“By this time he stinketh”

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday
November 4, 2012
John 11:32-44

Our church has been divided. It’s a bitter division, and we are torn apart by words. Words like “beseech,” “manifold,” “vouchsafe,” and that real tongue twister, “innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.” That wonderful 8:00 o’clock crowd wants that good old Elizabethan language. And those “new-agers” at the 10:30 service want something not so, well, old.

Now, even though this morning’s passage from John is a somber one, I think it’s okay to laugh a little at some of the language used. When Jesus asks for the stone at the tomb of Lazarus to be removed, we see Martha timidly raise a hand. “Umm, Lord. It probably already stinks in there because, well, you know, he’s been dead four days.” The King James Version is even better: “Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”

Though it’s not nearly as amusing, the remainder of the passage is a glorious image of God’s power. Greatly disturbed and troubled in spirit, groaning at the death of his friend, Jesus cries, “Lazarus – come out!” Such simple words. Such a simple command. One would think that to raise the dead Jesus would need some fancy prayer, or some “magical” words. But no – out comes Lazarus.

The man who has been dead four days comes out of the grave – not as a zombie – but as a new man. He does not even stinketh. Our Lord then commands the burial linens, the clothes that wrapped the body of Lazarus when he died, to be taken off. Or, as King James would have it, “Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.”

This passage is often read at burials; and rightly so, as it offers comfort beyond the grave. But as much as this passage comforts us, this passage should also scare us and inspire us.

Because we are the dead man, we are Lazarus. I’m not talking about us as individuals, but we, we as the Church, we as Holy Comforter. We have been wrapped in our burial clothes. We have been placed in the tomb and the stone has been rolled in front of us. And we’ve been there for a while.

And then along comes Jesus. Now everybody else might think we stinketh, everybody else may think we’re dead and gone. Sometimes we even think that. But Jesus knows better.

Right now, at this very instant, Jesus is standing before us and crying, “Holy Comforter – come out!” Come out of this building and go proclaim the message of love. Come out of your hiding, and bravely meet the world. Come out of the tomb. Because Jesus knows we don’t stink. Jesus knows that we have life within us.

And so up we jump – here we are Lord! Let us do your work! Help us to proclaim your kingdom! We’re alive! But the instant we leave these doors, we find that our hands our tied. Our feet are bound. We are blinded by the burial clothes tied about our head.

What are these burial clothes – what are these linens that are stilled wrapped around us? I say that what binds us as Holy Comforter is shame, and fear, and the past. We feel ashamed when we look at the other churches around us that have grown and grown and grown. We might be ashamed of the recent divisions and spats in our beloved Episcopal Church. Maybe it’s the past history of this church, knowing that it was once bigger, that is still binding our feet and blinding our eyes.

And what does Jesus say to us? “Unbind them, and let them go!” And the burial clothes fall off. The shame is no more. The shadows of the past are dissolved. The petty divisions and foolish arguments are forgotten. “Unbind them, and let them go!” Our hands can move, our feet can walk, our eyes can see. We can walk out of this church, and walk into the world, and see the work that is set before us. All our old burdens and anxieties are no more. And we don’t even stinketh.

I sincerely believe that we are Lazarus, that Jesus Christ is calling us to a new life. We’re not dead, we’re not bound, we don’t smell – we have a new life. So what I say is this – it’s time to be bold. As a church, it’s time to try something new. Something that hasn’t been done before. As a church, it’s time to take a risk.

And let’s dream big. Dream about a church that has a thriving outreach ministry, that serves the poor and homeless in Spring. Dream about a church that everybody in north Houston knows about. Dream about a church that is bustling and packed every day and night of the week. And then let’s make that dream happen.

Whatever your dream is for Holy Comforter, make it bigger. Make it bolder. Don’t say, “Oh there just isn’t enough money in the budget. Oh we’ve never done anything like that before. Oh there just aren’t enough volunteers. Oh we couldn’t possibly do anything that big.” Those are burial clothes! Unbind yourself from those thoughts – think big, think bigger, trust God! We won’t be wasteful or reckless. But we will be faithful to a God who doesn’t even let death stand in the way. Because it is far better to take a risk for God and fail than to stay in the tomb, wrapped up in burial clothes, and stink it up.

All Saints’ Sunday

This sermon comes on an especially important day in the life of the Church. On this day, we celebrate and remember all the saints of God who have gone before us. And we can start reeling off their names: Peter, Paul, Francis, Clare, Teresa, King, Bonhoeffer. Are they remembered because their dreams were small and their hopes were timid? NO – we remember them because they were bold and brave and trusted that God knows no boundaries. The saints of God aren’t afraid of failure, the saints of God aren’t afraid of humiliation, the saints of God aren’t afraid of taking a risk.

And whatever we do, remember, it’s not my ministry. God did not call me here to open a homeless shelter or invite groups onto our campus or share the good news with your friends and neighbors. No. God called you here for that ministry. God called me here to support, advise, motivate, counsel, marry, bury, baptize, celebrate, absolve. This is your moment. This is the moment when God is saying, “Come out! Unbind yourself!

And there, there sit our pledge cards. On the altar, or maybe still in your hands. They look harmless, don’t they? Just little scraps of paper with some numbers scribbled on them. It would be easy to forget them. It would be tempting to write them off as “charity” or a “donation.”

But those pledge cards are not charity. They’re not donations. The pledge cards are signs of our boldness. Our pledge cards say that we are ready to walk out of the tomb. We are ready to drop our burial clothes. Our pledge cards are saying that we are not afraid of the past, we are not ashamed of who we are, that we believe Christ is more powerful than anything we have ever done. We are dreaming big – no bigger – trusting that God has used, is using, and will use this Church, this very Church, to build up the Kingdom of Christ. A Kingdom where the hungry are fed, the gospel is proclaimed, and all are welcomed in the name of Jesus.

Holy Comforter – come out, and experience new life in Christ. Unbind your burial clothes, let them fall to ground. And remember – we don’t stink. We are bold. We dream big. Because we are the saints of God.

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