I want to begin this sermon for All Saints’ Sunday with a story from one who is newly numbered among the saints.
Yesterday, we bid a formal farewell from this earthly life in a funeral service for Fr. Ed Hinds, faithful priest, gentle man, beloved friend and neighbor.
I have many ‘Fr. Ed stories’ which I will cherish and treasure, but the one that has been on my heart is the one he loved to tell about the building of the Cathedrals in Newark and Elizabeth, NJ.
Both Cathedrals were commissioned at the turn of the last century, but both saw their greatest building during the years known as the Great Depression.
Fr. Ed’s eyes would light up as he recalled that this was a time, much like these days, when anxiety was high. It wasn’t just about ‘downsizing’ or ‘unemployment’ or ‘fragile economy’. Jobs were flat-out scarce. ‘We the people’ had no money for food or clothes, heat or electricity.
All the whole world seemed a very dark and broken place.
And yet, Fr. Ed said, both Cathedrals experienced their greatest growth during that time. Not only did expanding the edifices of these Cathedrals put people to work, he said, but the people knew they were building a place where hope could abide – where hope could live on – where hope stood guard over despair. “God gave them the gift of faith,” he said, “and living their faith gave them the gift of hope.”
Let me say that again: “God gave them the gift of faith, and living their faith gave them the gift of hope.”
I think that’s exactly what’s going on in this morning’s gospel passage. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died. It had been four days since his death, and he had been laid in a tomb. The tomb was a cave, and a great stone was lying against it.
Now, Mary and Martha believed in Jesus and they believed in the Resurrection – at least, that’s what they said. And yet, in her grief and sorrow, Mary cried out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her grief and her weeping, he was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’. Indeed, he was deeply moved with such compassion for his friends that he began to weep himself.
And then, as some point, I imagine Jesus wiping his tears, blowing his nose, lacing his sandals, and then being moved to take action.
“Take away the stone,” he said to Martha, but she said to Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
I don’t know about you, but I hear a hint of annoyance in Jesus’ response to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone.
Jesus prayed to God aloud, so that the crowd could hear him and then he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
You can almost hear the gasps as the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face covered with cloth.
And then Jesus said an amazing thing. Turning to the crowd he said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Let me remind you of Fr. Ed’s words: “God gave them the gift of faith, and living their faith gave them the gift of hope.”
Jesus has given us the gift of Eternal Life. It is a free gift - unearned and undeserved - but it is in the living of that gift that gives us hope.
How is it, you ask, that we live the gift of faith? How do we live the gift of Eternal Life? I thought you’d never ask!
The easy answer is this: We live the gift of faith by not giving into despair.
I know. “Easy for you to say, Reverend Elizabeth!” These are not times for easy answers. I don’t have to rehearse the litany of the woes of our world and the climate of our country. You know them all too well. Their names are Legion.
And now, now the sense of safety and security in our community has been shattered by the brutal and violent death of one of our own – who died at the hands of one who, until two years ago, had been our neighbor.
These are confusing, bewildering times – times when religious platitudes like “It was God’s will,” or “It was all part of the mystery of God’s plan,” just don’t cut it.
I think it takes real religious and moral courage to sit with the questions and the confusion and not rush to easy answers.
If you notice, Jesus did exactly that. He took time to listen to the tears of his friends, indeed, to shed a few of his own. He allowed himself to feel first – feel the pain, feel the sorrow, feel the loss, feel the confusion, feel the questions.
And then, of course, at some point, you have to dry your tears, blow your nose, lace up your sandals and put your faith into action.
“Take away the stone,” he said to Martha.
Those words are also meant for our ears. We all need to take away the stones that wall our hearts from feeling the pain, the fears, the grief and the anxiety – our own, as well as that of others.
That’s what I see when I look at the stones that give shape and form to the Cathedrals in Newark and Elizabeth, and, in fact, all Houses of Worship.
The stones of pain, fear, grief and anxiety have been changed and transformed by a living faith into magnificent structures of hope – where hope can abide and live on and stand guard over despair.
That’s what I see when the church engages in the mission of the gospel.
For example, it may feel like a luxury to purchase a turkey for your family and then be asked to purchase another for the Turkey Drive for the Interfaith Food Pantry Network, of which we are a part, to feed families in Morris County.
And then, as if that weren't enough, we ask you to purchase yet another for hungry families in the state of New Jersey. It is not a luxury. It is the gospel. The gospel is not a luxury. The gospel is the core and foundation of our lives of faith.
Our faith is a gift from God. The mission of the gospel is the stone upon which our faith is built. And, the stones of our fear, anxiety and despair are transformed into hope when we move, in faith, out of the tombs of death and into the mission of Jesus.
Jesus is asking us to take these foundational stones of our faith and move them out into the world in service of the mission of the gospel, that we may know hope and bring hope to a world that is broken and dark with despair.
Churches – all churches, from this humble brick structure with its wood interior, to even more humble wooden ones, to magnificent stone Cathedrals – contain the legacy of the hope of saints past and present and those yet to come.
They also contain their hopes and dreams, their prayers – unspoken, spoken and sung in a throat weary with the cares of the world – which have been fashioned from the stones of their fears and anxieties and woes.
Sometimes, when I'm alone in this sanctuary, saying the prayers of the Daily Office or just the prayers that are on my heart, I hear them. The bricks and stones and wood call out to me, and I hear the prayers and the psalms and the hymns that were once sung in this church.
This is the gift of the saints – some of whose names we will read in just a few minutes – who are with us today in the mystical sweet communion of our faith.
When we read their names, we will say, “Present”. Because they are. Present to us in our grief and sadness and in the hope of Life Eternal.
They join us at the Altar, and when we lift our weary, burdened hearts to God and join our voices with the heavenly chorus of prophets, apostles and martyrs, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, their legacy of hope is united with our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – our deep, heartfelt gratitude – and we are inspired, in our generation, to move the stones from our hears and leave hope to the next.
Our faith transforms us into living stones of hope whose voice cannot – will not – be silenced.
On the Memorial Card for Fr. Ed were printed these words from Pope John XXIII:
“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”If you listen, you can hear the echo of the words of Pope John in the words of Fr. Ed: “God gives us the gift of faith, and living our faith gives us the gift of hope.”
If you listen even more closely, you can hear the echo of the words of Jesus, “Take away the stone.”
May God take away the stones of anxiety and indifference and ingratitude and turn us into living stones of hope – for all the Saints, past, present, and yet to come into a world which, without our living faith, channeled into the "unbinding and letting go" of mission, will always be a dark and broken place.