Superheroes or Saints
I am a huge fan of superheroes. I grew up watching Batman and Spiderman cartoons on Saturday mornings, but even today as an adult, I still love to watch the Avengers movies on the big screen. Superheroes are mythical people who combat the forces of injustice, evil, and oppression, and they give us hope of the better angels of our nature. My favorite superheroes are not the ones imbued with superhuman strength or powers. I look up to the superheroes like Batman, Iron Man, and Black Widow who are just regular people that rely on their intellects, and their high tech suits and gadgets. These heroes’ strengths come from their tenacity and commitment to their call, while overcoming their own human frailties. Legendary superheroes give society examples for whom they can model our lives. The church throughout the year commemorates the lives of certain people (saints), who by their faith and commitment to Christ have given us, an example by which we can model our faith journeys.
Like so called cultural superheroes, we often envision saints to be superhero Christians like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi. The truth is these folks were far less like Superman and Wonder Woman with super Christian powers, and more like Batman and Iron Man, who were just regular folk that remained faithful, committed, and prayerful in their quest to follow Jesus. Being a saint is not about carrying around superhuman faith, but being a saint means we are just regular people who rely on a faith as small as a mustard seed.
Today, we commemorate All Saints; the Communion of Saints. Wikipedia defines the Communion of Saints as “the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. They are all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all. “ Today especially, we remember, honor, and look to the examples of all Jesus’ disciples (living and dead) as icons of hope, who trusted God’s promises. Likewise today, we look to those saints who are sitting around us, gathered here in communion and in fellowship, who live in the hope of God’s promise of life everlasting, the promise “that nothing, not even death stands between us and God’s love.”
In today’s gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus raising his dear friend Lazarus from the grave. In our tradition, we often hear this reading at a burial service. It offers the grieving comfort in the fact that, “Jesus wept,” and that reminds us that Our Lord understood and empathizes with the grief we experience, when the ones we love pass on to the communion of saints.
The raising of Lazarus is a symbol of the hope we have in the resurrection, it happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry, and it was a decisive miracle that demonstrated his power over life and death. I believe this moment of his ministry gives us hope to live the life of a saint. Although Jesus experienced suffering, betrayal, and death, nothing dissuaded him from his mission. Through his own experience, Jesus forewarned his church that being faithful to God’s mission and partnering with God’s mission in the world comes with a great cost.
Today, the church is facing many challenges unseen since the early days of its inception and growth. We now live in a time when one-third of our nation claims no religious affiliation at all. Many churches are experiencing decline in membership and attendance (including the evangelical churches), but the real threat to the church is not the latest trend of a declining religiosity, declining attendance on Sunday, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance. The real threat to the church is our growing shift away from making God’s mission of love and reconciliation both inside and outside our walls, our highest priority.
God did not fashion a communion of saints for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God consecrated (or set aside) faith communities for a specific purpose, which is to of carry God’s Good News of abundant love into the neighborhoods where we have been planted. Like Lazarus, Jesus calls us out of our burial wrappings of self-absorption, fear, and anxiety, to go out into the desperate places of people’s lives.
We are called out of the grave in order to call others out of their graves. Through our hands and hearts carrying God’s grace, we raise up hope in others. The church is not in the grave, or even headed toward it by any means and yet, we can become distracted from being raised up and unbound from our chains of inward focus.
God acts and calls us out of death into new life.
Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, We have a “God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by … creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.”1 “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus calls us out of uncertainty and the fear of death into new life!
When religious naysayers warn us of possible institutional death, and when negativity tries to slip in amongst us, we must make God’s mission priority one, and ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhoods in which, we have been planted?” “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?” “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhoods around us?” This mission to which we have been called is fraught with fear and uncertainty, because when we engage in God’s mission faithfully as the Saints of God, we must die to our comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.
Change is a frightening concept, but dying to that which holds us back from God’s purposes is a natural part of becoming a saint. Suzanne Guthrie writes, “In small ways we practice dying: dying to sin, dying to shame, to prejudices, opinions, stagnant ideas, dying to one old life and then another, ever striving toward new life. You consciously practice rising, from whatever tomb you have holed yourself up in lately.”2
To experience new life, we must shrug off some of grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and to deter us from God’s mission in the world. We must die a little to those comfy elements of our way of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of our local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries that keep others from finding hope in God’s grace. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go!” Like Lazarus, the saints need to be unbound.
Unbind them and let them Go
Now, many of us have fond memories of church gone by and so, we believe that is how church should be today. Some may look at our community, and think well, it used to be like this or that, or we may e some think we are no longer enough, or we don’t have enough resources and people to do local mission. This kind of thinking is just old grave clothes that will keep us from God’s purposes for God’s church.
Dean Chandler of the Diocese of Atlanta once said in a sermon, “Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger.”3 “Jesus commanded his followers who were standing and watching him raise his friend from the power of death, “Unbind him,” or rather, he commanded them and us, “Saints, take a part in what I am already doing, and get back to work in the mission of love I have just begun, go and unbind each other and all around you.” Jesus calls us to unbounded sainthood.
Am I a Saint?
You may be sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, I am no saint.” Well, we are all saints, because we have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and through hope we have been raised to new life in Christ. We are a people that are brought together in love, not merely for the edification of ourselves, but we gather for the ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others. That is what being a saint is all about. We are not called to be perfect, nor are we called to become some kind of superhero Christian (like Iron Man, Black Widow, or Wonder Woman) or even a culturally popular saint like Mother Teresa or St. Francis. We all are saints who strive everyday, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, and to set others free from what holds them back from experiencing God’s grace.
Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” In other words, we are not going to get this saint thing right every time, but we still must try. I mess it up every day, and I know you do too, but that is what grace is all about. Being a saint is not easy, because we saints have to die a little, so new life might spring up. The good news is that sainthood requires no superhuman strength, but just the faith of a little mustard seed, which looks like our contributing “to the good of all and sharing in the welfare of all.”
Maybe sainthood looks like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust, or Lee Gelernt a vocal and active advocate for the rights of at risk children in our midst. Maybe sainthood looks like some of you who work tirelessly to insure local working moms have diapers for their babies, freeing up funds for food and rent. Maybe sainthood looks like some of you, who go each week to the Immokalee Soup kitchen to bring hope and love to folks who need a hot meal and an encouraging smile. We saints are just regular people, who have been unbound from the grave clothes of despair and fear, then sent out into the world to love God, to love one another, and love our neighbors, just “as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.” Dear loving God, unbind your Saints.
1Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
2 Guthrie, Suzanne. “Back To Life.”The Christian Century122.5 (2005): 22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.)
3Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA. http://day1.org/1086-unbind_him_and_let_him_go