Saints of God - A sermon for All saints based on Luke 6: 20 - 31
One of the highlights of the recent visit of Pope Benedict was the canonisation of John Henry Newman in Birmingham. The criteria for such canonisation is theological soundness, extreme holiness and the performance of two miracles. Two further miracles will be required before Newman will be able to be raised by this or a future Pope to the level of being recognised as a "Saint."
The papacy of John Paul was particularly notable for the number of saints recognised by the church. This continues very much under Benedict. But of course the practice has a long history behind it. Certainly the church has especially in difficult times found great comfort and inspiration in the celebration of its saints. After all many of them show us the potential of lives that are lived out to God's glory.
Within Protestantism there has often been some disquiet concerning the understanding of sainthood in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. This owes not a little to the abuses of relic worship at the time of the Reformation. An unfounded suspicion that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians worship rather than venerate their saints, adds to the divide.
Hence the Protestant emphasis has tended to be that all Christians and not just the superstars of faith are called to be saints. For me that is the gist of the line in the Apostles creed in which we speak of the "communion of saints." We belong with all the people of God across the divides of time - church militant and church triumphant!
So perhaps both Roman Catholic and Protestant understandings of sainthood have something to teach us. At times we profit in our faith by looking to those Christians who have displayed heroic and extraordinary qualities. And indeed such people are not limited to those who acquire the title "saint." But we also do well to see the sainthood of the multitude called by God into being followers of Christ.
I am one who has benefited from the ordinary unsung saints of Christ. In my ministry there have been those times when very ordinary people have ministered to me in extraordinary ways. I think of the woman in Peel on the Isle of Man who coming to the end of her life stopped me from praying for her until I first gave thanks to God. I think of the very quiet woman from North Devon, a woman normally not prone to having much to say for herself who just a couple of days from her death responded to my prayer for her by praying for me, the minister whom she had only known for a short time. And dare I suggest that most of you will at times have been blessed and given heart by the everyday saints that surround us. That is why I believe in the church - not because I love the institutional side of things but because in our gathering together we are encouraged by one another amidst our shared ordinariness.
Not that there is anything ordinary about our calling. Indeed we are called to be signs of God's transforming mission. We see that very much in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. This sermon does not offer the spiritual get out that we are tempted to reach for in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. On the contrary, this sermon spoken to the followers of Jesus is a fundamental challenge to the world as it is.
The challenge operates on two levels. The first is that it reminds us that we are called to be in solidarity with the poor. Nothing surprising about this - after all we see plenty of it from the Old Testament prophets as well as in the teachings and actions of Jesus. Indeed as one Methodist minister recently put it;
"Cut the poor out of the Bible and you cut out God."
The Sermon on the Plain comes against the background of a society in which the reality for many was a stifling poverty which was reinforced by a tax system that made the richer ever richer through the continuous impoverishment of the poor. It was in all honesty a system that stank. And so the blessings demonstrate God's favour to the poor - those who wept not just for themselves but for their parents and offspring who were also caught in the trap of deprivation. Meanwhile the curses demonstrate an anger directed against those whose wealth originated from keeping the poor down.
Might this speak to us today? I think the answer has to be Yes! It speaks to us in terms the poverty of the "Third World." As Garth Hewitt puts it in one of his songs;
"The rich world makes its living from the poor world on its knees."
In the past week the Daily Mail has been particularly vocal in its campaign against this country's aid budget which is nearing the UN target set so long ago of 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product. Well the news for them is that this objective is pure gospel. But we also need to question a range of issues concerning trade justice before we can say that we are truly good news to the poor world, issues surrounding our use of subsidies, dumping and the opposition to tariffs behind which such economies can grow as once we did.
And then within our own country we face the challenge of ensuring that austerity does not bite those whose needs are greatest. I know some say we should keep out of politics but I tell you there is no such thing as a worthwhile church that does not in some way stand alongside the poor - be that in charitable endeavour or through being a voice for the voiceless. So if people are going to end up living on the streets in greater numbers as is a current possibility or if they are reduced to being unsure as to where there next meal is coming from, the followers of Christ have not an option but a duty to challenge those in appropriate positions of power. And to do it in the face of condemnation on the part of those who would rather that the voiceless remain mute or who would blame the poor for their plight! After all some things are too important to be left to politicians alone!
The second challenge is to resist wrong in nonviolent ways which keep open the possibilities of reconciliation. Love for enemies means seeking their good in ways that they might be surprised at. Hatred is not and cannot be a Christian option but neither is being a doormat a Christian virtue. Jesus speaks of ways of disarming aggression with a creative but non violent resistance. Turning the cheek means no longer accepting a backhander with the contempt it involves that sees the target as a lower person but instead stating to the aggressor that now they could only carry out aggression in a way that recognised the target as an equal human to themselves. Likewise giving a shirt as well to the one who demands a coat only demonstrates their aggression as well as shaming them in a society where to witness nakedness was a shaming thing.
And don't today we need to be creative in resisting violence? As Gandhi reminds an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth creates nothing but a world of blind and toothless people. Today of all days we should give thanks to those who have creatively resisted the dark powers of violence, people such as Martin Luther ling and Desmond Tutu who have lived out a conviction that love is ultimately stronger than hatred or any of the symbols of violence.
Such challenges lead us into the way of Christ. By following him we join the great company of saints. Yes, today give thanks for those canonised! Give thanks for those about whom we read in books and hear of in sermons. But most of all in company with the followers of Christ let us seek to be his saints for today.
Lesbia Scott, wife of an Anglican priest on Dartmoor puts it well in a song she wrote for her children in the 1920s;
I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor,
And one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God--and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right, for Jesus' sake,
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier,
And one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
And there's not any reason--no, not the least,
Why I shouldn't be one too.
They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still,
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or
In lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.
May we who are indeed surrounded by "a great cloud of witnesses" be inspired to be God's saints for today that the transforming power of God's kingdom might be glimpsed.