This is the first sermon I preached at my Field Education Churches this year.
As you may have noticed, today is All Saints’ Day. It is a day when we celebrate those who have gone before us. Today we celebrate our Saints in churches around the world. I imagine that each of us have saints that have been influential in our lives. Saints that taught us what it means to love people and be obedient to God. These Saints have a value that cannot be gauged or measured. Only as we continue to grow and receive new revelations from God can we even begin to understand how they have affected our lives.
We have such a rich history here at Bethel/Camp Springs where many have gathered before us to worship God and celebrate God’s good work in our lives. Saints have been working here for the past two hundred years, and will continue to work, as we listen to God’s word and attend to the service of God.
In my life, I have had saints teach me what it means to journey closely with God and follow God especially when I do not understand what or why something is happening. Bill Dingus is one of those saints.
When I met Bill Dingus he was in a motorized wheel chair. He had been living in it for at least ten years by the time I met him. He had been a teacher, and still loved books and to learn new things. His wife was the organist at my father’s church when we moved there. We became friends, because I also loved to read books and talk about history with him. I remember going over to help him wrap presents for his wife because he had a hand that he could not use. God used him to teach me about joy. He was living life fully, even when his body was not fully complete.
Though Bill did not have a complete or perfect body, God used him to teach me the ways that I could show love for others. Bill taught me the power of asking for help, in acknowledging that we cannot do everything on our own.
But I still struggle during those times when I do ask for help and the response I receive is not that which I expect. The times when I struggle the most is when something happens that I did not expect and so I am uncomfortable. But I find that it is through those times when I am uncomfortable that I then grow the most.
Mary and Martha received an unexpected response from Jesus when their brother Lazarus was sick. They sent a message to Jesus saying that Lazarus was sick, and Jesus didn’t rush to his bedside. Jesus stayed where he was an extra two days. The Gospel does not explain why Jesus waited those two days to begin his journey. It clearly states that Jesus loved the family, but he waited anyway, or because of his love. Finally, when Jesus eventually arrives in Bethany, the village of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Jesus learns that Lazarus has been dead for four days.
First Martha learns that Jesus arrives in town, so she goes to talk to him. Martha, God bless her, almost gets it. She believes that if Jesus had been there, that Lazarus would not have died. She believes in the possibility of a miracle, but also that the window of possibility is now shut. She even believes in the resurrection, but only the eventual resurrection. She fails to put together the pieces that Jesus presents.
Too often, that’s what I do. I put all the things that Jesus can do in their own little separate boxes, and fail to see the big picture of possibilities that God has open for me. If I can make God fit in my boxes then I can plan and craft my ideas and ideals about the work I should be doing. I can stay comfortable. Because Martha could not see the big picture of the glory of God, she could not see the possibility of greatness that Jesus presents.
But Martha goes to get her sister Mary, and she runs to meet Jesus. Those who are with her, consoling her, follow to see where she is going, thinking she was going to go to the tomb to continue to mourn.
And then Mary comes to see Jesus, while he is still outside the village. This is where our scripture for the day begins. I am going to read the John 11 passage again, since we now have the back story.
32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. 36 The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance. 39 “Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”
Martha here is the voice of common sense. She argues and makes a claim which, in any other circumstance, would be completely accurate and relevant. Lazarus really had been dead for four days, and it was going to be unhealthy for the stone to be lifted and the tomb opened because dead bodies are not nice and clean.
There are many things in our lives which we have covered up that are unhealthy. We attempt to cover them with nice and clean decorations but God can see beneath to our core, those things which need to be healed. Only when god lifts the stones in our lives can we be shown what we need to do to follow Christ.
But God works beyond our human sense and so Jesus calls us to the level of his holy wisdom, not one that is stuck in the bounds of our unimaginative earthly ideas. Too often we are distracted by our own situations and our assumptions of the situation, that we are not open to the full plan that God has prepared for us to receive. We are forced to trust that God will provide a way for us to live into a God-sized obedience.
Continuing in verse 40 Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” 41 So they rolled the stone aside.
God requires obedience before all the evidence of action of God’s will is revealed. Those who did what Jesus said and trusted him show us what we need to do in our trust and faith in God. In this case they trusted him that that he would not lead them to a place of danger. But sometimes we are called into the danger, without a promise of safety from God. Physical safety and personal comfort is not guaranteed when we follow God. Christ gave the perfect example of unreasonable obedience through his journey to the cross. It is because of the example of Jesus dying on the cross and then rising from the dead that we are able to practice his type of obedience that does not make sense in this world. We have to be willing to be obedient to what seems unreasonable. Only in the realm of human unreason can we enter the glory of God’s great reason.
Continuing in verse 41 Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.” 43 Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!”
45 Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus when they saw this happen.
There are many things which are amazing about this miracle. Not least of which is that a man who was dead was raised to life again. Also in the miracle is the fact that people believed. They were open to the revelation of the glory of God.
Likewise we should be open to the display of God’s glory in our lives. But that requires obedience which many of us, or even any of us, do not have alone. This is an obedience that requires God to work in our hearts, minds, and actions, through our very lives so that we can follow Christ’s lead in obedience. This obedience can be scary and beyond our understanding. It is because of this that we truly do have to trust in God to lead us through it.
Another saint in my life displayed this truth in her life.
I first met Lori Peters when she and I volunteered at a weekend youth retreat. She had had a long history of serving the church through work with the youth, but I had only been at the church for a month. I was still getting to know the youth and the rest of the congregation, so I was eager to go spend some time getting to know the kids at the church. The weekend retreat was perfect for this. Our meals were provided, and the youth director had planned out a series of prayer and meditation activities. She was great with the middle school girls and getting them to settle down for the night.
After the retreat I continued to develop my relationship with her, and a few months later, she found a lump on her shoulder blade. And with a son in high school and a daughter in college, she began a strenuous course of chemotherapy. I had the opportunity to go sit with her during her rounds of treatment, to keep her company and keep her spirits up. I got to know her, and her love and relationships with her family through that time. As I watched her condition worsen, I watched her faith grow stronger as she wrestled and fought with the cancer wracking her body. She was able to see her son begin college, and help her daughter move into her school. And then the day before I began class at Duke Divinity School, she died. She was in my life for less than a year, and yet this saint had affected me and reminds me of the love that I have felt through my life.
She displayed with her life and death what it means to love God completely. Because she trusted in God through the hardship of her struggle with cancer, she still continued to show the love that she felt through Christ and from her church body.
In many ways, the way she was held in the loving arms of her church family helped to keep her spirits strong as her body continued to grow weaker. As the church, this is what we are called to do, to gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and join with them in their suffering and their celebration.
This is the purpose of the Eucharist, to join together in celebrating Christ’s obedience, suffering, and resurrection. As a church we gather together to celebrate this holy meal. It is not merely just this church, but the worldwide church. When we break the bread and share the cup of communion, we are literally communing, sharing in Christ’s body with the whole church of the world.
God invites us to share at the table with all those who have gone before us. It is because of Christ’s sacrifice that we trust that God has joined us together. Let us remember to journey with those saints around us to learn how to practice unreasonable obedience. Through this holy meal our broken community is made whole again in Christ. This is why we celebrate today.