Sermon delivered by Rev Derek Chandler to celebrate All Saints Day 2022 at St. James’s Church, Finchampstead:
In 1895 a missionary named Canon William Henry Cooper, returned to England. A pioneer in many ways, he was shocked to find his fellow clergy, retired through illness or advanced age, reduced to living in workhouses. He found 27 in Brighton alone – in conditions little better than prisons – where the words emblazoned on the workhouse walls said it all: GOD IS JUST.
Before the Welfare State or the NHS, Canon Cooper showed our institutions, including the Church of England – how to care for our former pastors, by founding the College of St Barnabas, for which I am now the Chaplain. In another time and place, we may well have had Cooper canonized as a saint.
I wonder what you picture when I mention the word, ‘Saint’?
In a church, we may well look at either statues, or stained-glass windows with images of saints. They are either flat and one dimensional, as in the windows, or cold as stone statues. They probably seem very removed from us and a common definition of saints might therefore be, “People who are not like us!”
However, this is not the picture in the New Testament. The word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin, ‘sanctus’, meaning ‘holy’. A saint shares in the divine life of God. But at the same time the New Testament tells us about the ‘poor saints in Jerusalem’, and in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told about Peter visiting the ‘saints in Lydda’, one of whom he cures from paralysis. The saints in the New Testament are people like us. On All Saints’ Day we are invited to perceive that we are the saints, or at least, we have the potential to be. The Beatitudes which are quoted today in a slightly different form by Luke’s Gospel than by Matthew’s, describe as ‘blessed’ the lives of those who struggle, and suffer, and know their weakness. These are not the lives of stained glass, or plaster saints, but the lives of real people learning to rely on God in their everyday successes and failures, and yet still working together for God’s Kingdom.
The Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once said: “A saint is a saint, not because they are ‘impossibly good’ but because they are transparent for something that is more than they themselves are.” Allowing God to work in us, shine through us, transforming all into what might be. This is the beginning of Saintliness. Much like the moments George Herbert described four centuries earlier, in the second verse of the popular hymn, ‘Teach Me My God and King’:
“A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.”
So much of our lives can be spent just staring at the glass. For some, mesmerized by the importance of their own reflection. It can be a life changing moment when we perceive the enlightened world that lies beyond. A moment of ‘transparency’, Paul Tillich might call it. The beginning of Saintliness.
With that in mind, these are the words I hear Jesus speaking to the saints of God as we gather here today – and I dare to paraphrase: “Remember you are blessed, always and everywhere – but also wake up and remember, as a saint I have called you to a life that radiates my love in the world.”
Tears, laughter, income, and calories, do not draw the line between the Blessings and Woes mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (6:20-31) today. You and I draw that line. The difference between those who receive blessings and those who receive woes is not about what or how much you have. The difference is an openness to live for something beyond this world as it is now. Woes are promised to us who are comfortable, satisfied, and secure not because we are rich, but because we may become self-satisfied and complacent. This almost always attaches us to things as they are and then we do all we can to keep it that way. There is no openness and no receptivity to a new life or a new world. Woe to us convinced we have no need for change. Blessings are promised to us who are empty, weak, and grieving not because there is glory in poverty or misery, but because we are open, receptive, and looking for a new world. We look for something other than the values of this world to rule our lives, provide meaning, and dignity to each other. We may live in this world, but we look toward and work for, another world.
Has this not always been the case? Some of our greatest Christian pioneers had to campaign against their own Christian brothers and sisters who were quite comfortable with the world as it was – the Status Quo – with no need for change. Think of:
• William Wilberforce in relation to the Slave Trade?
• William Henry Cooper in relation to Clerical Poverty?
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer in relation to Nazi Germany?
They are the saints, whether canonized by the Christian Church or not.
Jesus is not describing in Luke’s Gospel a system of rewards and punishments. He is describing two ways of living and their consequences. It is a choice we make every day of our lives. Truthfully, we are not one or the other, a people of blessings or a people of woes. We are both. The saints we celebrate today faced the same choices we do. But they are set apart, ‘Holy’ and different from others because of who they allowed to rule their lives, who they lived for, and sometimes who they died for – Jesus Christ. This freed them in the face of poverty, hunger, mourning, exclusion and defamation, spiritual or material, to live expectantly for God.
Saints become ‘Transparent’ – and in that ‘Transparency’ we reveal something more than our individual net worth, or social status. We reveal God’s Light – as brilliant and as beautiful as any that shines through the saints in our stained-glass windows. We are not the Light – we never were and should not pretend to be. But we can add colour and shape to God’s Light if we allow it to shine through us. Or, to quote Canon William Henry Cooper when he founded the College of St Barnabas, we all have the potential to reveal, “The beginning of a Great Work!” Amen.