The Fellowship of All the Saints

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Johnson’s Video Store sat there on the square in Hamburg, right down from Sawyer’s Steakhouse and across from LaGrone’s Drug Store, where I later worked as a bonafide soda jerk in the corner café.

Johnson’s was great fun…all these wonderful movies to go and rent. I must have been about nine or ten when I told my grandmother, my Meme, that I wanted to go rent a scary movie. I don’t remember her belittling me at all. She asked me if I really wanted to get a scary one, and I said yes…something about being old enough to handle it now.

So, off we went. She stood there by the counter while I perused the horror section. I found the one I wanted, some movie about these little furry monsters that ate people. The cover was great: a giant pile of monsters rolling down a street, leaving an awful skeleton lying there, from the poor sap who had just been eaten. It was perfect.

I was terrified…and determined to watch the movie back at Meme’s house.

So, back we went to the house, where we put the video in. I squeezed in, sitting right next to Meme in the recliner, and we pressed play.

It was only about ten minutes until I was completely terrified. Meme put one arm around me, and I would hide in her arms when the scary monsters jumped out at someone. When that didn’t work, I got up and hid behind the recliner, peeping out to watch until another monster came. I even hid behind the door of the sofa table next to the recliner, using it like some force field when I was scared. When I would yell, Meme would reach down and softly run her fingers through my hair….

After a bit, I told her that I didn’t want to watch any more. She had sat there in her recliner for that entire time, never leaving me, never judging me, never belittling me… When I told her I wanted to turn it off, without hesitating, she simply said, “Of course, sweetheart. What else do you think you might want to do?”

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
And their departure was thought to be a disaster,
And their going from us to be their destruction;
But they are peace.

That image came flooding into my heart when I sat down and thought about the Feast of All Saints. I had actually written an entirely different sermon for today, but it wasn’t the one I was supposed to offer to you.

This image of Meme, one of my patron saints, holding vigil there in the recliner—staying present—while this scrappy, determined kid dared to step out and watch a scary movie—to prove to himself that “it was time,” that I could do it—this is the image of a saint. And thank God we each have saints like this in our lives.

Because life is hard. Life doesn’t come in simple shades of color; rather, it floods at us in swirls and hues and shades of color, warm and cool, light and dark, comforting and jarring, peaceful and violent. Life is complex, and, for some of us, at sometimes, it feels like a tidal wave threatening to wash us away.

Maybe that is why we included those wonderful images in the Baptismal covenant:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise.

We need to recognize that our liturgy, our common prayer, isn’t about “hitting the mark” or “being perfect.” Rather, it is about cultivating a space, becoming attuned, to the deeper reality of the life we live…a life in which “God lives and moves and has being.” The Spirit that hovered over the tovu va bovu, that threatening chaos in the beginning of all that was, that same Spirit hovers still…gathering all into life and promise.

Mary and Martha of Bethany felt the deep pain when their brother Lazarus died. They had all been friends with Jesus, and suddenly, Jesus wasn’t there and Lazarus died and they felt anger and sadness and grief…and confusion.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Deep honesty they embody for us. That deep space of crying out when we don’t understand, and when we have expected God to act a certain way—and that doesn’t happen. And we’re left standing there facing loss and grief…and disappointment.

I love this Gospel image because it isn’t some simplistic story where Jesus swoops in and just fixes everything. No. Jesus is affected too. He was “deeply disturbed” and went with them to tomb, to face this painful reality of human existence.

It’s interesting, even though Mary and Martha think that Jesus had the power to prevent Lazarus’s death, now that he is standing right there in the space with them, they doubt he can do anything about it. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

But Jesus invites them into a space where their hearts are expanded, where they can experience hope beyond what they imagined possible. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb…

I’ve wrestled a lot with this text over the years, especially in times when someone I know has experienced such loss and grief. Haven’t we all felt the way Mary and Martha did? That deep honesty, crying out to God to find some reason…

But, when I look closely at the text, I see something interesting—something that I still bump up against, but something that makes me consider that something even deeper is going on with God: rather than merely fixing or preventing Lazarus’ death, Jesus enters into the experience of grief and loss along with Mary and Martha and works from inside the situation. He enters into that space and invites them to a hope they could not have imagined possible….

It is a reminder of how the Incarnation is such a radical reality: that God enters into human existence, comes alongside us, dares to be born within us….

And the saints are extensions of this reality, particular embodiments of the Incarnation in our own time—and throughout the Church. Through the saints, those people who embody Christ’s love in our lives, we see how God works from within our own lives, through the hands of those we love, and through the lives of those who we may have never met but with whom we feel a deep resonance.

At some point in our lives, we shift from being the children who go out seeking horror as an interesting experience or rite of passage. At some point in our lives, horror seems to come seeking us. And, when that time comes, the saints of our lives are there to remind us of God’s love for us.

You know, when I think of the saints, I often think of that eye test that measures peripheral vision. You know the one where you hold up a finger in front of you and slowly move it to the side of your head. The optometrist wants to see where you stop seeing your finger. It’s an interesting image to meditate on, because I think the saints work that way: they are right there, on the edge of our peripheral vision, catching our eye when we are called to pay attention because of the circumstances of our lives.

So, why are we surprised when we face some fear, when something happens to us, when we have grief, or anger, or frustration, or despair—when the swirl of life envelops us—and we find ourselves hiding beside a recliner….and we suddenly feel the soft hand of someone we love slowly run through our hair….

And we remember……

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Feast of All Saints, Year B
Wisdom 3; St. John 11:32-44
November 1, 2015

One comment

  1. Stuart. This was one of-if not the best-sermon I’ve heard you preach. You have such a gift and when I hear you teach the way you did through this sermon I am so grateful to be a part of this special place called Grace Church.

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