All Saints - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

All Saints

Luke 6: 20-31

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20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake.

23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

26 Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.

27 But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,

28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.

30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

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Possibly my favourite ever definition of a saint comes from my old friend the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, who said: 'A saint is a person whose story has not yet properly been researched.'

I love that definition, both for its wit and for its cautionary wisdom.  Because although I am certainly convinced of the importance of saintliness within the Christian life (more on this in a moment), it is a concept that has often been distorted in deeply unhelpful ways - not least the notion that the saints of Christian tradition were completely unlike the rest of us ordinary human beings, in their piety, their devotion, and their miraculous powers; so much so that one starts to question whether they were in fact fully human.  And alongside that, the whole business of idealising any individual, for whatever reason, is, as MacCulloch's quote implies, likely to end in profound disillusionment once the full picture of who and what they were finally emerges.

With many of the earliest saints there is, of course, the added complication that there is very little about their lives or their deeds that can be ascertained with certainty.  I am currently reading a book on Celtic Christianity, in which the author observes that virtually all the biographies of the Celtic saints were written hundreds of years after their deaths, when the facts were already in extremely short supply - so, inevitably, such tracts end up being far more hagiography than biography; indeed, they were often deliberately crafted not only to strike awe and wonder in the minds of the faithful, but also to enhance the spiritual reputation of a particular monastery's founding father or mother.  Though, having said that, I do treasure the legend attached to our own patron saint, Brigid of Kildare, who is said to have had a marvellous knack of turning bathwater into beer.  That is my kind of Celtic saint!

Every year, when All Saints' tide comes around, I need to remind myself that the saints whom we encounter in the New Testament, are in the main very far from being the idealised spiritual superheroes venerated by later Christian tradition.   On the contrary, they are people who are exactly like you and me.  The disciples, the first followers of Jesus (who are all regarded as premier league saints in later tradition), far from being superhuman, or even exceptionally holy, were just ordinary uneducated working folk who were weak, and vulnerable, and who stumbled around after Jesus often perplexed and bewildered at what was going on in their midst.  And St Paul uses the term 'saints' simply to refer to the little congregations of new Christians that he had founded across the Roman Empire, which is why he begins his letters with phrases like: 'Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.'

So in the New Testament, saints are basically people like you and me.  Because what the word saint basically means is someone who is 'set apart' for God.  And we are all called to be set apart, through our baptism, and through our call to follow Christ.  We are charged to be in the world, but to live within it in a different kind of way.  So to use the word saint in this way is nothing to do with putting ourselves, or anyone else on a pedestal.  (Although here I must pause to make passing reference to one of my all time favourite wacky saints, St Simeon Stylites, who in the C5 did exactly that: because for 37 years he lived on top of a sequence of pillars, the last of which was 50 foot high, out in the Syrian desert near Aleppo.  His is not an example I would suggest we emulate.)  Rather, it seems to me that, properly understood, sainthood is about conducting ourselves in such a way that we become more fully human, not superhuman.  And it is precisely through exercising those qualities that require us to look beyond our own selfish interests and concerns, and reach out to others - qualities such as love, compassion, a readiness to strive for justice, and to work for peace - that we discover what that truly means.

There is some bad in the best of us, and some good in the worst of us.  And it is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future, through the grace of God.  And it is through striving to become more humane through reaching beyond ourselves that we also become more human.

When I think of the truly saintly people I have known throughout my ministry - and I have known a number of them - they were saintly, not because they spent their time in devout prayer and acts of self-sacrifice and self-denial, or sitting on top of pillars for that matter - but rather because they had a kind of simple transparent goodness and integrity; they were people through whom the light of God's love and grace shone.  They were people of patience, and compassion, and kindness.  And yet, paradoxically, they were also more acutely conscious than most of their own failings and shortcomings.  Because the closer we are to the light of Christ, the more aware we are likely to become of the depths of the shadows in our own hearts.

I don't know why the decision was taken to designate today in particular as a day of prayer for the media - but it is fascinating that the date chosen should coincide with All Saints' Sunday.  Because in the world of journalism there are some interesting parallels with what I have just been describing.  This might seem a surprising thing to say - after all, media folk are frequently regarded as a pretty unsaintly lot. 

But just think about it for a moment.  There are, of course, wonderful journalists who work for disreputable newspapers, just as there are disreputable journalists who work for wonderful newspapers: the equivalent is true in every profession.  But the very best kind of journalism exemplifies that same quality of reaching out beyond the selfish concerns of the individual journalist in order to do something exceptional, and sometimes counter-cultural: to give a voice to the voiceless; to speak truth to power; to strive for justice; to raise awareness of human rights violations, and human suffering, corruption and abuse - and to do so in a way that can sometimes entail immense personal risk.  At our Journalists' Commemorative Service here last Tuesday, our speaker, the photographer and film maker, Paul Conroy, reminded us of that fact in an immensely powerful and moving way.  We need journalists.  We need good journalists, and we need to celebrate and to support good journalism.  Because we need their help in opening our own eyes to the hard realities of the world around us, and to enable us to understand and interpret what it is that we see.

Most of us assume that we find happiness through escaping the difficulties of life.  The challenge of the gospel, and indeed the challenge of the best kind of journalism, is can you find happiness and fulfilment not by avoiding those difficulties, but by embracing them.

In a book in which he reflects upon the true nature of happiness, and looking forward to the start of a new calendar year, Stephen Cherry offers what he calls 'Beatitudes for the New Year' - a rather different take on the Beatitudes of Jesus (one version of which we heard as our Gospel reading a few moments ago).  What he is describing here could be seen as a charter for how we can all learn to walk more closely in the footsteps of Christ, and in the process become just a little more saintly.  Not by sitting on pillars in the desert for 37 years - but through the mindset we strive to adopt throughout the ordinary tasks of each ordinary day.  It includes these lines:

Let me be happy when reminded of my own inadequacies.
Let me be happy when my actions are gentle.
Let me be happy when I see a truth - or say one - heedless of consequence
Let me be happy when I turn from a mistake.
Let me be happy when I see others flourish, especially my rivals.
Let me be happy when others take the trouble to belittle or defame me, ridicule or bad-mouth me.
Let me be happy when a loss reveals the depths of a love that might not have been.
Let me be happy when my energy is spent.
Let me be happy when a question arises which no one can answer.
Let me be happy when giving and receiving.
Let me be happy to rejoice in all that is real.
And let my happiness bring only happiness to others.

Somewhere along the line we all seem to have lost sight of the link between happiness and goodness - by which I mean the kind of virtue that transforms the way in which we approach the smallest tasks and interactions of each ordinary day.

And on this All Saints' Sunday, perhaps we can be reminded to explore that link a little deeper, and so hope to grow in saintliness ourselves.


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