Monday, 31 October 2016

Another All Saints' Tide Sermon

(Which I shall be preaching next Sunday, d.v.)

I don’t know whether any of you have had occasion to drive through Llanfyllin of late. I’ve started to sing with a group that meets there for practice, so these days I drive through the town quite often. It’s an attractive little place and I quite like it, but for some reason unknown to me, it seems to feature some of the worst driving I’ve come across. It isn’t just me saying this. "I agree,” said one of my singing friends, as we compared notes. “The driving round here would try the patience of a saint."

Last Tuesday was All Saints' Day, when by tradition Christians remember the holy men and women of ages past who we sometimes dignify with the title “saint”. Wales is full of them, of course, and most places that begin with the word “Llan” honour a saint. There are the big saints of course, Llanfair honours St Mary, and Llanbedr St Peter; but many many others too, a lot of them only a name, we know nothing more about them. Llanfyllin itself recalls St Myllin, who may have founded the original church there in the 7th century. Nothing is known about him apart from his name, though he may be the same person as Moling, an Irish monk of noble descent who founded a monastery in County Carlow and died in the year 696. The town probably had fewer traffic issues back in those days. But anyway, talking about trying the patience of a saint, I might ask why should patience be the defining mark of a saint?

All Saints’ Day comes at a time of when nights have got suddenly darker. The clocks have gone back and the days are shorter anyway. Bonfires were being lit at this season of the year long before Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Our pagan forebears used to light them to drive back the darkness, and to counter the power of creatures of the night, real and imagined. An old friend of mine who is vicar of a parish in north Staffordshire always holds his bonfire on All Saints’ Day, with barbecue and fireworks, straight after the service in church: a nice idea, and very popular.

For I guess there’s a basic human need for celebration and laughter as the nights grow darker; maybe even for a bit of controlled scariness, if only to allay our fears of the real thing. These days we talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD for short, but it's nothing knew. Our ancestors also got anxious and depressed when the days grew shorter. So they lit bonfires; going right back, that may even be why long long ago they built Stonehenge.

But what's that got to do with saints, you may ask? Maybe just this: that when things are dark and dismal on our Christian pilgrimage through life, saints who've walked the same roads as us can be an inspiration and a strength. And it may well be their patience that inspires us: by which I mean that these were men and women who continued to trust in God even when all the world seemed to be against them. Jesus told his disciples that they should be lights to the world, like a city on a hilltop, or a lamp on a lampstand. So we can think of the saints as lights to guide us and to cheer us, and whose stories can help us to know how to do it in our turn. And it’s maybe a good time to reflect on saints when the nights draw in as November begins. For me, one message of All Saints' Day is that darkness doesn't have to have the last word.

Now if saints are lights to guide us, they are lights that shine with a light that’s not their own. What we admire in their lives of courage and witness and patient faith is the light of Christ. They shine because they are translucent to his love. They’re not supermen or superwomen; like us, they make mistakes, and don’t always get it right. But they did their best to follow. All Saints Day reminds us that we’re members of one great company of companions, pilgrims on the way, one church across and around the world, one church also across the ages of history, who live not to our own glory, but to the glory of God.

We’ve heard part of the Sermon on the Mount this morning. Jesus sitting to teach his disciples, and beginning with those wonderful and ringing phrases we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are you, he says, at the end of that list of blessings:  blessed are you when everyone reviles you, when everyone turns against you. For really, the whole of that list of blessings has patience at its heart. Whatever the world may throw at you and however dark it may get, we wait patiently for the glory of the Lord to be revealed, and we continue to trust in his love.

Patience is also the theme of the wonderful songs we call spirituals. The spirituals are some of the most moving and wonderful songs of faith, but they arise of course from the cruel realities of slavery in the American Deep South;  despite their chains those who first sang these songs were convinced that slaves though they were, God would deliver them and bring them to freedom. Like the people of Israel under Moses and Aaron; like the exiles in bondage in Babylon; like their Lord, laid in a tomb. So they sang songs of patience in suffering, songs for a people now in chains, but destined for freedom.

Patience, like silence, is a golden thing; but let’s not confuse the two. Patience and silence are not the same thing.  There's no Christian ministry of being a doormat; to wait patiently for the glory of God to be revealed might sound as though what we do is keep quiet and let the world trample over us. But that’s not it at all. For we are already citizens of the kingdom of God, and we are to shine usefully, like a lamp where it should be, on the lampstand, into the dark bits of our part of the world, making things better, challenging what’s wrong. The saints show us that, or many of them, when we learn their stories. They were patient, yes, but theirs was an active and militant patience.

Prayers in the old Prayer Book of 1662 begin with the bidding "Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth." Now Jesus said that the poor in spirit are blessed, the meek are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed. At first that might sound like people who are gentle and quiet, and who don’t rock the boat.

But think again: being poor in spirit is about knowing our need and our hunger for God; those who mourn are those who feel the pain of others as though it were their own; those who are meek are those who aren’t bragging about themselves or grabbing for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they stay quiet when God’s word needs to be spoken; and peacemaking isn’t about appeasing, keeping quiet about those who by their evil damage and exploit those around them, it’s about building bridges.

We are all saints. When Paul writes about saints in his letters he doesn’t mean anyone special, he means all the members of the churches to which he writes. Saints are militants, activists; saints care about those who by their neglect or their thoughtlessness or their greed harm others and place their own immortal souls in danger. Saints are searchers after justice, and challengers of injustice, for only then can they be makers of peace. Meekness and mildness are far removed from weakness and cowardice; the first are the marks of a church that is daring to be like Christ, the second of a church that would rather not be noticed.

The saints we recall at this season have been stamped with the seal of the Spirit, but so have we; they were called to serve and to witness; so are we. What is theirs is also ours. May we share their patience: when the way is dark and the task hard, may we like them have faith in the victory already won for us, and in Christ our Friend and Guide and Redeemer, who is already King, enthroned in glory.

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