Sunday, November 1, 2015

I mean to be one too

A Sermon preached on November 1st (All Saints) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
So where are all the saints? Surely if we are celebrating All Saints’ Day there should be some mention of them in the readings from scripture? But no, all we have is Isaiah’s glorious vision of a banquet on Mount Zion after the end of the world and of John of Patmos’ comforting vision in Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth – after the first earth has passed away – both of which reminded me of the R.E.M. song “It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine," which I now cannot get out of my head. And then in the extract from John’s Gospel we heard the end of the Lazarus story – finishing with his resurrection or resuscitation and the scene – somewhat reminiscent of a cheap horror film – of “the dead man coming out of the tomb, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” (John 11:44)  So why these readings?

Well, we had perhaps better start with the question – why this festival? We believe that the idea of commemorating all the saints on November 1st originated in Ireland, spreading from there to England, and then to the European continent. As you know, Halloween also comes from Ireland and other Celtic lands, and predates Christianity  So perhaps the Irish monks and priests felt the need to have a positive Christian celebration of the faithful departed set up against the pagan festival of spirits and returning souls that was celebrated in this greyer and darker time of year. But by the 9th century the feast of All Saints had been adopted by Rome and was observed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Even before this however, there had been local commemorations of the faithful departed – especially, but not exclusively of those who had crowned their profession of faith with some kind of heroic death or witness, the Saints with a capital S.

If we go back to the New Testament, the word “saints” is used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, think of Paul asking for prayers and donations for the saints in Jerusalem. But over time it began to be applied solely to persons of what we might call heroic sanctity. Those we remember by name because of their witness for Christ, and their courageous and sometimes miraculous deeds. And so as All Saints became a feast only for those people the Church had defined as such, it became customary to set aside another day—as a sort of extension of All Saints—on which the people could remember the more anonymous witnesses, and especially their own family and friends: All Souls. 

But as so often, things have come full circle and although we Anglicans have All Souls as a lesser feast in our calendar, it is on this day that we remember all the saints, the traditional and the modern, the named and the unnamed, those near and dear to us, as well as those who are unknown, everyone who has gone before us. Remember, the word saint comes from the Latin sanctus for holy, and holy just means made special or set apart. And all of us have been made special and set apart by virtue of our Baptism.

What the readings are about then is what all of us can expect, not those selected by the Church but those elected by God. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead because he loves him, that’s why Jesus weeps, that’s why he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. (John 11:33) But that is not the main reason – Lazarus was and is not the only person who died and was loved by Jesus and not brought back to life. And Lazarus died again – his resurrection was not like Jesus’. No, Lazarus was raised as a sign: a sign of Jesus’ power as the one sent by God and as a foretaste or promise of the new life that awaits us all. 

In the same way the visions of Isaiah and Revelation are signs and promises. I don’t think either vision is an exact description of what is to come. They are similar both because John of Patmos draws on Isaiah’s imagery in his own description of the new or renewed world and of the renewed people living there, and because of the hope both of them share, a hope that has its grounding in God’s promises, communicated by the prophets and by and in Jesus. It is the hope of a place without tears in which “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4) and all of the things, all the sin and sins that cause death and pain will have passed away. What they are trying to put into words, what they are trying to describe is a place where God will dwell among us permanently, where God loves us so much that he will wipe away the tears from all faces. (Isaiah 2:8) They are describing a future full of joy - like the greatest wedding banquet ever. The Church gives us these readings both to comfort us who miss those family members and friends who have died, as well as to reassure us about our ultimate fate and destination when the transformation that has already begun, the one we struggle with every day, is completed by God: “See, I am making all things new,” God promises. (Rev. 21:5)

But let’s come back to the Saints with a capital “S,” the saints in the narrow sense one more time. Andrea Noble keeps calling me a saint, which if she doesn’t mean it in the general sense rather worries me. Firstly because some of the saints could be quite unpleasant, even our patron, St. Augustine had plenty of weaknesses, he was not a patient man! And secondly because they are all dead – it is one of the conditions for canonization…. But actually I do believe in living saints in the narrow sense of the word too, that is in people who have not only been set apart by baptism, but who have simply been further set apart as examples of Christian virtue and Christian living. And I think I met one of them this week. 

As you might remember reading – in my emails and in November’s newsletter – we had visitors this week: Lucy and Tony Finch who founded and run the Ndi Moyo palliative care station in Malawi ( Ndi Moyo, literally means the "place giving life," and there they and their team care for on average 330 mostly young patients, most of whom are dying of cancer. As they told their story, especially Lucy who is the nurse and care giver, I had to think of today’s readings from Isaiah and Revelation. It was after experiencing and hearing a young man die in severe pain that Lucy vowed to herself that she would never, ever be put in such a situation again – where she could not help somebody who was suffering. Her guiding principle is that no one should die in pain. She quite literally wipes away the tears from the eyes of her patients and helps them overcome pain and suffering. In bringing that aspect of the new heaven and the new earth forward, albeit only temporarily – because their patients will die – she and her team are doing God’s work and are acting as saints. A saint is someone who reminds us again and again that things do not have to be as they are. A saint is someone who has had and gives us a glimpse of God. A saint is someone who changes things for the better. A saint and a saint’s life are just as much a sign of God’s power and love and promise as the visions of Isaiah and John of Patmos and the raising of Lazarus.

You are all saints in the general sense – because you have all let yourselves be set apart for God’s service – but let’s take that one step further and pray that we can all also be saints in the narrow sense of the word too, that like Lucy Finch we can be visible and tangible signs of love, hope, joy, and new life …… or in the wonderful words of the hymn[1] we just sang:  

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
in church, by the sea, in the house next door;
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
and I mean to be one too.

[1] Hymnal 1982 No. 293 “I sing a song of the saints of God”

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