Following the tragic explosion of the space craft Challenger on January 28, 1986, in a speech to the nation, President Ronald Reagan, talking about those who had lost their lives, closed with the words, “We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
If you were alive at that point in time and listened to his speech, chances are you remember very little of the rest of it, but for many of us that particular line remains engraved in our memories. It gave poignant voice to the hope and sorrow of the moment.
The line itself was taken from a poem named “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. Also known as the “Pilot’s Creed,” the entire poem is this:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,–
and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Most of us will never know what it is like to fly a plane, let alone a space ship, but there’s still something in the poem that speaks of the joy and freedom found in slipping the bounds of earth, that is slipping the bonds of those things which hold us so tight and keep us from being from soaring, from being more fully ourselves and the people God created us to be.
Today at the Cathedral we are observing All Saints Sunday—the day we remember and honor the saints—those who have gone before, those among us now, and those to come.
And the question often arises as to what a saint is and you will probably find as many definitions are there are saints—in other words, many. But The Oxford Companion to the Bible puts it well when it says in part, “In the Bible, therefore, the word, ‘saints’ refers to ‘holy people’—holy, however, not primarily in the moral sense, but in the sense of being specifically marked out as God’s people.”
Which means since we’re all created by God, we all have the potential to live into what we’re been created, set apart for.
So what I want to suggest we consider this morning, is rather than focus on who or what saints are, although we will remember many by name shortly when we read the necrology list, instead think about what saints have in common.
Trust me, it isn’t always good and pious behavior. In looking at the lives of the saints, including our patron, St. Paul, they weren’t and aren’t always very pleasant to be around.
Many weren’t and aren’t, even all that holy much of the time.
But somehow they were, and are, able, to escape the bounds, even if momentarily, which can hold us so tight, and allow the Spirit to fill them. And from there accomplish the extraordinary, even from the most ordinary of actions or being in the world.
Which is instructive because it shows how sainthood is really about our claiming our identity as a people set apart by God, and then letting God take it from there.
When Jesus goes into the cave where Lazarus has been laid, he calls upon God from a place deep within him, proclaiming the promise available to us, that God will always hear him.
And upon the strength and reality of that promise, Lazarus is raised. But it’s not the end of the story for while being raised, he is still bound with strips of cloth. So Jesus tells those with him to unbind him and let him go.
And once unbound, Lazarus goes on to new life.
As Christians we believe in the new life found in the resurrection. We claim it. We proclaim it. Yet we still bind ourselves as with strips of cloth, in fear, complacency, too little or too much certainty, and if we’re honest, even a lack of trust in the God we say we love.
But the great good news is we don’t have to stay bound. As it says in today’s reading from Revelation:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them . . .
Because God dwells with us and within us, God seeks to unbind us, helps us let go of those things which hold us back. We may not lose those bounds without fear and trembling but we will never have to do so relying on our own efforts but upon the God who loves us dearly.
Frankly, it’s often in moments of thinking, “I can’t do that,” that God fills us so powerfully, shaking our very perceptions of what is possible.
I was thinking of this on Tuesday night as stories began to emerge in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in particular the evacuation of the Langone Medical Center in Manhattan of over 200 patients, including 20 babies from the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit.
Each patient had to be taken down to ambulances waiting outside in individual sleds, some having to be carried as many as 17 flights of steps in the dark—the only light coming from flashlights.
Each of the babies was cradled by a nurse and some had to be given manual heart support until they got into the ambulance.
Plus, all of this was done in heavy wind and rain at night. It had to have been absolutely terrifying and yet all those involved in the evacuation somehow were able to put aside whatever fear or anxiety they had in order to care for those who could not care for themselves.
They were saints. Somehow set apart to do what needed to be done.
They not only saved lives, which in and of itself is more than enough, but they also showed us something about God we might never see otherwise—they became for us living examples of how God will do whatever is necessary to not only be with us, but give us the strength to face what’s before us.
Saints then are those who, in moments of grace, have been able to unbind themselves, slip the surely bonds of earth—the attachments that have the power to keep them from God—then let go and touch the face of God. Thereby touching us all. Today we remember and give thanks for them, and for what God will do with us.
But more importantly, give thanks for the God who makes such a wondrous thing possible.
The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
4 November 2012
 Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, “Saint(s)” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 668