Sermon for All Saints Day, Open Doors Service 10.30am
Readings from Revelation 21:1-6 and The Gospel according to St John 11:32-44
Through the written word,
and the spoken word,
may we know your Living Word
Jesus Christ our Savour. Amen
Here are a couple of questions for you on All Saints Day….
What does a Saint look like?
What do you have to do to be a Saint?
We are surrounded by images of saints, particularly here in the Cathedral. Many of them are very stylised images of men and women with a halo around their heads. One of the most beautiful images of Saints I have seen was in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles. From the outside the cathedral is a very ugly concrete cuboid building – it looks more like a nuclear fallout shelter than a Cathedral. However, inside, on either side of the nave hang two full-length tapestries showing life-sized images of the ‘communion of saints’ all facing towards the altar. There are images of 135 Saints named and recognisable, saints such as St Peter, St Francis, St Mary Magdalene, St Ignatius of Loyola and Mother Theresa of Calcutta to name some of them. I spent a long time just looking at these images, all facing towards the altar, focusing on God, the holy city, the new Jerusalem that we heard about in our New Testament lesson.
The surprising thing about these images was that the artist, John Nava, made these saints look like very ordinary people, not a halo in sight. When we sing hymns such as ‘For All the Saints’ I have always imagined the saints to be special and holy people. Saints have to be holy, surely, it is the number one most important and perhaps only true requirement of sainthood – a level of devotion to God that none of us could even imagine achieving.
Second only to holiness on most people’s list of saintly qualities is probably dead-ness. It seems that in order to make your way onto a calendar of saints, or even to be remembered on All Saints’ Day, you’ve got to be dead. Maybe not slain by a fierce wild beast, but dead. This isn’t the case – Saint Paul uses the word we translate as “saint” (hagios, which literally means “holy ones”) 44 times in his letters. The term appears 62 times in the New Testament as a whole. And it is most often associated not with the Apostles, not with great people who had died, but with the Church and its members going about the day to day business of following Jesus and building his kingdom on earth. So we are all saints.
There is a line in the hymn, For All the Saints, that is a real encouragement for us ‘everyday saints. ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’. The reward for following Jesus and building his kingdom is glory – the new heaven and the new earth regardless of the struggles we encounter on earth. The truth of the matter is, living out God’s kingdom is a struggle and those saints who have gone before us struggled too. We have to remember that the list of human beings who are perfect is remarkably short, and includes only one name: Jesus. The rest of us, as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You see, sainthood isn’t about a small group of people who have been set apart to be regarded as better than the rest of us, instead, sainthood is the condition of all who feebly struggle, all who look to the coming of the new heaven and new earth, all who seek first the Kingdom of God.
This is such a relief for me – I know I am not perfect or saintly, I feebly struggle and I definitely don’t have a halo around my head. The tapestries in Los Angeles Cathedral make this really clear when you look at them closely, in amongst the identifiable communion of well-known saints there are 12 images of ‘ordinary people’, including children. These were put there to remind the observer that we are all called to be holy and are all responsible for bringing God’s kingdom to earth.
I am sure we can all think of people whom we think of as being holy, everyday saints – people who have guided and supported us on our journey. Amongst those, I would name would be John Swallow who encouraged me in my faith and showed me how it important it is to be inclusive and to reflect the love of God in every encounter you have, both in church and in the wider community. I wonder if you can name some of the everyday saints you have encountered?
This ordinariness of the saints is highlighted in our Gospel. In the story of the raising of Lazarus we are reminded that the saints of God are people like Martha and Mary: two women who knew that Jesus was the Son of God, two women who knew that he held within him the power of life and death, two women whose certainty had turned into an expectation that Jesus would save their brother, Lazarus, from death. Clearly, they were close to Jesus, and yet even Mary and Martha feebly struggled with what it meant to be a disciple of the Son of God. They asked the same questions we ask of God, “why weren’t you here?” “How could you let this happen?” “Why didn’t you fix this sooner.”
Sainthood is simply a “participation in God’s ongoing miracle of resurrection.” Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend and demands that the stone be rolled away. He doesn’t lay a hand on the stone, instead he invites those who have been weeping and wailing to take part in what will be his greatest miracle. Once the stone is rolled away, Jesus doesn’t walk into the tomb and lay his hands on Lazarus. Instead, he shouts to his friend, “Lazarus, come out!” As the still bound Lazarus stands before the awed crowd, Jesus invites them again to take part in the miracle of resurrection by commanding them to “unbind him.” Jesus is the one with the power over life and death, but even in this pivotal moment in his ministry, Jesus offers an invitation to those around him and those who follow him to participate in the Kingdom of God. All of these people have the potential to be saints.
This realization, that God invites us to participate in his ongoing miracle of resurrection, should make us also ask this question, “What other miraculous things does God intend to do in our communities in us, with us, and through us? God calls each of us to this work. As Canon Ruth reminds us regularly it is not just the job of the Canon Evangelist to develop God’s kingdom in this community or even the job of the clergy it is the responsibility of each member of this community and this congregation – you and I.
Perhaps the things we are called to do are big things – supporting those in our community who find themselves in difficult situations or working to bring some quality of life to the thousands of refugees that are trying to enter Europe to escape the life of persecution they have encountered in their home countries. Or maybe these things are smaller – providing a listening ear to a colleague or friend who is struggling and feels alone. Either way, God wants, I believe, to continue to do miraculous things and continues to want to do them in, with, and through us.” We are all responsible for growing God’s kingdom here on earth, in our country and in particular here in Ripon.
This is an important message for All Saints’ Day. It is an important lesson for those of us who are slogging along, feebly struggling to work out what it means to live into the Kingdom of God. God invites us to participate in his miraculous acts. Sometimes, it is our simple act of listening that brings about miraculous healing. Sometimes, it is our simple act of giving that brings about miraculous growth. Sometimes, it is our simple act of being a calm presence that brings about an understanding of God’s love for other people. All of our simple acts of faith are building blocks towards the miraculous action of God in saving, redeeming, and restoring the world.
When you think of sainthood in this way then we remind ourselves that All Saints is a day to celebrate the cloud of witnesses – those who have worked for God’s kingdom throughout the centuries and those who are working to do this in our world today, including ourselves. This democratic understanding of “the cloud of witnesses” particularly appeals to me. Each of us, if we take the time to look, have dozens of opportunities to take part in miracles every week. God places opportunities to exercise our sainthood in front of us – at work, at school, in church, at home, at the shops, even at the Rugby Club!
In answer to my opening questions then – Saints look like you, they look like the person sitting in front of you and behind you and what you have to do to be a saint is, follow Jesus and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Dear God, we remember with thankfulness the saints who have gone before us and helped us to see more of your kingdom. We also pray for ourselves and the people around us as we work to bring your love to the community we live and work in. Amen