I have a confession to make. As a not-terribly motivated college student in the late seventies and early eighties, I suffered from many forms of addiction. I was particularly addicted to soap operas.
My love of soap operas—which, I can assure you, did fade away—is what made me sit up and take notice several years ago when the New York Times did a spread on soap opera writing. In particular, they talked about death. If someone was dead but you didn’t see the body, you could be sure they would be back. If someone was in a plane crash or drowned at sea, they were very likely coming back. If they were pronounced dead and there was a funeral with a closed casket, they were considered definitely dead, rather than just dead, but there was still a good chance they’d come back. It happened all the time. If someone was really never coming back, in soap opera writer parlance this was “Dead dead dead dead.”
Lazarus is dead dead dead dead. His sister even says there is a stench. In the King James version, Martha saith unto Jesus: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”
There are many directions we could go with this richly evocative gospel story about resurrection. Today on this All Saints Sunday, what I want to say is simply this: Jesus reframes death for Lazarus. He says “Unbind him, let him go.”
He says this for Lazarus and he says it for us. God unbinds us and lets us go, sometimes over and over again. On this day when we celebrate the communion of saints, we do well to remember the source of the greatness that we attribute to the saints. It is God’s grace and favor that gives each of us the potential to be exemplars just like the Saints-with-a-capital-S we sing about and celebrate each year on this day.
As the author of the Book of Revelation proclaims, the home of God is among mortals; God dwells with us. This dwelling among us is manifested in part in our connection with all the saints—how they touch us and how we recognize Christ in them.
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All Saints Day is one of the four great baptismal feasts days in the church year. When we are baptized into the family of God, we are baptized into the Communion of Saints, our ancestors in faith who are windows into the faithful witness of every generation.
I once attended a consecration of a Bishop when the preacher was former presiding bishop Ed Browning. He began his sermon reflecting on the enormous pomp and circumstance of the day, the thousands of people, the press, the banners….and then said we should be doing this each time we baptize someone. Every baptism should be a headline in the newspaper, a joyous announcement written across the sky. It is baptism that unbinds us from our old life and binds us to new life in Christ. It is baptism that is the big news for all Christians.
This morning we celebrate the baptism of Eloise Wood Drackett. Imagine the headlines: “Seattle Episcopal Church baptizes ten-month-old.” Or in the tabloids: “Baby Eloise takes the plunge.” At the same time, we renew our own baptismal vows. This, too, is exciting news.
The baptismal covenant is preceded by renunciations of what we might, in shorthand, call the world, the flesh, and the devil. Eloise’s parents and godparents do this renouncing on her behalf. They will renounce those things that bind all of us from time to time as tightly as Lazarus was bound by the trappings of death.
In the baptismal covenant we are unbound from all that keeps us from God, and instead bound to the baptismal life. The sacrament of baptism is what binds Eloise, and us, through grace, to the new life we share with the communion of saints. When we all say “we will” in response to the question about supporting Eloise in her life in Christ, we take our place among the communion of saints. And so does she. Eloise is baptized and we are baptized into a covenant relationship with the whole family of God that stretches not only around the world but backwards and forwards through the centuries.
The baptismal promises—those questions to which we respond: “I will, with God’s help” are essentially our handbook for the Christian life; our guidebook for being part of the communion of saints.
Oscar Wilde wrote: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
When I’ve taught baptism preparation classes to adults, I often ask which of the five promises people love most. My favorite is number 2: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Not if you fall into sin, but whenever you fall into sin. I love this reminder of our inescapable humanity.
When we bring our baptismal promises into this grand celebration of all the saints, we blur the distinction between sinner and saint. When we renew our baptismal covenant, we commit to a life of renewal, bound to the One who is ever redeeming our past, and ever calling us into our future.