Saturday, November 01, 2008

All Saints

I know it’s not uncommon for young children to play let’s pretend games where they become the super-heroes of their own fantasies.  That’s perfectly normal, and if adults don’t do that, well, it might just be that we’ve lost the essential art of improving on reality.  But most children of my acquaintance settle for Superman, or Batman or Wonder Woman.  Not many children base their let’s pretend fantasies, as I did, on St Simeon the Stylite.

Have you ever heard of St Simeon the Stylite?  Do you even know what a Stylite is??  This all got started in the deserts of Syria back in the 3rd or 4th century, when, to be frank, a lot of people went a bit potty.  St Simeon perhaps went even pottier than most, but at any rate he was a spectacularly holy man, and decided that the very best way he could express his dedication to God was to sit on top of a pole.  And so he did.  A sixty foot long pole, in the middle of nowhere.  And he sat on it for thirty years.

So at the age of six or seven, I thought this was rather fine.  As I remember, so did my sister, Bethwyn, and we decided that was the life for us.  Luckily we’d thought things through a bit better than Simeon and we had a support team.  Or at least, we had our mum, who helped us up unto the top of the kitchenette and gave us sandwiches and a glass of milk for our lunch  Unfortunately, after lunch, mum said she couldn’t stay in the kitchen all afternoon, but she was sure we could get on with our pole sitting by ourselves and if we needed her, just to call.  Which, a few minutes later, we had to do because we realised the exact same thing St Simeon no doubt realised five minutes after his sandwiches ran out, which is that it’s not much fun sitting on top of a kitchenette with a sister who keeps arguing.  I do remember being quite upset but mum gave us some good advice, ‘Don’t be too disappointed’, she said, ‘at least you gave it a try.  St Simeon probably had lots of practice before he went for the record.  And anyway, it’s next to impossible to be a saint in your own kitchen.’

Mum, of course, was very wise.  Bethwyn and I had been looking at pictures of saints in impressive looking storybooks where everyone had masses of curly white whiskers and disks of light shining around their heads, and looked relaxed and radiant in the middle of being pounced on by lions or burnt at the stake.  And even I wondered how St Simeon managed to sleep up there, on top of his sixty foot pole, without falling off when he turned over in bed.  Secretly I was just a bit relieved to have been down before bedtime.  But the point, I guess, is that it’s all very well getting martyred or sitting on top of a pole for thirty years.  How much harder is it be holy in your own kitchen?

Now, you might be very fond of your kitchen.  I like the kitchen in the Rectory.  It’s got good benchspace, a good big pantry and it’s well-lit.  I actually like cooking, but I do make a mess.  I spill stuff, I spatter it all over the stove-top, I leave scraps all over the benches.  I’m living proof that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  Luckily, we’ve got a rule.  One of us cooks, the other washes up.  But like most kitchens, ours is a functional space.  There’s always a work in progress in our kitchen.  Always something soaking, dishes waiting to be done, something unmentionable in the bottom of the fridge that’s gone mushy. 

Kitchens are places where things go wrong – sauces are lumpy, toast burns, people get tetchy. Kitchens are where we do that last minute desperate dashing around before the dinner party in the hope that it will look as though we didn’t go to any trouble at all.  Kitchens can be places where emotionally real and messy things happen too – where the real “us” gets exposed – and my guess is that the real “us” often doesn’t feel too saintly at all.

Today’s celebration, the feast of All Saints, is not just about oddballs like St Simeon the Stylite, it’s meant to be about all of us.  So, how do we go about it?  How can we be saints in the kitchen-y places of our own real lives?

Luckily, our reading this morning from the Revelation of St John is aimed squarely at us.

Have you ever wondered why this letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor is called ‘Revelation’ when it’s the strangest and most puzzling book in the whole Bible?  The whole thing seems to be written in a sort of code, and in fact, written during a time when the Christians of Asia Minor were facing persecution by the Roman state for refusing to worship the Emperor, in a sense it is.  Many Christians, facing the alternatives of abandoning their faith, or losing their lives, became martyrs.  Others weakened and left.  The writer of Revelation is painting a lurid picture of the very stark choice that Christians actually faced in these years.  Caesar, or God?  The passage we read today is intended for Christians who, maybe like us, at times, don’t know whether they’ve got what it takes.  Christians who want to be faithful, but who all too easily get overwhelmed.

In his vision, or day-dream, John of Patmos sees a great crowd of people.  In fact, a motley-looking crowd of people.  This is the first, very encouraging point.  People from every tribe, and nation and language.  In other words, not just Jews.  Not necessarily the people next to you in the pews.  Not just a few pillars of the church, elite disciples, great mystics.  Not even just the elect 144,000 of the previous chapter.  This crowd is the place for the rest of us. Membership of this unprepossessing bunch is inclusive, but who are they?  What have they got in common?  And John puts it in language that seems almost deliberately vague, ‘these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal’.

This lot aren’t pole-sitters.  They haven’t been roasted, skewered, or eaten alive, but they have persevered in the face of the hostility of Rome, the invitation of the polytheistic and secular culture around them to forget this funny religion that could only make life difficult for you.  A culture very much like the one we live in, actually.  A culture based on consumerism and looking out for number one, that found followers of the Way of Jesus odd and threatening.  In the face of indifference, and hostility, and the seduction of self-interest, these are the ones who proclaimed the Way of Jesus because they knew it to be true and life-giving

But this is an image of faithfulness that is surprisingly active, not passive.  There robes are Persil-white, explains the guide, ‘because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb’.  Look, not quite a kitchen metaphor, but at least a laundry one!  It’s something you do, not something you have done to you.  We’re not just in the business of waiting for Jesus to do whatever Jesus is supposed to do for us, we’re in the business of inviting people to rest and be restored, making people whole, giving people dignity and integrity, bearing faithful witness, sharing and continuing Jesus’ own work of compassion and forgiveness.  Jesus cooks, we wash up.  It reminds me of the way St Paul puts it in his letter to the Church of Colossae, our job is nothing less than ‘completing what is lacking in the suffering of Christ’. 

There are no guarantees for God’s kitchen-hands.  It’s imperfect, messy work, you get misunderstood, you try a new recipe and it flops, there’s always the temptation just to give up and open a McCain’s frozen dinner.  Go with the flow.  We meet resistance and feel like giving up.  And this vision tells us that being God’s people is about unglamorous perseverance, a devotion that costs something but at the same time, that the trials of God’s people are part and parcel of the suffering of Jesus.

So this isn’t a word of affirmation for lukewarm Christians, or lukewarm churches, is it?  But it’s a word of encouragement, and a word of love for the saints of the church who hear God’s uncomfortable call to live and proclaim Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness – and know that it is meant for them.

And then – right in the middle of all this uncompromising talk of perseverance – a note of comfort and even tenderness.  God’s kitchen saints, op shop saints, saints of vacuum cleaner and newsletter – here’s the promise!  Refreshment, and sustenance, and the power to follow through.  It’s exactly the same word of reassurance that Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading, the Beatitudes.  Blessed are you when you feel inadequate, because you will learn to rely on the adequacy of God.  Blessed are you when you feel unappreciated, because you will discover the companionship of those who love God.  Blessed are you when people think you’re potty, because that’s what they thought about St Simeon as well.