This is a morning of many possible sermon topics. It’s the conclusion of our season of stewardship, and in a few minutes we’ll honor and bless the pledges we’ve received so far. It’s time for a quarterly parish meeting, where we’ll update you on our parish’s budget priorities, finances, and giving patterns. And it’s All Saints’ Sunday, the time we honor the long line of holy men and women beginning in ages past and continuing to Liam, the new Christian we’ll baptize this morning. So I guess I’m supposed to preach on stewardship and the saintliness of offering time, talent, and treasure to the Lord who gives us all that we have. And all that would have been right and true.
But sometimes, life gets in the way of what you’re “supposed” to preach, and this week is one of those times. As many of you know, I’ve been out of town this week – first in Haiti for our mission trip and then at Diocesan Convention. Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy has beaten and battered much of the Caribbean and our East Coast, killing 160, destroying crops in hungry lands, flooding countless homes and businesses, and causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. As we offer our prayers this morning for the saints we’ve known and loved, we should also remember those who’ve died in this storm and those now struggling to make their lives whole again.
While you’ve been watching news coverage of the storm, I’ve been watching Haiti once again – this time, in the aftermath of a hurricane. On this visit, as before, I was taken by the sight of the tap-taps. As you may know, tap-taps are what pass for public transportation in Haiti – vehicles of various sizes, from pick-ups to school buses. They’re called tap-taps because that’s how the riders, hanging off the sides and sitting on the top, get the vehicle to stop. More often than not, tap-taps carry proclamations of faith, written on the vehicle in decorative script, often with paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The statements may be specific Scriptural citations or devotional phrases like “La Grace de Dieu” (the grace of God) or “Merci Jesus” (Thank you, Jesus). But on this trip, I saw a tap-tap proclaiming the deepest theology of Haiti I’ve ever seen. It read, “Le Dieu des Paradoxes” – the God of the Paradoxes. That’s the faith story of Haiti in a nutshell.
This has been a week of paradoxes – for the eight of us serving in Haiti and certainly for you back in the States. For the missionaries, we went into a context of deprivation, poverty, and disaster; and we left feeling blessed, guided, and protected – beginning, dramatically, by leapfrogging over Hurricane Sandy to get from Florida to Haiti, which had been ravaged by the storm the day before. Meanwhile, for all of you back home, you’ve watched the paradox of Americans becoming the victims, rather than the responders, to a natural disaster when the same hurricane turned north and ravaged New Jersey and New York. The missionaries in Haiti were in some senses much safer than their friends and relatives back in the Mid-Atlantic states.
The theme of paradox continues this morning, as we celebrate a feast of paradoxes – All Saints’ Sunday. As we remember those we love who’ve gone before us, we see in our minds’ eye those we can no longer see. We rejoice that they live in our hearts while we rejoice that they’ve found their homes on the other side of eternity. It’s a day marking the presence of the absent – a paradox, indeed.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, we hear the story of Lazarus. I love this story – not just because of Jesus’ miracle in raising the dead but because of the honest, authentic struggle that leads up to it. Sometimes we forget that this story begins with Jesus knowing that his friend Lazarus is dying and deciding not to go do anything to heal him. It seems fairly heartless; and we hear the bitterness in the voices of both sisters of the dead man, who independently confront Jesus when he finally arrives, four days too late. As we pick up the story this morning, it’s Mary we see pinning Jesus to the wall, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). We also see Jesus paying the price, grieving for his friend’s suffering and for the suffering of his sisters left behind. And we hear the visitors whispering to one another, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). It’s the same question we ask all the time about places like Haiti. It’s the same question we ask whenever something like Hurricane Sandy strikes: Lord, how could you let this happen? Jesus, where were you? Why didn’t you step in and do something?
I’m sure the people in the story were just as frustrated as we are by the immediate answer, which is ... no particular answer at all. We get no neat and tidy explanation for the death of Lazarus, or the suffering in Haiti, or the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy. Instead, it’s more God’s style to respond with action rather than talk. Jesus responds by entering into the suffering, crying with those who mourn, comforting them by showing up in the pain – and then transforming the tragedy into the seedbed of resurrected life. Jesus stands before the tomb; and, against all odds, he commands, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). It’s the same kind of crazy proclamation we hear at funerals – when death clearly seems to have carried the day, yet we say that “life is changed, not ended” when we die (BCP 382). It’s the same kind of unexpected end to the entire Scriptural story we heard in the reading from Revelation today, with God tying the ending to the beginning with a second act of creation, saying, “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5). The answers we get may not be satisfying in the moment of pain, but God’s pattern of action is far richer than we’d have any reason to expect: not life and death, but life and death and life again.
In a week like this one – on the ground in flooded Haiti or on the ground in flooded New Jersey and New York – it’s hard to see God making all things new. But then, God surprises you. A few days ago, we visited the homes of some students who attend the Episcopal school in Les Cayes, Haiti, the larger city near our rural school in Maniche. (We tried to go to Maniche, but the flood waters prevented it until nearly the end of the trip.) In Les Cayes, you see the same kind of poverty as in the countryside, except that living conditions are worse because the population density is so much greater. In the city, we stopped at one student’s home – a tin and concrete shack, six people living in literally two small rooms, crammed next to other houses just the same. Fetid water oozed down an open gutter in front of the door. The family had little more than a few clothes, a charcoal-fire stand, a pot, some plates, a table, and some odds and ends. “Depressing” doesn’t begin to describe it. But inside the house, I turned around to see a large piece of thin particleboard tacked to the wall behind the door. It’s the daughter’s chalkboard, and it was covered with her homework for that day. We talked with her about the Episcopal school she attends. She’s so grateful to be there. She’s one of the top students in her class. Her favorite subject is math, and she plans to be a nurse someday.
You see the story play out again and again. Another student we visited wants to become a doctor. Another, a lawyer. Many want to become nurses and help the people they see suffering all around them. In the midst of next to nothing, in the breeding ground of despair, there is hope.
The God we worship specializes in bringing light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow, hope out of despair. The God we worship will heal the people of New York and New Jersey through the presence of Jesus suffering alongside them, and then empower them to rebuild their cities and their lives. The God we worship empowers us, with our partners in Haiti, to build the kingdom one child’s life at a time, redeeming the possibilities for a little girl in a two-room shack by transforming the poverty of her present into the fullness of her future. The God we worship promises to all the saints a “yet more glorious day” (Hymnal 1982 287) when “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4) as heaven and earth are reunited, and all creation returns to the fullness of what God intended “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). The God we worship leads us into the waters of baptism, into Jesus’ own death, so that we might rise with him, with Lazarus, and with all the saints into the life of the heavenly kingdom, now and always.
The God we worship is the God of the Paradoxes. And at the end of the day, all we can do is name the deep and divine reality we can barely comprehend: that beginnings come from endings, that gain requires loss, that emptiness creates the space for God to fill. As St. Francis prayed centuries ago, still we see and marvel at God’s stunning inversion of blessing: that “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life” (BCP 833).