Thursday, 1 November 2018

For *All* the Saints

This sermon was given at our All Saints service on the morning of Sunday 4th November. The gospel reading was the story of Lazarus, from John 11:32-44.

If you think about it, All Saints Day is a bit of a weird celebration for us in the Church of England, isn’t it? We’re not really that big on the whole width and breadth of saints outside of the usual suspects – you know, the ones who churches get named after. And, as for praying to the saints? Well, that all sounds a bit too much like Popery to us, doesn’t it? It doesn’t really fit with our (Church of) English sensibilities.

But, if it wasn’t for All Saints Day, or All Hallows’, as it’s also known, there’d be no Halloween. And I looove Halloween.

I know I probably shouldn’t – Christians more religious than I will tell you that we should avoid Halloween, due to its pagan origins and its preoccupation with monsters and the dead.

But, it might surprise you to know that the Anglican Church in America does provide a liturgy for the service of All Hallows’ Eve. For the readings, the minister could choose from Ezekiel’s vision of The Valley of Dry Bones, where the skeletons of the dead rise and come back to life, or the tale of The Witch of Endor, where King Saul travels to the village of Endor (which I always thought was the planet on which the Ewoks from Star Wars lived, rather than a small village in the land of Canaan) in order to get a witch to summon up the ghost of the Israelite Judge Samuel, or even St. John’s vision of The War in Heaven where the devil is banished from the presence of God, and is thrown down to the Earth below.

And, of course, this morning, we heard the story of Lazarus, being raised from the tomb, coming out into the daylight all wrapped in cloth, like some form of lumbering Egyptian mummy.

(Lazarus, as a point of interest, became a saint after this event. It was said he became a bishop and lived for another 30 years, but never laughed or smiled again, save for one time when he saw a man stealing a pot, and cracked a – in inverted commas – “joke” about clay stealing clay. (Maybe it works better in the original Aramaic?). Sainthood, it seemed, did no wonders for Lazarus’ sense of humour.)

But, the main reason I love Halloween is I think there’s a need for it. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman’s book, Coraline, or maybe watched the film, but there’s a quote in it about fairy tales. Gaiman says – countering criticism of fairy tales being made-up stories – that “fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be defeated.” Gaiman is paraphrasing GK Chesterton here, who states that it is not fairy tales which tell children that monsters exist. Chesterton says that children have always known that monsters and dragons exist. What fairy tales do is “provide… a Saint George to kill the dragon”.

And that’s why Halloween is important. We all know that monsters – in whatever form they have shown themselves to us – are real. They may not be vampires or ghosts or goblins, this is true. No, they are instead more subtle than that; they are disasters and diseases and death, and evil & selfish works of humankind. These monsters are real… but Halloween allows us to face them in a safe way.

But, because of that, even more so than Halloween, All Saints Day is important. For today is the day we see that the monsters do not win. Today is the day when all the pumpkins are thrown out, and the costumes are put away, and the monsters are gone. Today is the day the monsters are overcome and defeated. Today gives us all manner of saints to kill the dragons. And that’s why we celebrate and remember the saints – they’ve shown us that our monsters can be overcome.

The Sainted Roger Moore

But, what makes a saint? I think partly it’s just that – they are the people who have shown us that dragons – and the great dragon – can be defeated, that greed and selfishness do not define us, that death can be met with the sure and certain hope of resurrection. They show us – through how they live and how they have died – that God is real and Christ’s own resurrection is a reality.

I think we’ve all known people who’ve done that. I can think of more than a handful of people who have made God believable for me – not through their arguments or their words, but by how they – when I’ve needed it – have been God’s hands and his feet, how they’ve shown his love, and – in some of those cases – how they have met death. I’m sure you can think of some people like that too – if you couldn't, I doubt your choices in life would have brought you here this morning. Maybe the people you’re thinking of have not been canonised; probably the Pope does not even know of their existence, but they are saints all the same.

The presence of the saints who have worshipped in this building for hundreds of years have kept Christ known in Flixton, keeping this church here from generation to generation. The presence of saints in your life, showing you just a glimpse of the reality of God, has influenced you enough to persuade you that this place with these people on this morning is a place worth being; that this God that the saints whom you have known have worshipped is more than a fairy tale, that there’s a realness to him; that, through him who gives his saints strength, we can defeat monsters.

But… don’t just think of the past, because saints inspire saints. And just as you are now thinking of friends and family who have gone before, there will be people you know who – as they grow in their own faith – will look back upon yours as their inspiration; friends, children, grandchildren, people who perhaps you have only fleetingly met having performed some small act of kindness for them. Because, the other thing that makes a saint the main thing that makes a saint; the thing that inspires people to show through their lives that God is real is a relationship with Christ. Lazarus did nothing to become a saint by himself; he simply knew Christ, and that allowed Christ, through Lazarus, to show that death could be defeated. 

Christ in your life, and your faith, can show that monsters can be defeated. Some day, fifty or a hundred, or two hundred years down the line, another congregation will sit here on All Saints Day, giving thanks for you, and your presence here, keeping Christ known in Flixton.

And so, it’s particularly apt this morning that we’re wearing name-badges, allowing us to put names to faces we may have known for months or years. Because, when you look down at your name, or at the name someone else has written on their sticker, you can know that – when Christ looks at that sticker – it’s slightly different than the way your eyes see it. It’s got a title before the name that you’re not currently seeing. You can write it on in front of yours if you like, but, it doesn’t matter if you don’t, because it is there in spirit if not in ink: 
Capital ‘S’, lower case ‘t’, full stop.

Father God,
I thank you for this congregation of saints that are here this morning.
Strengthen us, in the power of your Spirit, to show through our lives that you are more than a story,
Give us courage to show to others that our monsters can be overcome through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection,
And grant us the gift of seeing ourselves as you yourself see us – as saints of God, holy and acceptable to you.


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