Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
5th Nov 2017
A Sermon for All Saints 2017
'Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven'. Matthew 5.12
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who was rarely prayed to on account of his unfortunate name. But because of this he became known as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded both with possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that
‘The parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. Then there was St Benedict, who wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behavior are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many thousands of lives for which this place has been a house of God, a sanctuary, and a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong sense of this place as a holy place, a place of truth. The presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as the influence for our own healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!