November 4, 2012 “ All Saints’ Sunday, Year B
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
In the fourth grade my teacher, Mrs. Robinson, had all she could take of me one day and sent me to the principal’s office. I don’t remember the offense exactly but she was not as appreciative of my budding sense of humor as my classmates were so off I went. In the fourth grade I was beginning to get a little big for my britches but prior to that I had been pretty quiet and maybe even a little fearful of the whole school thing. As I walked to the principal’s office, I reverted from the cocky little trouble maker to the scared little kid and began to imagine just what was in store for me. The principal was Mr. Rhame, a tall and wiry guy who was the most important man I knew at the time. He was always out and about around the school and I often found myself watching him because he was an impressive figure. I admired him a great deal but I was also pretty intimidated by him. And this was going to be my first one-on-one face-to-face meeting with him. Remembering my first grade teacher’s paddle, I wondered how much Mr. Rhame’s might hurt.
I got to his office, told the secretary that Mrs. Robinson had sent me to see Mr. Rhame, and took a seat. After a while Mr. Rhame came out and asked me to come with him. My heart kind of jumped into my throat but I got up and followed him. We were getting ready for a paper drive where everyone would bring newspapers from home to be recycled and we would have a contest between classes to see who could bring the most. Mr. Rhame set about making posters for the event, had me help him move tables and hang the posters with him. At one point he said he needed to go to the hardware store so we got in his car and got what he needed, then came back and worked a little more. A little later Mr. Rhame told me it was probably time for me to go back to class so back I went.
I don’t remember us talking about why I was there. But somehow I didn’t feel like I had gotten away with anything. A lot changed that day. I felt different. I’m sure I kept on being a little cocky but I felt like something was expected of me and I began to develop a new sort of confidence.
Two years later, Mr. Rhame appeared in my sixth grade classroom. He asked the teacher, Mrs. Larkin, if he could interrupt for a minute. Then he said that he would like Robert Wisnewski to come to the front of the class. The guys sitting around me made little noises thinking I was in some pretty big trouble and I quickly ticked through recent events trying to figure out what I may have done wrong. I got to the front and Mr. Rhame faced me toward the class, put his hand on my shoulder and announced that I had been selected to be Captain of the Safety Patrol and handed me a silver and blue badge that was about the coolest thing I had ever seen.
About 30 years later, a couple of years after I came here to St. John’s, Mr. Rhame called me on the phone. He said he had heard I had moved to Montgomery, was passing through town, and wondered if he could stop by for a visit. He sat on the couch at our house and we talked over old times. He asked me if I remembered those two events and a couple other events which I had not remembered. Mr. Rhame died seven years ago but he’s still kind of around if you know what I mean.
The Wisdom of Solomon that we read from today was written about a hundred years before the time of Christ. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself. It sounds a lot like what was prevalent when Jesus was born: those who are good will be taken away from this cruel world and be put in a better place, implying perhaps that those who are not good get left out or maybe even worse.
The reading from Revelation sounds a little different. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
A hundred years before Jesus, salvation was seen as a movement from earth to heaven. Less than a hundred years after Jesus, salvation is seen as something that moves the other way, from heaven to earth. Before Jesus, the world hoped for some sort of rescue from this evil world, a reward for the faithful and punishment for the unjust. But after Jesus we come to understand that salvation is not rescuing us from evil, or rewarding us, so much as it is the hand of God transforming all that is amiss. The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them. Jesus is God himself coming into this mess of a world and making it brand new.
The gospel lesson about Lazarus may well have been written in 2012 instead of 90. There is a stench in our world too. People we love have died. We are confused about the timing of events and often say to God, Where the hell have you been? You could have prevented all this. In the midst of this broken world we yearn for the saving grace of God. But sometimes we reduce salvation to just being rescued from the stinking mess we are in, or being rewarded for being better than others. In Christ Jesus, God offers us a great deal more.
Sometimes we slide into thinking that God is up, up, and away, that maybe if we’re good enough he’ll take us up, up, and away from this mess. Sometimes all we’re really looking for is some kind of escape from whatever we feel we or some others have done wrong.
Christ Jesus radically changes things, radically shows how the world has always misunderstood salvation. It’s not that some are punished and some are rewarded. Salvation is God’s act of transforming each of us, his generous act of healing our fears, forming in us a new and deeper sort of confidence and hope, stunning us with his great compassion for who we are and who we can become, providing us an empowering sort of relationship where we are enabled to live very different lives right now and right here.
It’s not that, if we’re good, we get to go to heaven. Salvation is heaven come to earth, God come to Montgomery, Alabama, freeing us from whatever entombs us, inviting us to live anew, reminding us that long ago we were appointed for grace. You can’t truly hear the gospel and just go on with your life like you did before. Once you feel that forgiveness, that hand of Christ on your shoulder appointing you, everything must change. Saints are not those who have floated up to heaven to sit around on clouds. Saints are those who know the touch of Christ in their lives. We are saved by the grace of God. We are made saints by the blood of the Lamb, Christ Jesus our Lord.