The Rev. Dr. Deborah White
Last Sunday as many of us enjoyed Halloween treats, members of our faithful Altar Guild were busy getting ready for today’s All Saint’s Day liturgy. Acting on the famous words of comedian Robin Williams, who observed that one of the Top Ten Reasons for being an Episcopalian is that the church calendar is color-coded, they had already pulled the green covering off the altar, knowing that we employ the color white for feast days like today. But as I left the building – “Wait!” Melissa Rodrigue-Kennedy called, “do you want the Alpha and Omega or the other one”? After pausing only briefly to consider this rather bizarre question, I shouted over my shoulder, “The Alpha Omega. The other one’s for Easter.”
This strange exchange- dependent on what some people call “Episcospeak”- was fairly common in the Episcopal churches of my youth. We used to drop words like “Narthex,” and “chasuble” – not to mention what were then thought of as humorous nicknames like “Whiskeypalian” – into conversation without any doubt that they would be understood. Not so any longer. The days when young families could expect their social groups to revolve around their church attendance and your church membership said as much about you as your profession are long gone.
For some of us this is not new information. Recently released data from The Episcopal Church indicates that we have lost almost one million members in the last ten years. For others, the adjustments we have had to make as a result of the recent pandemic have made these declines more obvious. Many people have reacted to the news with anger and blame, identifying various external culprits like Sunday morning soccer for the decline in worship attendance. I understand this desire to find a practical, easy to fix reason for church decline Having been raised in the church and found enormous comfort in the constancy of our worship over the years, I understand the pain associated with the loss of fun and easy exchanges like the one Melissa and I had on Sunday. Knowing the secret language of any club makes you feel like an insider. As an often lonely and sometimes depressed Coast Guard wife, knowing such things was my secret weapon. I could arrive in any new town, find the red, white, and blue Episcopal shield, show up on Sunday, pick up the right pew book, start singing along – and I immediately belonged.
I was wrong – not about belonging, because each of those churches accepted us immediately – but about why I belonged. You see, I thought I belonged because I had the special knowledge that made me part of that community. I knew the customs, so I fit in. It’s easy to make that mistake, particularly if you are a religious person – because, quite frankly, religions have been telling us that for millennia. “We welcome everyone” say the websites, “so long as they are [fill in the blank] or are NOT [fill in the blank].” But this is not what scripture says.
The reading we heard today from our Hebrew testament contains one of our most beautiful and lyrical descriptions of God’s holy mountain. It is often read at funerals because many people believe it to be a description of where we go after death, but what it really illustrates is God’s beloved community – creation in its perfected state - and it is a place for all peoples. This vision is what comes into being when God destroys death for all time – and the prophet is clear; it does not happen until we can all go together – until everyone belongs.
Many of you have heard of the “Left Behind” books, which are based on a certain reading of the book of Revelation that says that there will be a “rapture” in which true believers will go directly to God while others will be left behind to suffer during a thousand-year struggle for the earth. This, of course, is the ultimate version of religious “belonging” - and I have always found it terribly ironic that this grim story of violence, war, and separation comes from a book of scripture that was written to console a people who were suffering because they had been isolated and tortured for their faith. Composed in the time of the Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted confessing Christians, Revelation was written not to terrify believers into separating themselves into sects, but to remind Christians of the nature of their community, why they were suffering, and exactly who they belonged to.
Today’s gospel contains Jesus’s biggest miracle – the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It seems an odd choice for a day in which many parishes – including ours – will include the sacrament of Holy Baptism in our service. Why read a story about death on a day when we are thinking about new life, personified by the baby we are going to bring into our community today? The answer is that baptism is not about birth, but rebirth – and that is exactly what happens to Lazarus in today’s gospel. We know that Lazarus and his sisters were close friends of Jesus, so it might have surprised his disciples when, upon hearing Lazarus was sick, Jesus waited two days before going to see him. Mary clearly thinks so, telling Jesus that if he had shown up earlier, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus even seems to be second guessing himself, becoming, “Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” In other words, Jesus felt bad.
Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. Jesus is about to perform what human beings even now in our age of advanced technology still think of as a “God-like” act. He is going to bring someone back from the dead – and how is he acting? Is he rolling up his sleeves and asking for a drum roll? Is he making sure his lighting is good and the camera’s on his best side? Is he checking the patient’s insurance? He is not doing any of those things. He is weeping along with the dead person’s family. Why? – because to Jesus Lazarus is not a symbol or a teaching cadaver or a rabbit he’s about to pull out of a hat. Lazarus is his friend. Jesus loves him.
That is what it means to belong to a Christian community. It means understanding that God created us to love and be loved with a love that is so powerful that even death has no control over it. This is the love of the Alpha that was potent enough to create the world out of nothing but God’s will. It is the love that stands with us each time and even though we choose to reject God’s offer of salvation. It is the love that holds us up each time we bring upon ourselves a new human cataclysm. And it is the love of the Omega that demonstrates through healing, hope, and resurrection that death is never the end but only a brief interruption in our lives with the one who sets his lot among human beings. This is what it means to belong to God.
This is the belonging into which we welcome Rylan today. It is not an easy belonging. It is not a belonging he will be able to prove by knowing the secret passwords or which book to pick up. It is not a belonging he can assert by proving that he is “in” because someone else is “out.” It is a belonging that comes from recognizing that he, like all of us, is part of this community solely because we are welcomed into it by God and brought out of the death of sin into the life of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus, our true and loving friend. It is a belonging that is worth suffering for. It is a belonging that is worth dying for. It is a belonging that unbinds us from our limited human ideas of who we think we are and lets us go. AMEN.
The Episcopal Church, 2020 Parochial Date (2021), https://www.generalconvention.org/parochialreportresults.