Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Stone of Obstruction

All Saints Day 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”+

Considering that this is my last sermon at St James as I head off into retirement, I was tempted to take as my text, “Unbind him, and let him go.” The story of Lazarus reminds me of a bulletin blooper I saw in a parish years ago, before I was ordained. This parish’s bulletins always included illustrations that went with each Sunday’s gospel. On this particular Sunday, the illustration showed Jesus standing at the door of the tomb, with Lazarus stepping out of it, looking like the Mummy from an old horror movie, or in keeping with the season, a Hallowe’en zombie. The only problem is that right next to the picture of the Mummy coming through the door of the tomb the regular parish message was printed: “Everyone is Welcome at St Bart’s!”

All humor aside, there is a serious message in all of this — the serious message of new life, and life restored to what was dead. I take this personally as I head off into retirement and its new possibilities, and in this my last sermon here I bid you to do so corporately as a congregation, and individually as Christians.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.” The stone and the binding are not obstacles in their normal use — for the dead. The dead don’t care if the door is open or shut, they don’t really care how they are dressed. They don’t eve n care about the funeral: as a wise priest taught me years ago, funerals are for the living, not for the dead — they are a way for the living to mourn their loss, to grieve, and to celebrate the life of one they loved. But the dead feel no pain, no loss. They truly have been laid to rest.

The bindings used in the days of Lazarus to wrap the dead body are not meant to keep it from getting up and walking, but to hold the bones together as the flesh of the body corrupts and turns to dust. The stone at the door of the tomb is not to keep the dead man from getting out, but to keep wild animals from getting in to disturb the body. The only thing the stone serves to keep in, as Martha reminds Jesus and us, is the stench of a body four days dead and beginning to decay.

For in the normal course of things, decay is all the dead do. Apart from their slow dissolution, they do not change. If you want something to remain alive, it had best be capable of change: change is a sign of life; and not to change is to be dead.

This is as true of the church as of a human body: congregations that want always to remain the same have chosen the course of death and decay. You know that you don’t have to look too far to find examples of churches who chose not to change as their neighborhoods changed around them — here in the Bronx and north in Westchester I know of a few churches that tried to remain little Irish or German islands in a city that was becoming more diverse. Instead of inviting that new blood in, these churches kept their doors closed, kept the stone in place, kept the bindings tight, and today they are almost empty monuments to those sad mistakes of the past — trying to keep unchanged meant the only change was that of decay and dissolution. The Bishop of New York solemnly deconsecrated one such church a few weeks ago just to our north in Mount Vernon. And that’s too close for comfort!

Not that St James is in danger of closing. I rejoice that Father Basil Law of blessed memory, who led this parish for 31 years during that same time of change, did not allow this church to become a tomb, did not try to preserve it as a little island, but opened the doors to all, and welcomed all to worship here. A church that might have died, as others did and do, lived, and lives. I have tried to follow in his path, insisting that all are welcome — though I suppose even I would draw the line at zombies!

Still, in this my final word to you, I want to challenge and charge you all to continue to take away whatever stone may obstruct the path into or out of this church, to loose any bindings that might hold you back or keep someone else out. When this church was consecrated, 150 years ago on this very day, a beautiful prayer was used at the dedication of the porch: “Make the door of our parish church wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship and a Father’s care; and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and uncharitableness. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, to weak or straying feet; but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.” And I would add, and make it wide enough to send us back out into the world in service.

As I said, this church was dedicated 150 years ago today, on All Saints Day, November 1, 1865. It has seen much in that century and a half, priests coming and going, lay people too; deacons and deaconesses; and bishops at their visitations; and seminarians during their training and their field placement — including me! As I mentioned a few weeks ago, because I was a member here in the 1980s and did my seminary field placement here, before heading off to my first parish in Yonkers, I’ve been connected with this parish in one way or another for over thirty years. I have served as your priest for exactly 16 years, as All Saint’s Day 1999 was my first Sunday here as Vicar. And in the 16 years of my ministry as a priest in this place I have seen many come — and some go. With today’s baptism — and what a wonderful way to spend my last Sunday here! — with this baptism I can now say that I have baptized 245 new Christians over the course of my priestly ministry here. (That’s not counting the baptisms at which I assisted Father Basil back in the 80s; but I have now personally baptized the children of young people at whose baptisms I assisted over twenty-five years ago.)

Over my time as Vicar, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve celebrated the Holy Eucharist; or how often I’ve visited members in hospital or their homes; but the records show I’ve presented 68 of you for confirmation or reception, blessed the marriages of 20 couples, and bid farewell to 44 Christian souls, as they were sent off to that place in eternity where only the foolish think they are dead, but we know and trust they have eternal life — life in God as saints of God in the Church Triumphant, of which this place is but an earthly embassy.

When Bishop Potter blessed and hallowed this place on All Saints’ Day 1865, he made it one of God’s mission outposts — not a tomb, a place of the dead, but a source of life, a fountain for God’s mission. The door of the church opens in, but it also opens out.

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Out it opens; but will we go? I don’t mean me — I am indeed going to continue working after my service in this place. I will keep busy in retirement — the Bishop of Maryland already has some things in mind to put me to work, though I asked him to give me at least a few months to get settled!

But I mean all of you, for you are all ministers of this church: servants of God, and because of that called to serve others beyond the doors of this church out in a world in desperate need of Good News. You are the bearers of that gospel news, commissioned — some of you by me — in your baptismal covenant as ambassadors of Christ, sent off from this embassy. We will repeat that covenant today as part of the baptism.

So I ask you all to ask yourselves, as I ask myself every day, What stone of obstruction needs to be removed in your life, what bindings need be loosed? What is there preventing you from doing all in your power to serve your Lord and God? What obstacles and stumbling-blocks stand in your way? For we are not dead — we are alive, and with life comes hope, and with hope comes faith, and with faith comes strength and with strength comes action! So take away the stone, dear Lord, unbind us and let us go, that we may live — and serve — until that last great day when we see each other once again, and for ever, and see you face to face, our Lord and our God, in whose name we pray, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.