Living with Gratitude for Those Who Have Gone Before

All Saints Day 2015

John 11:38-44

“Nnn–yello” That’s how my friend Julie’s mom used to always answer the phone.  “Hi, Tom, how are you?” she would ask, honestly, openly, truly interested, really wanting to know.  After several minutes of warm-up conversation, she would amiably pass the phone along to her daughter, but not without finding out how I was and what was going on in my life first.  I’ve never heard anyone say “nnn-yello”  like she did. It was as distinctive and upbeat as she was, a voice always filled with love.

LaDonna had sparkling, inquisitive eyes that could never take in enough of the world around her.  She had an infectious spirit that made her an outstanding teacher.  She had a down-to-earth demeanor that was never surprised by the struggles of everyday life, and a hopeful, forward-looking disposition that never missed an opportunity to celebrate the joy of living.  She had a way of calling out the best in people.  I don’t know whether it was the piercing sparkle in her half-moon eyes, her lilting speech, or her broad, inclusive smile, but she could make a fox and a hen relax, set a spell, and enjoy one another’s company.

LaDonna was the chair of the pastor-parish relations committee in my home church when I came before them at a charge conference to request their endorsement as a candidate for ministry.  She, along with many others in my home church, cultivated my life in Christ and helped me begin to see myself as God sees me.  Without her and many others like her who asked discerning questions and spoke words of encouragement into my life, I’m not sure I would have ever been ready to hear or respond to God’s call.

You see, that’s what saints do.  They call out the best in us.  They remind us, and sometimes teach us who we really are and why that matters not only to them, but also to God.  Saints journey with us, listen to our heartbreaks and hopes, and never miss an opportunity to help us find our true selves with Christ.

Saints are seldom the people you think they might be.  They are rarely the winners, the top dogs, the “successful” ones.  They tend to be ordinary people, teachers, artists, factory workers, librarians, nurses, merchants, chefs and bakers, carpenters and masons, people living ordinary lives with extraordinary grace.  Saints do not become saintly by trying to become better than anyone else, but by becoming fully, authentically, truly themselves.

When I read today’s gospel story, it is easy to get caught up in the miracle of bringing life out of death, the wonder of calling Lazarus back from the grave.  The story teaches me so much more, however, when I let it speak to me about my life.  I think about how much of my life has been caught up in things that do not bring life.  I love Martha’s quip to Jesus when he tells them to open the tomb.  “But Lord,” she said.  “It stinketh.”  I think about the stinks I have made in my life and how it is simple evidence of the sin that rots me from within.

I think of Lazarus getting up from the tomb and coming out bound hand and foot by burial cloths that were meant to hold his bones together.  “Unbind him,” Jesus said, “and set him free.”  What is binding me? I wonder to myself.  What is keeping me from living the life Jesus is calling forth in me?

Then I realize that I cannot simply take off the grave clothes.  I have to rely on my community, the people who love me and want me to become my truest, fullest self to unbind me and set me free.  I need my church family, saints like LaDonna and so many others to help me become who Jesus is calling me to be.

In John chapter 10, Jesus teaches his apprentices that he is the good shepherd, and that the sheep listen to his voice and follow him because they know and trust his voice.  He calls them by name and leads them out.  “My sheep listen to my voice,” he says.  “I know them and they follow me.  I give them eternal life.”  Just one chapter later, Jesus calls one of his sheep, Lazarus, by name and tells him to come out of the grave into the fullness of life Jesus promised.

Jesus calls to me; Jesus calls to you, beyond time and eternity, beyond the boundary of life and death, beyond the margins of heaven and earth.  He calls us by name; we know him because he speaks our name with love.  It is a love that reaches beyond our sin, beyond our failings, beyond our shame, beyond our pain.  It is a love that reaches beneath our grave clothes that bind us and calls us into the fullness of life with him.  Love is stronger than sin; love is stronger than death.  Love wills our well being.  Love calls forth what is beautiful, what is lovely, what is of God.  Love sets us free to become as God intended.

This morning, we’re remembering the saints of our lives who have spoken our names with love and helped us discover who we really are.  I remember LaDonna, who died last year at far too young an age.  Even though I hadn’t seen her in 15 years, my world was diminished by her death.  She was a light bearer, a saint who helped illumine my path.  I wonder who was a light bearer for you?  Who helped illumine your path?  I invite you to think of someone who spoke your name with love, who willed your well-being and helped you find your real life, who saw beneath the the grave clothes of your sin and called you to life with Jesus.  Do you have someone in mind?

Now I want you to think of someone in your present circle of relationships, someone who remains caught up in sinful patterns and behaviors, or held captive by family dynamics that smother and control, or trapped the throes of addiction or violence that keep them from becoming the person God made them to be.  Do you have someone in mind?

With thanksgiving in your heart for the one who illumined your path, who called you by name and help you find your way, will you pray for the second person, asking God to send someone into his or her life, to love them beyond circumstance, to free them from all that binds?  As you linger in prayer, ask God whether you are the person who can love them to life.

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Living a life with gratitude means recognizing all those whose love has shaped my heart and my life.  It is from this source that all kinds of other gratitude flows.  Join me this month in 30 days of gratitude because all that you are is no accident.  God has desired you into existence and sent saints to shape your life after the heart of Christ.  How can we do anything else without first saying, “Thanks.”

About Tom Rand

Tom Rand is an apprentice of Jesus, a biblical scholar and storyteller who is passionate about worship, teaching and formation into the Christ-like living. He lives in Toledo, Ohio and serves as the pastor of Sylvania First United Methodist Church.
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