“Accidental Saints”

Sermon November 1, 2015

John 11:32-44

“Accidental Saints”


Today is a beautiful, tender day in the life of the Church. We call this day All Saints as we remember those who have gone before us. The word Saint conjures up images of perfection, of Mother Teresa (whom we now know was far from perfect) and a feeling that it has nothing to do with us. We are all too aware of our own flaws. But saints are simply people. I’m guessing there is an official definition of saint that is endorsed by certain church authorities, but I’ll give you my definition of a saint…a saint is someone who gives us a glimpse of God. The thing is, that could be every single person we meet if we are willing to look. Some people make it easy, others are a bit more difficult. Nadia Bolz-Weber asks, “What if the person you’ve been trying to avoid today is your best shot at grace today? And what if that is the point?” (http://www.nadiabolzweber.com/books/accidental-saints) Her new book is called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. The New Testament refers to saints sixty-two times. There are numerous examples of God showing up in the wrong people.


On a day like this, we ask questions about death and we remember those who have died. On a day like this, we ask the question, “How then, shall we live?” A few years ago, I met with a couple I barely knew. Their young adult son had committed suicide and they were feeling lost. I asked them to bring me a picture of him and to tell me about him. They described a man who cared deeply about people and who was passionate about feeding those who are hungry. We talked about many things that day and one thing we talked about was how to honor his life. They decided that they wanted to feed people and began volunteering in a food pantry. That didn’t erase the pain or make it all better. It simply gave them something to do so they felt like they could carry on their love for him in a tangible way.


Both the reading from Isaiah today and the reading from Revelation, which will be our benediction this morning, say, “God will wipe every tear from our eyes.” These texts were written to a desperate people who could not imagine a future of hope. They were written to remind everyone that God’s healing is ultimate. It doesn’t happen quickly and it doesn’t diminish the pain we feel right now, but God’s goodness will have the last word. Or as young Sonny says in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.”


The story of Lazarus begins with what seems to be the end. Lazarus has died. His sisters and his community are grieving. They are upset with Jesus who could have saved him, but did not. How could he let this happen to their brother? Jesus was close to this family. He spent time in their home and now he returns and weeps with them that Lazarus has died. Here we get the picture of a real human being. Jesus is grieving with Mary and Martha. When the crowd criticizes him for not saving Lazarus, he becomes angry with them. As he prepares to raise him, he prays. There is a full spectrum of humanness in these twelve verses. Jesus is the incarnation of God and this view of his humanness is a view of God who fully enters into our suffering as well. We are never alone. David Whyte says, “Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone.” (from the poem “Everything is Waiting for You”)


I have heard this story many times. It is a powerful glimpse into the fullness of God. A few people wrote about a dimension of the story that I had never considered before. They wondered if Lazarus hesitated before coming out of the tomb. Jesus calls him and he comes out, but we have no idea what went on in his head before he came. My friend, Jan Richardson, asks if he was “tempted to simply roll over and turn his face toward the wall so that he could continue his slide into decay?” (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2011/04/03/lent-5-learning-the-lazarus-blessing/) You will notice that no one goes in after him. He has to walk out on his own. Perhaps he stopped to consider if he really wanted this. He had to choose life. It never occurred to me that he might not want to live. Jesus calls him forth and Lazarus says yes. Now I realize that is a strong statement of faith. Saying yes to life when death has already moved in is powerful. Some of you are my heroes as you have said yes to life in the face of great pain and suffering.


Here is the next piece of the story: Lazarus comes out wrapped in his grave cloths. Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus had to say yes, but the ball is then in the court of the community. It is their task to help set him free. This is what the church is about. We are in the business of setting people free.


Anne Lamott overcame a drug and alcohol addiction and found healing in a small Presbyterian Church in the bay area. She didn’t find perfection there, but she found real people and she found those who are willing to remove the grave cloths and set each other free even when it is hard to do so. She tells the story of Ken:


“One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes.  … Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. …


“There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little stand-offish toward Ken.  She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all.  Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on.


“She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that his way of life – that he – was an abomination.  It is hard for her to break through this.  I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.  But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over.  …


“So on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, … we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up.  But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap.      And then when it came time for the second hymn, . . . we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen – only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap – and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged?  Why do the shadows fall?”


And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up – lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow.  She held him, draped over and against her like a child, while they sang. And it pierced me.” (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, pp. 63-65)


The word saint doesn’t indicate a lifetime of perfection, but there are moments where goodness breaks through in spite of us and that goodness is God. Nadia Bolz-Weber calls them Accidental Saints. We don’t do everything right. But we exist to unbind one another and let each other go. We exist to lift one another up. We are here today because someone did that for us. One of the people on this table or in our hearts has loved us and cracked us open. That is what we do in the church. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so messy and we didn’t have to keep trying to get it right, but we don’t give up. We are love and hope and life for each other. We are love and hope and life for the world. Go forth from here with the words “Unbind them and let them go” as your charge. You are God’s saints. The world is waiting.