Who We Are Is Who We Have Been: Fully Human Friend Of The Divine

John 11:32-44
November 1, 2015: All Saints Day
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
The Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


Good morning! Happy All Saints Day!

This is the third most Holy Feast Day in our Christian calendar behind Easter and Pentecost, respectively. A Bible poker note to self for those of you in confirmation class! It is an important Feast Day! And it rarely falls on a Sunday, only 15 times has it and will it fall on a Sunday between 1950 and 2050. So it is especially lovey that this All Saints Sunday is actually All Saints Day. A fortuitous break from the pattern of celebrating this feast on an alternative day.

And the Gospel reading appointed for this morning is a break from the pattern as well. It is both a break from the Gospel according to Mark, which we have been reading all year. And it is a change from the Gospel message that we usually hear on All Saints Sunday. In most other years, years A and C in our lectionary, and years when All Saints day does not fall on a Sunday, the Gospel reading is from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes. You know: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek and the grieving and the peacemakers and so on. The Beatitudes are a litany of eight blessings that give us a very clear idea of what God favors, and therefore what it might take reach the status of saint. A fine reading for this Feast Day when we celebrate the cloud of witnesses who have come before us. A fine description of those who have reached sainthood in God’s book.

But today, we did not hear the Beatitudes. Partially, because this is Mark’s year in our lectionary rota, and Mark’s Gospel does not include the Beatitudes. And although the lectionarians (or whatever they are called) could have just appointed Luke or Matthew’s Beatitudes for this day (they do that all the time – we read the same passage from Luke every Christmas Eve, and the same passage from Acts every Pentecost, we could easily read the Beatitudes every All Saints Day) they did not. On this All Saints Day, they chose to break the pattern altogether. They chose to talk about All Saints Day not in terms of those who are already blessed, but in terms of those of us who still have that potential. Instead of hearing that blessed are the poor, today we hear that Lazarus, a fairly ordinary guy, is raised from the dead to another opportunity for new life….a brand new life….another chance at life…..instead of celebrating All

Saints Day with scripture that often makes sainthood feel very out of our reach, today’s reading says: Not so fast. With God all things are possible. And just when you think you are stone cold alone, God will show up and lift you on wings of brand new life. God will resurrect you to another chance at your best self.

Instead of blessed are the poor, today’s message goes a bit Monty Python: We’re not dead yet! Not even close. Just when we think its all over, God will be ready to do a brand new thing with us, altogether! God is always willing to break the pattern of our demise and lift us to brand new life. How great is that?! It is the assurance that comes with St. Paul’s insistence that we are all born to be saints. This morning’s reading from John’s Gospel says, not to worry if we have not reached that pinnacle yet, because it ain’t over till it’s over….or maybe that was from that other sainted witness Yogi of Berra. But the story of Lazarus approaches All Saints Day from a whole new world view…..a world view speaks to us as though we too might be a part of the new creation. Here and now.

It’s a doozy of a story, this one about Lazarus. It stands alone in the Gospel of John. There is a story about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike that nearly anonymous beggar, John’s Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, and he is the friend of Jesus of Nazareth…. A friend of God and prophets, as it were. And this story has a very prominent and theologically important place in John’s Gospel, it is the last straw for the authorities before they arrest Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the last straw is the cleansing of the Temple. And so those synoptic Gospels want us to know that Jesus was arrested for being a rabble-rouser, a political activist who assaulted the unjust status quo and was therefore arrested by the authorities. But John puts that story of the Temple cleansing at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Revolutionary is not the main point of Jesus’ mission, it is just the starting place. John uses the raising of Lazarus as the last straw. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John’s message is that Jesus is so divine that he is changing more than the status quo, he is resurrecting life itself. And so we usually hear this passage in the last week of Lent before Holy Week.

In the last week of Lent before Holy Week, this reading is meant to solidify the identity of Jesus as fully divine. In that timeframe, Jesus himself will be resurrected in two weeks. And as a precursor, in this reading, after Jesus weeps for his friend, Jesus resurrects his friend. And there we have it: fully human, fully divine. The perfect start for Holy Week.

But this week, in our liturgical calendar, we are about as far from Holy Week as we can get. And this Feast Day is not about Jesus as fully human and fully divine, it is about the divinity that is etched in us…..the divinity that is provided and meant to shine through every human heart. And so unlike this reading in Holy Week, on All Saints Day our focus is not so much on the divinity of Jesus, but on the second chance for Lazarus….the brand new life for this fully human, friend of the divine: Lazarus. Not unlike the fully human, friend of the divine: Jack….or Henry….or Ramona. Because Lazarus is like us. Fully human, etched with the divine.

Maybe this passage echoes Anne Lamott’s wonderful quip that “God loves us just as we are……and way too much to let us stay this way.” And so as this morning’s reading from Revelation assures us: God is

going to do a brand new thing with us. Because as the reading says, we are the location of salvation. Here and now. The home of God is among mortals.

The story of Lazarus, raised to new life by his friend, breaks the pattern of the message for All Saints Day. But it does not break the tradition. It still speaks to this Feast Day in terms of blessing and hope, but it does that in a very different way.

As I think I shared in an earlier sermon this fall, my doctoral studies at the Candler School at Emory University are focused this semester on my grounding myself in my ministerial context…..which is, of course, St. Paul’s. So I have been doing a lot of research of late into the history of our beloved community. And so, since our stewardship campaign this year is called Who We Are and Who We Want to Be, I thought I might share with you this morning a bit about who we are, from an historical perspective……or at least, how we got to be who we are……which is not altogether different from whom we have always been. For 132 years. Since 1883.

We were not the first church in Newton Highlands. The Congregational church beat us by about 11 years. And we are not the first Episcopal church in Newton. That honor goes the St. Mary’s in Newton Lower Falls, founded in 1811. Grace Church in Newton Corner was founded in 1855. Messiah in Auburndale was founded in 1881, And the forth of the eight Episcopal churches all founded by the turn of the century, was our Parish of St. Paul.

And so one January evening in 1883, 35 good souls got together at the home of James Simpson, and they established the seed of our beloved community, the Parish of St. Paul. I have not yet found any archival information as to why they chose St. Paul as the name, but the first service was on February 3rd at 3pm in the Knight of Honor Hall on the corner of Walnut and Lincoln Streets. There were 118 people in attendance, and they made an offering of $18.55. They broke ground for the church building, in which we sit today, in May of 1883, and they finished construction of this nave and that choir room in July. In April of 1884, the Parish of St. Paul was officially incorporated. We have always moved quickly to answer God’s call. This is part of who we are!

At that time, this building was located across the Street. After one year there were 35 families in the register. And in that first year they had 21 baptisms, 17 confirmations, and 1 burial. They collected a total of $862.45 to pay their one expense, minister-in-charge. There were four Harvard educated ministers in charge before the first rector was called in 1886, The Rev’d. Carlton Mills.

And in very short order, St. Paul’s had vested its first choir. The year was 1888 and it was the first vested choir in all of Greater Boston. Originally made up of 11 men who were shortly joined by 14 boys, and it took about 25 years, but during WWI, women and girls were finally welcomed into the fold. They had to be – the men were off to war. But never mind….We have always been on the cutting edge of setting new standards in music. This is part of who we are!

And we directly contributed to the founding of the next three Episcopal churches to grace the city of Newton. In 1889, Trinity was formed by two St. Paulsians who wanted a church closer to their home. Newton Centre fit the bill. And so the last service of St. Paul’s first rector was the first service at Trinity on Trinity Sunday, 1889. And, in 1893, St. John’s in Newtonville became the second Episcopal church to spin off from St. Paul’s. Finally, in 1896, our second rector, the Rev’d. William Williams left St. Paul’s to become the first rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Waban. By 1900 there were 8 Episcopal churches in Newton, three of which are directly attributable to the vision and courage and evangelical spirit of this parish to which we now belong. We are planters of churches and agents of God who have been building the kingdom in our neighborhood well over a century! St. Paul’s has always been working collaboratively and strategically to answer God’s call with partners in faith in the wider world. This is part of who we are!

And we come honestly by our strong support of women’s rights in this parish. At the annual meeting in 1891 (just 7 years after our incorporation) there was a petition to strike the word “male” from the by- laws, which would then allow every adult in the parish the right to vote. The effort was defeated, but it was raised again and again until 1904 when the by-laws were formally changed. Women had the vote in our beloved community well before women had the right to vote in the US Concstitution.1 St. Paul’s has always pushed the boundaries of inclusion.  This is part of who we are!

In 1902, needing more room for expansion, the church building was moved across the street to its current location. We have never been afraid of making big changes to accommodate God’s call! In 1905 the Parish Hall was built. It was called the Parish House at that time, and there was a specific notation in the vestry minutes that the hall was for church use only. No rentals! And although it could be offered for use by charitable organizations, no money would be permitted to change hands…..oh well, we had to break the pattern somewhere! But we are still offering that space to God’s work in the world.

In 1906 the piano was moved out of the church and into the Parish House to make room for the first of several organs. This first one was a pump organ, because electricity was not added to the church until 1907. And 1914 the Parish house almost burned to the ground on account of faulty wiring. But the money from the insurance allowed an upgrade to the kitchen and the heating system.

In 1925, the undercroft was built out and the kitchen, which had previously been where my study is now, was moved downstairs. The annual meeting and most parish life events took place in what was then called the crypt. That space is 90 years old this year! Born the same year as Ben Evans! Who has been a faithful and active St. Paulsian for all of his life!

In 1928, the pews were removed from the transept over here and the space was made into a Children’s Corner for youth worship and prayer. And by the early 1940’s there were myriad organizations for youth in this parish. Boys and Girls clubs. And a children’s choir with over 25 voices. Committed to the life and faith of our children. This is a part of who we are….and who we have always been!

Almost everything that adorns this sanctuary and this property has been given in memory of the saints who preceded us here. The lychgate was added in 1928. The gorgeous Mary and Martha stained glass window that watches over our worship was added in 1933. And in 1938 there was a huge initiative to build the Garden of Repose – a place of solace and peace and prayer. Today that space is our lovely Meditation Garden, remembering many who have loved and lived in and around and through our beloved community. That outdoor space of remembrance and prayer was 75 years old in 2013. Preparing and paving the path for the next generation, that is part of who we are, and have always been,  at our core!

In 1932 the stage in the parish hall was built out to accommodate the Parish Players. It was a troupe of musical actors who lifted the art of faith with drama and song all over our diocese. It included parishioners and non- parishioners alike. We used art and beauty and community to spread the Gospel in new and appealing ways. This is part of who we are.

The Parish of St. Paul has had 12 extremely well educated rectors in 132 years. Five of the twelve had doctoral degrees. And in all that time, only 2 were here for more than 10 years. Charles Farrar was rector for 21 years from 1923 to 1944, and John Balcom from 1953 to 1982, a whopping 29 years. John Balcom is not only the longest serving rector, he is also the only rector who ever retired from St. Paul’s. That is an astonishing statistic. In 132 years, only 1 rector retired. Every other rector went on from here to serve anew in some other neighborhood. Several went on to teach or run academic institutions, and the others answered new calls. O yeah, one did go on to be suffragon bishop of Newark, NJ. This too is a special and rare charism of this beloved community. Lifting leaders to new life. Offering the best that this parish has to give to the life of the world. As far as I can tell, none of these rectors left in disgrace or on the verge of ruin. And in fact the church flourished under most. Which suggests that this is a place where leaders are formed and supported and then sent out into the world to share the blessings that have been gathered here. This is a part of who we are!

And so here we are on the All Saints Day. We are the cloud of witnesses for generations to come. And who we want to be will in large part be a function of who we already are……which is in large part a function of who we have been for quite some time….126 years to be exact!

We will notice that neither of today’s readings from the New Testament offers a new life that is not built on the old one. Lazarus is raised to new life, just as he is. He is not replaced, but re-energized, re- invigorated, re-membered. And I’m guessing that he had some growing edges that were resurrected with him. Not just his best shining self, but also his unremarkable self, his un manageable self, his un- finished self – his whole self was raised to a new life, to another chance to live into his saintly self. But who he will become from here, is absolutely going to be informed by who he has been.

And so as we begin our conversations this stewardship season, about who we are and who we want to be, we need to get our arms around the former……first. The Good News is, this beloved community has been as filled with the saints of God for 132 years, as it is today. So, calling all saints of St. Paul’s! Let us lean into this chance to do a brand new thing by integrating our memory with our practice that we might deliver everything that God could hope of us! Onward!

Alleluia! Amen.

© November, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw


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