Saturday, 29 October 2016

All Saints - a Sermon for Tomorrow

 . . . which I'll be preaching at Marton, for the Chirbury Group service :-

When I moved across the border into Wales at the end of 2003, I was told that I’d moved into the land of saints. And I surely had: all those Welsh place names that begin with Llan, meaning church (or, really, holy place), then go on to tell you whose Llan it is. And there are so many of them. There are Llanfair’s, of course, meaning Church of Mary. And quite a few Llanbedr's - meaning the Church of Peter. And some Llanddewi’s as well, named for the patron saint of Wales, David. But many more are named for more local and obscure saints, and in my new parishes these included Llandysilio, named for Tysilio, monk, hermit, founder of monasteries who at one time had a cell close to the present church alongside the old Roman road. And Llandrinio, recalling Trinio, who back in the sixth century was one of the band of monks who accompanied Cadfan from Bittany. Llandrinio is a very ancient church, and probably Trinio was the first to preach the Gospel there. Fragments of an ancient stone preaching cross survive within the church fabric.

Not all of these local Celtic saints ever became 'real saints' in the sense of having been properly canonised by the Catholic Church: Tysilio did, but not Trinio, I think. For him as for many others “saint” is a sort of honorary title, but Wales, with Cornwall and Brittany and other places on the Celtic fringe, has lots and lots of them. We know nothing or next to nothing about most of them: their achievements are known only to God, and have passed from human memory. But their names survive to tell us that here is where faith began, for the people of that place.

All Saints' Day honours all of these and more. Let’s reflect: what does it mean to be a saint? In Rome it requires proof - a demonstrably holy life and a number of attested miracles. What about us though - what do we need to counted as saints?

Being in the village hall today for our group service, I have to admit to one minor gripe as an All Saints tide preacher, and it’s this: the absence of stained glass. Because stained glass windows are an excellent prop for the All Saints tide preacher. If I were to ask for something that typifies a saint, you might well answer, “Haloes. Saints have haloes.” They do in stained glass windows, anyway, and in most forms of religious art. Maybe not in real life. Whatever a halo might be, it isn’t something  self-produced. We don't ignite our own halo by being somehow specially good or specially brave. The halo around a saint’s head in a stained glass window is the artist’s way of illustrating something given to him or her by God's. The halo tells us that this is a special person. But it doesn’t signify that he or she is a superhero made somehow from different stuff from ordinary folk like you or me. The point about saints is that they’re ordinary folk, not perfect, not impossibly righteous, but sinners and very conscious of their sin.

So what makes them special in the way we define as saintliness?  Stained glass provides a good example, for without light stained glass windows aren’t worth a second glance - but with the sun streaming through the best of them are absolutely amazing. My current favourite is the great window in the north transept of our cathedral, near the restored shrine of St Thomas Cantelupe. On a bright day it really glows. Which is exactly what we honour and admire in the saints - that they glow and shine - but not with their own light, but God's. Saints are those whose lives were specially translucent to the love of God, radiating from them into the world in special and individual patterns and colours, which are the particular achievements of each saintly life. Each saint we honour today is special and distinct, but all shine with God’s light and glorify him.

And of course we are all saints, since in the New Testament the word “saint” is used of every member of the church. We’re all called to be translucent to God, windows to his love. In past times stained glass windows were there not just to beautify but also to teach. And the 1928 Prayer Book describes the saints as having been 'lights to the world in their several generations', a call that all of us share. We are to shine as lights in the world, to be lights not hidden under a tub but placed somewhere useful, making a positive difference - as we let go of selfish desires and give ourselves and our lives to God.

And the saints we honour today stand as our friends and guides in this endeavour. They are examples of devotion, they encourage our discipleship; they are companions and fellow pilgrims - as we walk the road they travelled, they can help us find our way. We can be inspired by their stories of courage and compassion, we can learn from their love of God, their desire for justice, their humbleness and service of our neighbour, and their constancy in the face of persecution or ridicule; we find in the saints examples to challenge us, draw us, and teach us.

And do the saints pray for us, as many believe? I like to think of them cheering us on as we continue as pilgrims. They’ve completed the course we still travel, and as we honour them they are already part of the heavenly communion of prayer and praise. Jewish teachers would sit when there was something important to say; so Jesus sat on a hilltop to tell his friends that the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Beautiful words, but words are all they are unless they become real in people's lives. Today we praise God for those who have lived those words, for saints in whom the love of Jesus shone in lives that were forgetful of self. May the same faith burn bright in our own lives, and may we travel faithfully with them.

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