Everyone loves a story. Well, I do, anyway. As anyone who knows me will realise I’m a sucker for a good yarn – I love listening to stories and telling them too. Somehow, stories can convey things to us that a dry set of instructions or ideas never would. They engage our imagination, take us into a world in which we can try out new emotions, or make new sense of our own lives.
It’s no surprise, then, that stories have been used extensively to pass on Christian truths. There are the stories of the Bible, of course, but it isn’t just these which Christians have treasured. The stories of the saints have also been a bedrock of faith, and these stories were told and celebrated in many different ways. There were written accounts – hagiographies, as they are known - but the stories of the saints were also told and celebrated in drama and ritual, through symbol and art and pilgrimage and local customs, and some of them are still widely celebrated today, even in our secular age.
There’s St Lucy, for example, celebrated, particularly in Sweden for some reason, on December 13th. Allegedly, Lucy was a young girl who was martyred in the early 4th century for feeding Christians as they hid in the Roman catacombs. She wore a candle on her head so she would have her hands free to carry the food she brought them. That’s why the Swedish celebrations involve processions of girls wearing white robes and crowns of candles – I don’t even want to think of the health and safety aspects of that!
Or there’s St Valentine, another ancient saint who is widely remembered, in name at least. The story which links him with romance was that he was martyred for conducting the weddings of Christian couples. It wasn’t really about love, though. Married men weren’t allowed to be Roman soldiers. Christians were mostly pacifist, so this enabled them to avoid killing.
And of course there’s St Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century Turkish Bishop, famous for throwing money bags through the window of a man who was so poor he thought he’d have to sell his daughters into slavery. The money landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hanging to dry overnight. Let a few centuries pass, give him a red cloak, some reindeer and a “ho, ho, ho” and we all know how we celebrate this particular saint…
The Protestant Reformation was supposed to have stamped out the celebration of the saints, but it’s hard to keep a good story down. In some shape or form many of them carried on, or were revived later. The shrine of St Edith in Kemsing, which stood in the churchyard and allegedly protected local crops from mildew is gone, but her well survived, and celebrations to mark her feast day were revived in the twentieth century.
Some of us travelled up to St Albans last year to be part of the celebration of their local saint, a Roman soldier killed for his faith in the city – the first English martyr. His story is told today using giant puppets in a procession through the streets. It is a modern twist on the ancient practice of telling the stories of the saints, and it has become a real crowd puller.
How much historical truth do these stories contain? Maybe not much. But there were early Christians who showed, courage, generosity and faith like these and in a sense these famous stories gathered their anonymous lives into memorable forms. The more vivid the story, the more likely it was to be remembered and repeated. It may not be the case that at the spot where St Alban’s severed head came to rest a spring miraculously rose up. The story of St Edith, sitting up in her grave and punching King Canute on the nose for digging her up because he doubted her sanctity may not have happened exactly like that. But those are the hooks which make the stories stick in our minds, and that was what their tellers thought mattered. The “embroidery” helps us to remember the stories, but it’s not the main point of them.
The message the stories of the saints conveyed was that God had done extraordinary things through ordinary people, maybe in your own backyard. Death and destruction didn’t have the last word. Of course , you could hear that message in the stories of the Bible, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but that could seem long ago and far away. In every age, we also need to know that God is at work here and now too. Having a local saint told you that your village could be a holy place. God was at work in people who might have been your neighbours, and if he could work in their lives, he could work in yours too.
In our second reading today, St Paul talks about saints, but he’s not talking about the people we now find in these dramatic tales. The saints he refers to are simply the members of the churches to which he wrote, like the people at Ephesus who would have read this letter. The Greek word he used literally meant someone who was holy, set aside by God for a special purpose. To him though, that wasn’t just a select band of spiritual heroes; it was everyone in the church - you and me.
He commends his hearers for their love “towards all the saints” – that is, towards one another. He reminds them that they all share in the “riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints”. His prayer is that they’ll learn to trust that God is at work in all of them, with an “immeasurable greatness of power”, the same kind of power which raised Christ from the dead. He wants “the eyes of their hearts to be enlightened”, for them to see themselves and each other as holy people, beloved, chosen, called.
It’s easy to read the Bible as if it is really written for someone else, someone better, braver, more loving than we are. How can we ever dream of living up to its demands? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” Can God really mean us? We often have enough of a struggle loving our friends, and doing good to those who like us, never mind reaching out to those who hurt us. But the message of the Gospel is that we are all called to do this, or at least try, with God’s help. If we don’t, who will? If no one does, then nothing will ever change.
In our first reading, the prophet Daniel has terrifying visions in the night, visions of things far greater and more powerful than he is, visions of stormy seas and great beasts coming out of them. They are kings, he’s told, mighty rulers. Daniel’s a member of an enslaved nation, exiled in Babylon. What hope has he against the mighty political and military forces these beasts represent? But the heavenly figure he talks to tells him that in the end, these kings won’t,win the day. Instead “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever – for ever and ever”. Who are these holy ones? Those who try to live as God has called them to. The struggle that Daniel and his people are going through isn’t futile.
It’s hard hanging onto such a hope when the obstacles seem so great. If we’re going to do so, we need all the help we can get. The witness of others who have stuck to their faith, loved those who hated them, kept on trusting God can be a mighty encouragement. I don’t need to believe that St Alban’s severed head caused a spring to well up. But his story challenges me to ask whether I believe that God can provide living water even in the midst of a desert of failure. I don’t need to know whether Nicholas really threw bags of gold through poor people’s windows late at night, but his story inspires me to trust that whatever I give to others can make a difference.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” finishes the Gospel reading. It’s sometimes called the Golden Rule, and it appears in some form or another in most religious traditions. At its simplest it’s an appeal to enlightened self-interest. If we want people to be kind to us, then we need to be kind to them. But it can also be read as a call to something very much larger. What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want to create? It should be nothing less than the kingdom of God in all its fullness, a kingdom of peace, joy and love for all. But to build that kingdom we have to live it, and that takes more strength than any of us have on our own.
We need the encouragement of those around us – the communion of saints. That includes those who lived long ago, but it is also about the people sitting next to us in the pews today. God can be just as much at work in each of us as he was in the lives of Lucy or Edith, Valentine, Nicholas or Alban. Our stories may not be as dramatic as theirs, but they are stories which are just as important to tell and hear.
That’s why I am delighted at the growth of home groups at Seal – a new one starts this week - and in all the other ways we can come together to share our faith. We all have stories to tell, struggles, joys, blessings and questions to share, and in them we can see God at work in one another, if “the eyes of our hearts are enlightened”. All Saints was never meant, you see, to be about those famous saints, whose stories are already known, however much I might enjoy telling them. They all have their own feast days. It was meant - and is meant - to celebrate those who aren’t known or named, the people who have, throughout Christian history, simply got on with the business of loving and serving others. It was meant to celebrate those who’ve built God’s kingdom where they are, through small, faithful actions that maybe no one notices. It’s meant to celebrate you, and me, if only we have the faith to believe it.