Saturday, November 02, 2013

All Saints

They were a tough breed, back in 1915. The debacle of the Gallipoli
landing was in full swing when the secretary of the Parish of Queens
Park, a Mr Hogg, wrote a letter of resignation. It was two sentences
long. 'I beg to inform you', he wrote to the Parish Council, 'that I
must resign as Secretary. I am going into camp tomorrow'. This
meant, of course, that Mr Hogg would shortly be embarking for the
Dardenelles. Parish Council considered Mr Hogg's letter, and accepted
his resignation. A vote of thanks was passed for his service, and as
an afterthought another member wished Mr Hogg a safe voyage. No more
was said.

These of course were the days of the stiff upper lip. Throughout the
war years, Parish Council got on with its business, including raising
some additional monies to help pay the stipend of a military chaplain
for forces stationed locally prior to embarkation. The parish
participated in a local memorial service for over 400 young men of the
district who had lost their lives in the fighting. There were
discussions about accounts – a staple concern of Parish Councils for
longer than the last 100 years – and the occasional letter from a
family regarding enrolments in Sunday School.

The books of minutes on display in the Social Room this morning make
fascinating reading – and I hope they will continue to make
fascinating reading for local historians and members of the parish for
years and decades and even centuries to come as they are catalogued
and protected and made more accessible for future generations in the
Diocesan Archive. As well as Parish Council records we have minute
books and memorabilia from Mothers Union and the Ladies Guild,
registers of baptisms and marriages over the last 100 years and of
course a trove of early drawings and correspondence regarding the
construction of our current church building in 1959. Above all, this
collection is a human record – not just a glimpse back to 1915 but a
longitudinal record of the faithful life of a community. A community
that – as you read through the minute books – occasionally squabbled
and often worried, that never seemed to have quite enough and didn't
always have confidence, but that always remained faithful to its
calling – which was and is to be witnesses to God's love made known in
Jesus Christ, to serve the community in which we are located, and to
pass on to future generations of Christians the faith that we
ourselves inherited from those who came before us – and the
wherewithal to carry out the age-old mission in new circumstances and
in new accents. As is fairly obvious when we look at the
hieroglyphics and read the message on the parchment we took out of the
time capsule in 2009 – we never really know what the future is going
to look like, so it takes some courage as well as all of our wisdom
and foresight to live towards it with confidence. The saints of our
parish have done well, it seems to me, not only in meeting the demands
and crises of their own day but in making provision for and remaining
open to the future. Paradoxically, in fact, for us to look backwards
with gratitude also reminds us to be open to the ways God is leading
us as a parish to meet new challenges and to learn new languages.

All Saints is an elusive kind of festival in the Church's year,
because historically it's been understood in some very different ways.
For a start, it's a relative newcomer to the Church calendar – the
first All Saints Day was on the 13th of May 609 AD when Pope Boniface
IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the
nameless martyrs who had suffered and died there. Pope Gregory III
moved it to its present date some time around 741 AD. The idea seems
to have been that All Saints was a sort of catch-all day for those
holy men and women who have lived and died unknown, or for those
lesser martyrs who don't have their very own feast day. It makes it a
good day for us to remember the violence being suffered by Christian
communities around the world even into the present day — in Syria and
Egypt and Nigeria, to name just a few places. I read the other day, in
fact, that it is estimated up to 70 million Christian men and women
have died for their faith since the time of the apostles — 45 million
of them since the beginning of the 20th century. At a local level, we
remember those whose faithful witness has made it possible for us in
our own time and place and for future generations to know God's love.

A second dimension of the word 'saint' was added during the
Reformation by reclaiming the New Testament confession that all the
baptised have the vocation of sainthood. This goes back to the
reformers' insistence that we become righteous before God not because
of anything we do or could do to deserve it, but solely by God's
grace. And if, by God's grace, we are held to be righteous then we
ourselves are living saints of God – this, I think, is not so much a
case of wishful thinking as of reminding ourselves that we have a
God-given identity to live up to and grow into. In our reading this
morning the Apostle Paul addresses even the smug and self-satisfied
Christian community in Corinth, who on so many occasions he has
rebuked and castigated for their many and various moral offenses, as
saints, or holy ones (1 Corinthians 1:1-9). Clearly, the sanctity of
the Corinthians wasn't a reflection of their moral virtue, but rather
St Paul's reminder to them that they had been made holy by God's
declaration in Baptism. I think sometimes modern Christians forget
this, when we think of baptism more as a cute rite of passage or a
family tradition. In baptism, God gives us the vocation of sainthood.

So if we follow the logic of the Reformers we celebrate All Saints not
by contrasting the saints up there with the would-be saints still down
here – but by recognising and celebrating the way that the Church
visible – that's us – for all our shortcomings and self-doubt, are
already joined with the cloud of witnesses of all the centuries and
generations before us. All in fact for whom Christ died and rose
again, established by our common baptism, nurtured by our life
together, and brought to fulfilment in the age to come. It's as if
God has given us a blank cheque – the crown of righteousness before
we've even earned it –but with a nudge that reminds us that we have a
vocation we need to take seriously. This way of thinking about the
saints of the Church helps us to recognise and to be grateful for
signs of saintliness in one another– even, perhaps, to give some
encouragement to one another as we find ways together of building up
Christ's Church.

But there's also a third dimension or way of understanding what a
saint is about – and perhaps this one is the most challenging of all.
Because a saint is not just a person who is made holy, but a person
who has been blessed by God. And that's why the Gospel reading for
All Saints comes from the Beatitudes – Jesus' pronouncements of
blessing. Luke's plainer version of the blessings that we read this
morning emphasises Jesus' challenging, even paradoxical understanding
of what it means to be blessed by God. Because blessing, according to
Jesus, isn't about being healthy or lucky or winning Lotto – but to be
blessed is to be the recipient of God's favour. And the God of Israel
who Jesus bears witness to reserves special regard for the poor, the
maligned, the downtrodden. This God shows particular favour, in fact,
to those who stand in the greatest need. So to be blessed means, in
some sense, to be in the thick of it where God's priorities are. For
those of us who are doing alright – for the materially comfy or those
of us who live in a country that counts itself lucky and who benefit
from its wealth – this can be a confronting notion. But it challenges
us to look beyond the narrow horizons of our own lives and clarifies
our calling to recognise and to help those in need – in our own
community and also farther afield - and it promises us that God stands
also with us in our own moments of distress, or poverty or loss.
Jesus' understanding of blessing asks us to have the heart of the God
we hear described in the Hebrew scriptures as being full of mercy and
compassion, abounding in steadfast love.

To be a saint – holy and blessed or as is more frequently the case,
still working on it – is not a vocation for the faint of heart. It
takes intention, and persistence, and most of the time we don't feel
very saintly. Just as well God sees us differently from the way we
see ourselves, or even, sometimes, the way we see each other! But one
big help is the gift of memory, as we gather and name and celebrate
the saints who have gone before us, and recognise the ordinariness as
well as the extra-ordinariness of their lives. Like Mr Hoggs, for
example — or like us? – getting on with the job.