Unbind him, and let him go!
Powerful words in the midst of an emotional Gospel. Unbind him, and let him go. We learn today that Jesus brings even the dead back to life. But lest we start out too seriously this morning, I am reminded that this lesson also has been the subject of one of my favorite translations in all scripture. It’s really one of the only moments that I prefer the King James. For in the official authorized version, after Jesus tells the gathered crowd to roll away the stone, Martha turns to him and says, but Lord, “by this time he stinketh.” It’s really one of the great moments in King James’ translation.
How many of us, if we’re honest, feel like we might surely stinketh? From time to time? I think one of the most human feelings in the world is to feel like you stink, like you are a fraud. “If only they really knew…” This is at the crux of this morning’s story.
The feeling is there even for Jesus: the crowd doubts him as he weeps “surely he could have stopped Lazarus from dying?” Our fully human Christ feels this moment of human humiliation before the raising of Lazarus. He feels the defeat and frustration of a friend’s death. That’s the power of the Gospel this morning: our story lets the tension build. We can feel with Jesus the frustration, the sadness, the sense that he might be an imposter.
“Surely he stinketh…” How often do we say that of ourselves? Of others? How often do we expect the worst? But surely…
That’s why the words at the end of this Gospel are so very powerful. Unbind him. Let him go.
Often it is the self-doubt from which we need to be unbound. Often it is our own self-censorship that we need to let go. Sometimes to let go of our own doubt, we need to pause for a moment and consider our humanity in light of the humanity of others.
Today is the Feast of All Saints. Today we celebrate not just one Saint or another, not just Lucy or Barnabas. We celebrate ALL of them. Now, saints are sort of tricky business for Episcopalians. We’re not exactly sure what to do with Saints. We have a calendar, well, actually we have about four different calendars of saints, and our governing body, the General Convention this summer sort of left a mess of which one we are supposed to follow. I’m not sure which saints we’re actually counting at the moment.
So we’re a little unsure about the saints officially, but unofficially, we Episcopalians really like saints. In my view, the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from the author Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She talked about the lives she looked to who helped point her to the divine. I like Madeleine’s idea, because her saints seem a little more approachable. We know JS Bach was a great composer and a very human being. We know Einstein was a genius, and could be a bit of a mess. Think of that hair.
We have a capacity as human beings, to hold up certain examples. We learn to be better human beings by emulation. We learn kindness, and gentleness, and patience, when we see these virtues modeled by those we admire. We learn to be generous when we see our parents or grandparents faithfully giving away their time, talent, and money. We learn prayer when our families pray together over meals or before bed. We learn strength when we walk with a friend who is facing cancer and who still takes time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.
But we have to be careful with sainthood, because considering someone a saint tends to sanitize an otherwise more complex life. If we hold someone up too high, we risk making the platform of holiness impossible to reach. If you scratch the surface on some of the saints, you discover that they too stunketh.
St. Francis treated his parents pretty terribly on his way to poverty. St. Augustine famously said “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” Even Mary, the mother of our Lord, forces her son to perform his first miracle because they’re running out of wine at a wedding. Among the great saints, even with all of the sanitizing of history, we can find a very human side, and I think it is important that we look.
Those of you who regularly come to Holy Communion know that the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr has had a big effect on my spiritual life. Richard is a contemplative who has written a number of books on prayer, justice, and, well, life. This week one of his daily email meditations told the story of his meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu (another of my other living saints). Both of these men of God have attracted a worldwide following. When they met, Bishop Tutu said to Richard that they were “mere lightbulbs.”
“We get all the credit and seem to be shining brightly for all to see, but we both know that if this lightbulb were to be unscrewed from its source for even a moment, the brightness would immediately stop.”
Richard says Tutu laughed hilariously afterwards, and gave him a wink of understanding.
Even the spiritual greats, perhaps especially the spiritual greats, can feel like frauds. Mother Teresa wrote all of those letters about her lack of faith. Bishop Tutu’s words are a caution. Don’t forget that human beings are “mere lightbulbs” at their best. But on the other hand, his words are an invitation: Shine. Be plugged in. Be unbound. Be set free.
I do love that very Episcopalian hymn we sing for All Saints day: “I sing a song of the saints of God.” As an aside, I know the hymn isn’t exactly what you’d call “a fine piece of music.” Many organists I know have complained about the childish tune, and I can be a bit childish about the words. There are several alternative s. My favorite alternative goes like this: “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was both, if you know what I mean.” But if you continue, you get to the best theology in the hymn. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
There’s a deep invitation in the hymn, in the feast of All Saints: to see one another for what we really are, flawed and frustrated human beings who sometimes can shine with the brightness of God.
Ellis and I have been watching a TV show from Australia the past few weeks called “Please like Me.” The show follows the day to day life of a young 20something named Josh in Melbourne. I don’t know if I’ve encountered any work of fiction, book, movie or otherwise handle human emotion and especially mental health with more grace and gentleness.
In a scene from the most recent episode, Josh, his boyfriend Arnold, and his friend Tom find themselves on the roof with his dad. Arnold has just come out to his parents and it hasn’t gone well. Tom is having difficulty at work. In the midst of it all, we learn that Josh’s father doubts whether he is a good parent. Josh smiles and says, “I’ve never really thought of whether you could have been a better dad. You’re the only dad I have. It’s a bit like wondering whether the moon could be a better moon.” His dad frowns, but Josh goes on “yeah, I think you have been a good dad.” His father responds, “sometimes I just think I’m hopeless.”
But in a moment of grace, Josh immediately responds: “well yes, yes you’re hopeless. But I’m hopeless. Arnold’s hopeless. Tom, Tom’s hopeless. We’re all, everyone is hopeless. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad dad.” Josh hears and acknowledges his father’s struggle, but he doesn’t leave him there. He doesn’t allow him to wallow. He says, let go. You’re a good dad.
You never know where you’re going to get theology. The human condition is, in the end, human. We all are going to feel like we stinketh from time to time. We all are going to feel like an unlit lightbulb. But at the heat of our humanity is an invitation to be plugged into the life of the divine. As we consider the saints, the official greats or our own unofficial lists, can we consider how some very human beings helped God’s light to show a little more brightly?
You know, we don’t ever find out what that tomb smelled like. The Gospel doesn’t say, “and lo, Lazarus smelled like roses.” No, we don’t know. What we know is that Lazarus came out. He was unbound. He was let go.
Often we are taught to expect the worst. We all anticipate the stink. We expect the worst for others, and sadly, sometimes especially for ourselves. But friends, that’s not the Gospel.
We follow a Christ who invites us to let go, to be unbound. Our God is a God who looses chains, who brings sight, and healing, and wholeness. Our God is the God of the New Jerusalem. Our God is the God who makes all things new.
This All Saints day, can you let go of your doubts about others? About yourself? Can you find solidarity in our shared human struggle? Can you be unbound? Can your light shine a little brighter?