All Saints: life unbounded

I was away all last week at a “Writing Pastors” conference. It was great. It did not leave a whole lot of time for sermon writing, but this is the gist of what was said this morning…

There was some controversy, a certain amount of disagreement in the earliest church, about whether or not Lazarus would die a second time, or whether he might have cheated death’s one and only chance to claim him. It would be strange to find him wandering the earth still; it would be a cruel kind of healing, don’t you think? to be set loose to live beyond his sisters’ care, beyond his Lord, beyond all reckoning.

There must have been a change in Lazarus, when he came out of the tomb. “Unbind him!” Jesus tells his friends, because his movements are hampered by the winding clothes, the shroud, the swaddling clothes of the dead. Jesus’ instruction is practical, so that Lazarus can walk, and move. It is also shocking, and even frightening. Martha has already warned of the stench. It is a fearful moment, removing the bandages to expose the raw face of Lazarus, alive.

In the next chapter, Jesus returns to Bethany and Lazarus is living with his sisters, and the Pharisees plot to kill him, because his life is an affront to them. They are afraid to live in the presence of such a sign of Jesus’ power.
We do not hear of Lazarus again.

I’m going to tell you of another controversy, the church not knowing what to do with its dead, and those who live on in memory. A couple of weeks ago, the Church of England issued an apology to an anonymous person who had been abused by one Bishop George Bell, back in the 1950s. Old news, you might say; but the person, who was a little child in the fifties, reported the crime in the 90s and was given the brush-off by the church’s representative of pastoral care and compassion. Not until the past two years was the story taken seriously.

The reason I bring this up on All Saints’ Day is that George Bell is in our book of commemorations, our family history of holy women and holy men. He is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, October 3rd. You can look him up.

The controversy, then, is how to deal with saints who have not only clay feet, but great, raw, ugly cracks running right through the heart of them. How then do we remember them?

One of the problems is that Bell was so bound up in systems of sin, of protection, of powerful blindness to grace and the blinkered imprisonment of power – no one called him out. No one unbound him.

And Jesus wept.

There may be names in the litany that we read today that hold conflict for you. If so, it is alright to weep for them; Jesus weeps with you.

The Pope, on his recent visit to this country, named a saint in one Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar and missionary who is credited with bringing the Gospel to the west, and accused of some of the atrocities of colonialism, oppression of the native peoples, and brutality. Those who defend the choice to canonize him point to the systems in which he lived. No one called him out, taught him better. No one unbound him.

“No one is good but God alone,” Jesus told one man. And he wept.

Last week, Heather Cook was sentenced to seven years in prison for killing a man, Thomas Palermo, while driving drunk. At the time, she was the Suffragan Bishop in Maryland.

The church is messy, its people are a mess, its saints are no better than they ought to be.

And it is in this messy, smelly church that today we invite Michael Bruce Curry to take his place as Presiding Bishop. The service itself might be, for some, a sign of the slight unloosening of our winding cloths, a little unbinding of the cords that, what, ten years ago? would have kept an African American man from taking that seat. A little bit of wiggle room.

And in the church today, with those at the National Cathedral and countless others, we will renew our baptismal covenant, that call to life unbounded.

In the first part we place our trust in Jesus, who calls us out of death, and the tomb, and the waters that run over us in the river. We believe in God, in Jesus Christ God’s Son, in the Holy Spirit. We hear the call of Jesus. We even believe in the resurrection of the dead, in the communion of saints, in life unbounded.

And in the second part, drawn out and called forth, we begin the unwinding, unbinding, with God’s help. And it is frightening, to uncover the stench of our own sin, the times when we have not respected the dignity of every human being, when we failed to see Christ in all people, and we are unwinding and unbinding with God’s help, spiralling into a fresh, clean, living skin, life unbounded.

There are two parts to the story. There is the call of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” There is the dead man walking, new life calling him forth, a new beginning. Then, only then begins the unbinding, the unwrapping of the layers of death and sin, the gift of newness, of surprise and of unbounded life beneath all of those layers. It starts with a little bit of wiggle room, and it continues, to unwind and unbind, until Lazarus is fully seen and all present know that he is really and truly alive: “and let him go,” says Jesus; into life untethered.

Jesus wept; but not for ever. He knows the truth of new life, life untethered, life unbounded, and that is what he gives to Lazarus, and that is what he offers to the Pharisees, to the communion of all the saints, and that is what he gives to each of us.

“See, the home of God is among mortals,” speaks the vision. “God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God’s own self will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Life unbounded, known in the communion of saints, our gift in baptism, our legacy to find and unwind for ourselves, for one another, for the sake of Christ.


October 31, 2019: This post has been updated four years after the fact to remove a negative attribution using the adjective “Pharisaical.” I apologize for having used language that is damaging, even dangerous, to my Jewish siblings and I am trying to eradicate it from my writing where I find it.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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