Taking the Next First Step – An All Saints Sermon on John 11:32-44

After three and a half months on sabbatical I can say, without reservation, I like the sabbatical life. But I also want you to know that each day of the last three and a half months I’ve carried a pendant of St. Philip in my pocket and I’ve carried you in my heart and love. You were with me each step of the way – on the beaches of Maui, in the silence of the South Texas desert, in the churches of Greece, in the monasteries of Mt. Athos, and in the holy land of Israel and Jordan. Along the way Cyndy and I lit candles and offered prayers of thanksgiving and well being for you. This sabbatical has been an amazing and life changing experience. Thank you. Cyndy and I will be forever grateful for your support and this opportunity.

As this day, my first day back, grew closer I could not help but wonder what coming back would be like. I know I’ve changed but I am also still learning how I’ve changed and what it all means. I come back knowing you too have had experiences and wondering how you’ve changed and what it all means. What have we each learned? What will our life together be like after the sabbatical? These are not so much questions to be answered as questions to be lived and I am excited to share with you more about our experiences, to hear about your experiences, and to discover what God has in store for us.

Several people have asked, “What was the best part of the sabbatical?” We spent time with our son and his wife. We went to some beautiful places. We saw ancient and holy sites. We ate some great food. We made new friends. I bought some great icons. But the best part? The very best part? That would be Cyndy and me. We found each other again. We fell deeper in love. We began to see life, each other, and ourselves with new eyes. In the words of my grandmother, we got out and “blew the stink off.”

When my sister and I were kids we often spent a part of our summers at my grandmother’s house. We called her Bum Bum. At some point each summer, however, Bum Bum had had enough and she would say, “Ok kids we need to get out and blow the stink off.” It was her way of saying it was time for us to change, to act differently, to be different; to “get the stink blowed off”.

Duccio's The Raising of Lazarus (source)

Duccio’s The Raising of Lazarus (Wikimedia Commons)

That isn’t only about a couple of spoiled kids on summer break. It’s about you and me. It’s about our parish. It’s about Lazarus. It’s about all the ways we manage to get ourselves to the point where we look around and say, “Wow, this really stinks.” In that moment we are describing the way our own life is dying and decaying.

It might be the stink of anger, grudges, and resentment; guilt and regret; or unmet expectations and disappointment. Often it’s the stench of hurt feelings, betrayals, and broken relationships. Some breath the stench of grief, sorrow, and depression. Sometimes beneath the stink is the echo of sharp painful words we spoke to another or another spoke to us. Other times it’s the busyness, forgetfulness, and distractions that cause us to lose sight of who is important and what really matters. Life begins to stink when we no longer see the beauty of creation, the wonder of being alive, or the mystery of love. Fear, self doubt, the need for approval eventually stink. There are times when our choices, priorities, and patterns of behavior take on a suffocating odor and times when another’s actions and choices let the stink waft in. Sometimes it just seems to sneak up on us. One morning we wake up and it’s not coffee we smell.

Every one of us could tell a story about a time when life stunk. So tell me, when have you smelled that stench? Is there something about your life today that stinks? What’s the stink?

Regardless of how we got there or what the stench is, Jesus is always calling us out of the stink. That’s exactly what he is doing for Lazarus in today’s gospel (Collect and Scripture Readings for All Saints). Lazarus is dead. He is four days dead. He is stinky dead. “Lazarus, come out and get the stink blown off.” Jesus calls him out of the tomb, out of the darkness, out of death, out of the stink.

“Lazarus, come out!” The miracle of this story is not that Jesus calls Lazarus out. The miracle will be if Lazarus takes that first step. This is the make it or break it moment, a matter of life or death. It was for Lazarus and it will be for us.

Will Lazarus take that first step? A first step into the light of a new day? A first step into the fragrance of a new life? Will you take that first step? Will I? Will we as a parish?

There are lot of reasons for Lazarus to not take that first step. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha all have their reasons. “Lazarus, come out!”

I can imagine Lazarus yelling back, “No, I can’t. I’m dead. I’m all wrapped up in and bound by death. There’s no life left in me. I have nothing left to give. I just can’t do it any more. Besides, it’s too dark. I can’t see my way forward.”

I hear Mary say, “Lord, if you had been here a few days ago…. But it’s too late now. Nothing can be done. The past is the past.”

I see Martha pinching her nose as she says, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” For her the stink is the ultimate and final reality.

I suspect each of those reasons are familiar to us, maybe we’ve even used them. I also suspect we have some of our own reasons for not taking that first step. Christ, however, is not bound by human reasoning, Lazarus’, Mary’s, Martha’s, or ours. “Lazarus, come out!” is Christ’s unceasing call to each of us.

That first step is always the hardest one. Think about the first step you took after realizing your life was out of control and you had to change, or the first step you took after someone had hurt you and asked for forgiveness, or the first step you took after a loved one had died. First steps are difficult, scary, and often overwhelming. They leave us stumbling, teetering back and forth, like a child learning to walk.

Getting the stink blown off is about taking the next first step. No one else can take that first step for us. It’s all ours. While we may be the one that has to take that next first step we never do so alone. That’s what this great Feast of All Saints is about. That’s why we began today with a long procession as we prayed the Litany of Saints. That’s why in a few moments we will call the names of our local saints, those who are particular to our lives and this parish.

Today, the Feast of All Saints, is a reminder and celebration that we are always walking on the path and in the footprints of those who have gone before us. That became very clear for me during my sabbatical.

IMG_6800Part of my time was spent in the desert of southern Jordan, an area through which Moses and the Israelites traveled. The whole area seemed like nothing but sand and sky. We climbed dune after dune only to find ourselves slipping back. The sand was giving way and offered no stability. Finally, our guide called out, “Brothers and sisters, walk in each others tracks. The sand will be more stable and it will be easier.”

She had named a truth not only about the desert but about life. Whether in the desert, on my sabbatical, or in my life I am simply following the tracks of those who had gone before me.

We call those who have gone before us the saints. They may have died, but they are not dead. Their lives have changed, not ended, and their presence is real. Some are name brand saints with a place on the calendar. Others have names that would not be recognized and whose only place is in our hearts. Regardless, they are all saints and they have laid a path before us marked with their footprints of prayers, love, teachings, actions and choices, and sometimes with their blood.

They are our guides and encouragers on the path of life and faith. Ours is to be the next first step on that path. That next first step is the beginning of learning to walk again, love again, live again. It was for Lazarus and it will be for us.

“Come out of the tomb, out of the darkness, out of death. Come out and get the stink blown off.” Those are Jesus’ words to Lazarus, to you, to me. Every time they are spoken I can’t help but believe that the saints grow silent in anticipation, praying and hoping, wondering, waiting, watching, whispering to themselves and each other, “Will she take the next first step? Will he take the next first step?”

Will you?

What is your next first step? What is our next first step as a parish?

23 thoughts on “Taking the Next First Step – An All Saints Sermon on John 11:32-44

  1. We were planning an annual event in a church where I was fairly new as associate pastor. When I mentioned a variation I wanted us to include that year, an entrenched secretary said, “We don’t do –” Then she corrected herself, “We’ve never done that before.” I said, “Well, why don’t we see whether that would work this year!” Congregations and individual Christians can reach the point of needing to “get the stink blown off,” not recognizing we may be spiritually dead.

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  2. Just so glad you and Cyndy got to go and glad you are back. I have missed your “interruptions.” My heart has gone with you two as I pictured you in holy places, no matter where you were. Grace, love, peace and great joy!

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  3. Welcome back. If you remember I wrote you a few months ago and express to you my admiration for your sermons. At that time you told me you were taking some time off and it would be awhile before you start posting again. I am glad you had an enjoyable sabbatical and hopefully some rest. However, I am also glad you are back because I truly appreciate your sermons and your willingness to share them. I would say I am your #1 sermon fan here in North Carolina.

    My request is for you to please post the sermons week after week and I am sure they will be of benefit to many of God’s people.

    Again, thank you for all you do and may our gracious God bless you always.

    Ed Harper

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    • Ed, thank you very much for your kind and encouraging words. I appreciate you reading my blog. I am still sort of working out the future of this blog but do hope to post a bit more regularly than I have been.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  4. Received your John 11:32-44 Sermon. Wanted to let you know your words were “heartfelt'” and touched me to the depths of my soul. Beyond grateful for the prayers, hopes, and whisperings of the saints. With thanks.

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    • Karen, I am so glad the sermon was meaningful to you and hope it helps in taking the next first step. I share your gratitude for the saints, their witness and encouragement. May your name always be on the lips of their lips.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  5. Mike, this sermon spoke to me on so many levels. Your sabbatical sounded wonderful and I am so thankful you and Cyndy were able to enjoy this time away. I, too, have missed your posts and look forward to receiving them again. Blessings on you.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind comment Martha. We had such a wonderful time with lots of next first steps. I am glad the sermon was meaningful to you and I appreciate you reading my blog.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  6. Hi, it’s good to have you back on line as I’ve been reading your blog for some time – glad you had a good sabbatical. Thank you for this sermon, taking the next step is never easy and can be scary. I’m writing a Rule of Life at the moment to be presented at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception Eucharist of our Cell of Our Lady of Walsingham and am having to really think about my life and the way I live. This has really helped as what I write has to be more than an aspiration but has to be a firm intention to live this way. Thanks for your help along the way. Lydia

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    • Lydia, thank you for your good and encouraging words. I am glad the sermon has helped in thinking about your rule. A rule of life is a great next first step. I pray God’s wisdom and guidance for you as your discern and write your rule.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

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  7. Mike, it is so good to have you and Cyndy back and to read your sermons once more. Each sermon seems to speak directly to me, and then I find out that others feel you are speaking to them too. Thank you for reminding us to ‘shed the stink” when the swirl of everyday life seems to overwhelm. We are so fortunate to have your spiritual guidance and your deep sense of knowing. I look forward to being a part of great things to accomplish and to growing with our family at St. Philip’s.
    Beverly Heyen

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  8. Hi Mike. It’s great to be able to read your posts again. I missed you. Your post is really timely for me. I just came back from a social event and I’ve been telling myself my romantic life is over, I’m too old, who could be my partner when I feel unlovely and “not like I was”, etc, etc. So stinky! I’m blowing the stink off right this minute! xx

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