Tuesday, 3 November 2015

All Saints Day

Two readings for this one but feel free to skip over (they're only short though).


Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Matthew 5:1-12
The Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Do you have someone in your family history that everyone always talks about in glowing terms? My my paternal grandfather, was an incredibly gentle kind of character. It took a lot for him to show any kind of negativity about anything and I can only once remember him saying anything remotely critical. At his funeral he was described as one of God's gentlemen.  So, as you might imagine, his memory is revered in our family. I imagine that many of us, especially as we get older, have someone in our memories to whom we look up or wish to emulate. That is the starting point for what I'm writing about here which is going to be two-fold; understanding the role of saints as ancestors and wondering about our role as the ancestors of tomorrow.

Right across the world, in almost every region, there is some form of tradition of what is usually referred to as 'Ancestor Worship', but is actually usually more to do with honouring the dead. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a great surprise, then, to find in our own tradition that there is something similar, today's festival of All Saints Day, but perhaps with a subtle twist.  In a number of religions down through history and in the present day the idea behind this kind of honouring was to safeguard the future of our ancestors in the afterlife. It was also to preserve that sense of belonging to a family lineage. However, in Christianity the sense is more of recognising, not so much our ancestors of blood and bone, but our spiritual ancestors.

So whilst my grandfather's memory is important to me, and I hope to develop traits like his, in the context of the church we look further afield than those whose genetics we have inherited. We look to the ones who came before us in the faith and now dwell in God's presence in heaven as they, like we, await the remaking of all things as spoken about in the first reading we had from Isaiah.  There is no need for us to pray for them and for their continued well-being because they are dwelling in safety, and in fact in some, more catholic traditions, the saints are asked to pray for us. But who, actually, are these 'saints'? You see we all recollect names like St. Paul, St. Peter and St, Mary Magdalene, to which in this country we might add St. Nectan, St Columba and any number of other obscure Celtic Saints, but who decides that someone is a saint?

You might be thinking that it's the job of the Pope and a dedicated team at the Vatican, and that you have to do something really special even to be considered for elevation to sainthood, but actually the reality is much simpler. When St. Paul uses the word, 'Saints', which he does a lot, he simply means, 'Christians'. That means that when I stand in the pulpit or behind the altar I am standing in the company of the saints who are alive.  You see, sainthood isn't about anything that you do or achieve. It isn't about being more godly than most people. It isn't about being a better Christian than someone else. It is simply about receiving the gift of God's love and salvation. The initiative in sainthood comes from God to us, not vice versa. We are saints because of the grace of God, not because of any holiness in us. Being a saint doesn't depend on you living up to everyone else's expectations, thank God (and I mean that!)

Since sainthood is a gift from God, it then has a knock-on effect which is that once you are counted as one of the company of the saints, you are always one of the saints. Death doesn't remove you from that company, it simply means that you move from being in the saints who are alive on earth to being amongst those who are alive in God's presence.  So when we honour the company, or the communion of saints we are simply remembering those who have trod the path that we tread before we did, and in many cases they are the ones who helped create the path on which we now walk, or who encouraged us to take this Way.

All Saints day is, therefore, a day in which we can remember how, when we gather together in worship, it is not just those who are seen who are present, but also the whole company of heaven. At its best, worship on earth becomes plugged in to worship in heaven. That doesn't mean we can or should talk with the deceased, but it does mean that we sharing in the same act at the same time.

I had a curious experience of this once a couple of years ago at Evensong, which is a small service, rarely more than a dozen people. Near the beginning of that service we hold a few moments of silence to remind ourselves of the presence of God with us and within us. On that occasion it was almost as if, for just a second or two, I felt aware of the presence of heaven worshipping God alongside us.  It's quite difficult to explain what I mean as it was an awareness rather than actually hearing anything, but it was as if our few small voices were joined in song with a whole company of other voices, of the saints who had left this life, maybe joined with the voices of the angels, lifted in worship.  I can't tell you more than that as it was so fleeting, like the sense of having just heard something that was on the edge of hearing, but the memory has stayed with me ever since as a reminder that all worship, in whatever style, however grand or humble, should be connected to the worship of heaven.

The communion of saints is, therefore, the collection of all Christians, across the ages, in the presence of God. When we worship together, so our voices are joined to those who are our ancestors of spirit as well as those who are ancestors of blood and bone. When we honour their memory, so we consider what it was about them that we would like to emulate. In what ways were they shining examples, and how should we respond to their examples?

Earlier I mentioned my grandfather, but I could also talk about other Christians I have known, now in the presence of God, whose lives were inspiring in one way, shape or form, and whose ways I would like to honour. If you like these are our ancestral heroes of the faith.  So I believe in the communion of saints, but I also believe that a reality as radical as this should be allowed to challenge us. If we are all saints, and we are, and if we remember the ones who have gone before us and honour the way they shone light for us to see the Way for ourselves, then we need to remember something that a friend of mine, Nimue Brown, gave an excellent talk about a couple of years back.  She declared a very simple truth, that we, those who are alive in this present moment, will become the ancestors of those not yet born. And here I don't just mean ancestors of blood and bone, but also, and perhaps especially, ancestors of spirit.

Sometimes, when I look at the board of names of clergy in our church lobby dating back over 750 years it makes me feel very small, and I realise my responsibility of trying to build on what they accomplished. But one day some future vicar, not yet born, will see my name on there, and I wonder what they will think. I'm not seeking compliments here, just thinking about responsibility. It forces me to ask the question, 'What will I have left for them to build on?'  So what about you? Sometimes we look at the state of the world around us and we feel really quite helpless to do anything. But we're not helpless, we're just allowing ourselves to be mentally defeated by scale.  The truth, though is that few of us can change the world, and few of us are called to, but every one of us can change our little corner of it. Those words that Jesus spoke that we call the beatitudes; if we live like that then people, communities and lives will be changed around us. We can make a difference in Christ's name.

In what ways can you make your family life, or community life, or work or school life better for others? How would you like to be remembered? You, today, are an ancestor of tomorrow.
The choices and decisions you make in this present life will have repercussions into future generations. People often tell me about old characters in the parish, what they were like, how they lived, and the effect they had on the people who lived in the community.

For example, some of those who live in our parish remember Mabs Onions. Mabs was already elderly when I arrived and had to walk around the village with the aid of a push along shopping trolley. But my first ever memory of Mabs was the day after we moved in to the vicarage, nine and a half years ago.

Before you're licensed as a vicar you are not supposed to be seen out and about, so we were keeping our heads down. But that didn't stop Mabs. When the door bell rang I opened our front door to see this smiling elderly lady who held a bag out to me. She said simply, 'Hello. I know you're not supposed to see anyone yet but I just wanted to say hello. I'm Mabs and this is a cake for you and your wife.'  With that she waved and set off back to her home. But I have never forgotten that generous and yet so simple act of hospitality. And it changed me, just a little inside, because it made me wonder whether I could ever be that hospitable. We're not related, but in that moment Mabs became one of my spiritual ancestors, someone whose memory I honour because I want to be a little like her.

So, as ancestors of tomorrow, what do you want to be remembered for?

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