Sunday, 29 October 2017

All Saints

Matthew 5.1-12, 1 John 3.1-3 & Revelation 7.9-17
Audio Version here

This month marks 15 years since I was licensed as a Reader in Rochester Cathedral by the then Bishop Michael. That means some of you have probably been listening to me 'spout' from here for around 16 years as I needed some ‘guinea pigs’ to practice on the year before. Thank you. 
It’s an incredible privilege that you allow me an attempt most months at showing why words from this library of writings brought together to form the Holy Bible still offers relevance, guidance and inextinguishable hope for every one of us. I am more certain of that than when I first started even if I’m not always able to convey it to you.

Because all the sermons preached here go on the website we know that they are read by many that don’t hear them first hand. If you think any preaching at Seal is good I’d urge you to offer them to friends and family as it’s a very gentle way to literally spread the Word.
The best sermons have a gripping beginning and a thought provoking end and as many people think the two should be as close together as possible I’m going to crack on with today’s offering!

Have you ever done a self-portrait? I think I did one in my youth, but as some of us get a little older we’d probably rather not, all that time staring at ourselves and focussing on what we really look like in every small detail can be a bit too much. Time will tell whether the current generation of young people always taking ‘selfies’ on their mobile devices will have the same enthusiasm as they get to a more mature age?

We live in an age of audits, inspections and reports. School audits, accountancy audits, medical audits, IT audits, security audits and many more, usually not of our choosing but imposed by the regulatory authority or professional body. But how many of us ever stop to do a self-audit?

As we hear the words from the early part of Jesus ‘Sermon on the Mount’ do we recognise ourselves among those he names as blessed? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted?

My guess is that for most of us a self-audit would produce the answer ‘sometimes, and that we are still working on much of this with mixed results.’

Compare that with what we think of when someone mentions saints and all things saintly. Heavenly images may abound of perfect people doing incredible things because of their love of God. We may think of famous saints, in recent memory maybe Teresa of Calcutta for her work with the poor particularly in India or maybe ancient saints such as Francis of Assisi founder of the Franciscan Order and famous for his love of animals and stewardship of the natural environment. How could we ever compare?

But consider our own patron saints for this church, Peter who denied knowing Christ and Paul who, as Saul of Tarsus persecuted the church before his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Well at least it’s clear that we don’t have to be perfect to become a saint, in fact perhaps it’s not so much about becoming famous, special or even believing that we are particularly holy and more about being people who keep trying to be more Christ like despite setbacks, disappointments and struggles to cling on to our faith.

The beatitudes that we heard from Jesus might not fully paint a portrait of us but every aspect can be found fully in Christ and in that sense Jesus offers us a self-portrait, one that he wants us to keep striving towards.

We can find saints for virtually every aspect of life and each has a story explaining why. St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items very popular with men looking for their car keys, St Francis Caraciollo the patron saint of chefs, another Italian of course, Lidwina for ice skaters, St Yves for lawyers and Isisdore of Seville for computer programmers. It seems like there is a saint associated with every aspect of life but I wasn’t going to fall for it when I heard that there was a great cry for a new patron saint for coffee drinkers, St Arbucks! Whilst we may never be famous in the way of some saints it is clear that every vocation, every walk of life offers a potential route to sainthood. We don’t have to look for something special, only to find Christ in all we do including our daily work, study and relationships.
An easily accessible way to explore this could be by watching a series currently on BBC4 called ‘The Retreat’. At various abbeys the monks are shown not only in prayer and worship but they also emphasis that everything they do becomes an extension of this. If you like sitting on the sofa watching other people work then this is for you.  It’s surprisingly compulsive and relaxing to watch them working in silence at baking, sweeping, iconography, carpentry, gardening and many necessary and routine tasks which because of the way in which they are approached are offered as prayer.

I’ve heard many people say that they feel close to God when gardening or exploring the natural world and this appreciation itself can become prayer and praise which grows into a desire to preserve and protect our world for fellow human beings now and in the future.
Once we don’t associate saints with impossibly perfect people we are able to recognise the saintly aspects of those who have gone before us. Sometimes lives are so busy and full that it’s hard to keep aiming to be more Christ like.

My own mother raising 5 children, one of which was severely disabled, must have had great time pressures but I recall growing up knowing that I was loved and wanted in a way that makes the words in our Revelation reading real to me ‘ See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. An enduring memory of mine is the prayer card she had wedged into one of the kitchen cupboards, laminated of course so it could be wiped clean occasionally amid the chaos.

It may be familiar to you. Many simply know it as the ‘Kitchen Prayer’.
The first part of it goes…

Lord of all pots and pans and things
Since I’ve not time to be
A saint by doing lovely things or
Watching late with Thee
Or dreaming in the dawn light or
Storming Heaven’s gates
Make me a saint by getting meals and
Washing up the plates.

Although I must have Martha’s hands,
I have a Mary mind
And when I black the boots and shoes,
Thy sandals Lord I find.
I think of how they trod the earth,
What time I scrub the floor
Accept this meditation Lord,
I haven’t time for more.

It’s light hearted but reminds us that God is Lord of all things even the most routine and mundane and that we can engage with him and offer prayer in a multitude of situations.

We often recite together that we believe in ‘the communion of saints’ and we come together in this way when we say ‘Our Father’. Rowan Williams explains that this communion becomes visible as we express who are and make it real through words and actions. Through baptism and being invited to eat with Jesus. Just as, in his earthly life, Jesus expressed his promise to create a new people of God by sharing meals with unlikely people, just as, after the resurrection, he shares food with his disciples as he re-calls them to their task, so it is with the whole Church. We are in the Church because we have been invited, not because we have earned our place.

It’s a reminder that God doesn’t expect the impossible of us, all we have to do is accept his unconditional loving invitation.

John’s letter reassures us of God’s love as his children. The part where he says that ‘ the world doesn’t know us…’ is because the concept of knowing is about being in relationship, fellowship and communion and those who choose to reject this also will struggle to understand this.

Christ gives us guidance to start living know a life that relates to that we might hope for in eternity. In our Revelation reading the author offers a glimpse of what heaven might look like and even if we consider ourselves open minded and inclusive this will be even more so.

It for us to reflect this back into our current lives as far as we are able and show this through our relationships particularly where we encounter other faiths and cultures. 
We hear of worship and praise in this vision of heaven and I feel we have come full circle as we each consider how we can make this part of everything we do.
If we take away only one message today it should be a message of love and hope for all suffering, struggling, mourning, in fear and pain that if we cling onto our faith we can be certain that we will not be let down and that one day God ‘will wipe away every tear.’

Kevin Bright 
29th October 2017

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