancing in that breath between life and death.

It’s a day of conflicting realities.  We remember and mourn those who have died.  We honor the great cloud of witnesses that surround us and uphold us.

But even in the midst of the reality of death, we hear stories of resurrection.  In the midst of mourning, we celebrate new life and renewed understandings of community as we reaffirm our own baptismal vows, and extend those vows once again to the newest member of our community, Selena Faith Murphy.

The Feast of All Saints is a dance between conflicting truths.  And that’s why the story of Lazarus works so well today, of all days.

Me emerging from "the tomb of Lazarus" in Bethany, 2007
A few years ago, I had to the good fortune to study the gospel lesson appointed for today on Monday in Holy Week while traveling through Jerusalem.  In the chronology of John’s account of the life of Jesus, the story of Lazarus comes just before Jesus heads into his suffering and death in Jerusalem.  We all know how that all progresses, and the story of Lazarus stands as a kind of foreshadowing of how the story of Jesus would unfold in Jerusalem.

Jesus would die, to be sure.  Just as Lazarus had died just days before.  But the power and finality of death would be brought into question through the lens of Christ.

One of the hallmarks of the Christian faith is this idea of resurrection - the idea that no matter how final death may seem to us, in the Christian experience it is never the final word.

Death is expected.  We all die.  But life bursting through the bonds of death?  No one could have seen that coming.

But truth be told, that’s not even what really surprises me when I hear the story of Lazarus.  The thing that never fails to take my breath away is the way Jesus’ humanity breaks through his divinity so clearly in this passage.  It’s probably some kind of heresy to say so, but I’m always so much more impressed by Jesus’ humanity than by his divinity.  We’ve all heard the words of the doctrine - fully God and fully human.  But it’s the human part that makes me a Christian.  And I think it’s the human part that can set our faith apart from all of the other pursuits of spirituality in its many forms and understandings.

It’s always humbling when I remember that about this faith of ours: that God does not just work from the great beyond - whatever that may be - but God works through people.  People just like us.  The creator needs the created.  And it’s through our encounters with Jesus that this becomes most clear.

Through so many of the stories of our faith we forget that.  We spend our time in awe of Christ, our Lord, at the expense of really embracing and understanding the humility and the humanity of Jesus, our brother.

If all you remember from the story of Lazarus is that Jesus brought him back to life, you’re really missing something.  Jesus was not JUST God.  Jesus was a human being.  He was a part of a community.  And when encountering the suffering of one of his own, he suffered, too.

“Jesus began to weep,” the gospel says.

He was not just “God on high.”  He was one of us: suffering with us, grieving with us.

The whole experience was a lesson for Mary and Martha and all the community - Jesus is always a teacher.  The raising of Lazarus was a miracle, certainly.  That divine essence is recounted time and again throughout the gospels.  But beneath the teacher and the miracle worker is something more.  Something we too often forget.  Something human.  Something just like us.

The lessons are often lost on us in our feeble attempts at understanding.  And the kinds of miracles we read about seem too outrageous to fully wrap our minds around them.

But humanity is real.  Emotion is real.  And it’s that humanity that connects us to God.

With Selena after the service
If all you remember from the baptism today is what a sweet and beautiful baby Selena is, you’re missing something important, too.  Today, Selena is not just a sweet and beautiful little girl; today, she is a symbol to remind each of us of our place in this community.  She is a living reminder of the vows we make as Christians, and of the hope we have in Christ: that no matter how strong death may seem, life comes out stronger - no matter how powerfully fear may confront us, hope rises up out of the community with more power, still.

That’s the dance.  Even as we face death, we celebrate life.  Even as we mourn, there is joy.

The steps of this dance may seem too challenging to navigate, but we don’t take them alone.  We dance with our brothers and sisters of this community.  We dance with little Selena.  We dance with the saints who have gone before.  And through it all, we dance with God’s help.

Just about every Christian calling is a challenge, but they all come with the promise of God’s help.

In a few minutes, when you renew your vow and reaffirm covenant, remember that you’re not alone.  You share in that covenant with all of us here in this room, with the church scattered about the world, and with all the saints who still lead the way.  And in all things, we dance this unlikely dance with God’s help.  Amen.

(portions of this sermon appeared previously in a different sermon, published here)

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