“He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
His steps were slow, careful, precarious. But John Robert Lewis knew the way, and his gaze was steady. It was a Sunday in March, 2020, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, not unlike that first, fabled Bloody Sunday, fifty-five years before. Now as then, the breeze was cool, the late-winter sun soft, and the water below brown and swirling. And he was back again, walking the old path.
No one said it, but everyone knew it: John Lewis was dying, the victim of a cancer that would kill him within months. Yet here he was, just weeks after his 80th birthday, standing once more above the Alabama River.
He was handed a microphone. His body was weak, but his voice was strong. It was a voice whose preacherly cadences had been honed decades before as he delivered sermons to his family’s chickens in Pike County, Alabama.
Hear John Lewis’s voice: “On this bridge just a few short years ago a few of the children of God started on a journey.”
Hear John Lewis’s voice: They’d been there, he said, because of Martin Luther King, Jr., and because of “the saints of old.”
Hear John Lewis’s voice: “We were beaten. Tear-gassed. Bullwhipped. On this bridge, some of us gave a little blood to help redeem the soul of America.”
To redeem the soul of America: John Robert Lewis—not a saint of old, but a saint of our time—summoned the nation to be what it had long said it would be, but had failed to become.
I have never known a saintlier man. Willing to die for the Gospel and for the Declaration of Independence; open to grace; an example of conviction, of courage, and of love in the face of hate.
This is All Saints’ Sunday. In Greek, sainthood is derived from a word meaning “to set apart” or to “make holy.” Generations of believers have held that some lives are in such harmony with the ideals of God that they should be singled out for contemplation and for celebration.
But let’s be honest: Saintliness tends to be more intimidating than inspiring. They’re saints; we’re sinners. What else is to be said?
Yet here we are, you and I, gathered in the expectation that our obedience to Jesus’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” will bring some measure of order in a world of chaos; some measure of hope in a maelstrom of fear; some measure of light in a universe given to darkness.
We’re in a good place to think on these things. This cathedral is built on the hilltop of a capital city. Here we are understandably consumed with matters eternal and temporal, with questions of principle as well as of power.
The architecture of this Cathedral seeks to illuminate a path not only upward but forward—forward to a world where grace and kindness contend against appetite and ambition.
Yet we often fail in the well-fought fight. That’s to be expected. That’s why we must be open to the saints, who call to us not because we are perfect, not even because we are good, but because we are human. Because, in a fundamental sense, we are Lazarus—vulnerable and mortal.
The story of Lazarus is, like saintliness, compelling but remote. Jesus raises a man from the dead. He reverses the order of things. And he does so with a word—“Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus comes out—out from the dust, out from the rot, back into the world of the living.
From Isaiah and from John the Divine, we can see the resurrection of Lazarus as a signal of what is to come: Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Such is the great promise, the ultimate hope, of our faith—that death will be no more. A promise made to saints and sinners alike. Which is very good news for all of us sinners.
And good news is in short supply in our time.
Our faith and our Constitution are both founded on a realistic view of human nature: that we are frail and fallible. The aim of the new republic was not perfection, but a Union that would prove “more perfect.” Experience teaches us that injustice is endemic to political life. And the tragedy of America is that we can imagine justice but cannot finally realize it.
More than half a century ago, from this pulpit, Martin Luther King observed that “the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Bends, not swerves—but what we can miss in this cold-eyed vision of history is that the arc won’t even bend without devoted Americans pressing for the swerve.
That’s why saints are so vital. Unlike most of us, saints reject the tragedy of life and history. They walk with Jesus Himself. The path is not smooth but rough; not comfortable but rugged.
Yet the injunction of the gospel, remember, is to take up one’s cross, not to take it as it comes.
In pointing toward the perfect, saints insist that a moderate course is no course at all, only a continuation of the wrong. Saints understand sin, but choose to see the depravity of the world not as something to be accepted but as something to be fought.
The perennial fight within this city and within this nation—and within our own lives—is the mission as defined by the civil-rights movement of the 20th century: To redeem the soul of America.
In Hebrew and in Greek, the word “soul” also means “breath” or “life.” The soul, then, is what makes us us, whether we’re speaking of a person or of a people. At its best, America’s soul has been animated by the proposition that all men are created equal.
John Robert Lewis knew that. He lived that. He risked everything for that. He knew that tomorrow could be better than today, and that tomorrow was but prelude to a yet more glorious day after that.
We need not be saints to follow him across that bridge and into the light—into a more perfect Union. But follow we must. March we must, however slowly, however carefully, however precariously. And if we do—and, with God’s help, when we do—then perhaps we can save our country. And our souls.