At the last minute, I’m preaching tomorrow in an ELCA church. I’m filling in for a colleague, another chaplain, who serves this congregation in something of a permanent supply role. It’s a congregation that I’ve visited before. Indeed, this is the first year in the last four that I wasn’t there for Reformation Sunday (with the obligatory annual joke about what an Anglican might have to say to Lutherans on Reformation Sunday, when it’s from them that we got much of our reformation). My friend told me today that his organist was asking last Sunday why he was there and I wasn’t.
So, I was looking at the lessons for All Saints Sunday in the Lutheran Lectionary – the Revised Common Lectionary, really, that I’ll be using for this feast next year in my Episcopal chapel. I was aware of the Episcopal Lectionary. This past week, on the Eve of All Saints, I preached on the Beatitudes. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be dealing with the Raising of Lazarus.
That’s not terrifying. I’m sure I’ve preached on it before, one Fifth Lent or another. I’m more struck by the difference. For years I’ve been preaching on the basic goodness shown in the Beatitudes, and the basic accessibility of fulfilling at least one of them. Granted, like any spiritual activity, any one of them could become a life’s work, a perpetual striving after perfection. However, any of them could be demonstrated in some way by every entirely ordinary Christian. Some are harder than others – hungering for righteousness may perhaps be harder than meekness, and less common than mourning – but almost all of us will encounter at least one of these in life, and probably opportunities for all of them. It speaks to me of what it means to be a saint in the Biblical sense: one of God’s servants, a member of the Body, without any pretence of being a hero of the faith. It recalls, as does Ecclesiasticus, all those who were unknown, forgotten beyond their lifetimes, who were also faithful, and who also rested (and rest still) in hope.
So, tomorrow I’ll be preaching on Lazarus. More to the point, I’ll be preaching on Christian hope, not in the sense of how easy it can be for ordinary folk to fit into God’s plan, but in the promise that God in Christ has offered to all of us, however ordinary we may be. The lessons, both the Gospel and the Isaiah, are almost funeral lessons: lessons of hope beyond the limits of death. So, these lessons are less about who the saints are and more about what the saints can expect.
Now, both points are good news. But the Lutheran lessons make more of God’s grace. In my Anglican background, in which speaking of the saints calls to mind the heroes and heroines, so that we have to remind ourselves that we’re all saints (and add All Souls’, just to make the point), we risk a certain false meritocracy. I have to preach how common it is to live the faith, in contrast to the dramatic examples of prophets, apostles, and martyrs. In the Lutheran lessons that doesn’t matter. God’s promise, made certain in Christ, is about life beyond death, and not about our qualification. We are all promised life – indeed, we are promised that God wishes to give all that life, whether “qualified” or not. It may be easy to experience mourning or meekness or poverty of spirit; but if we’re not careful it is still a work, a sense of participation in grace because of our good acts. Lazarus was raised. He believed. He knew Jesus, and loved him; and Jesus loved Lazarus in return. He even mourned him. But, Lazarus wasn’t raised to show Lazarus’s goodness. He was raised to show God’s goodness. He was raised to show Christ’s power to bring God’s goodness into the world, into even events so powerful and so common at the same time as death itself.
It’s certainly reassuring that I can show the faith in so many common events of life, as the Beatitudes make clear. It is even more reassuring that Christ’s promise of life is certain, even if I am not. It’s not about showing my goodness. It’s all about God’s.