Saints yesterday and today - An All saints sermon based on Hebrews 12: 1-3
“When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.” Words from the liberationist priest Dom Helder Camara which challenge us as to what a saint is!
A story is told of 2 brothers who were no better than they ought to be. They were gangsters who made money out of protection rackets and the likes. Most people feared them and kept a discreet distance whenever possible. Now there came a time when one of the brothers died. The grief stricken surviving brother had to make the funeral arrangements and he wanted the service to be taken by a clergy person who would say positive things about the dead brother. In fact he wanted the funeral to be told that the dead brother was a saint. One by one the clergy of the local churches found excuses as to why they could not host the funeral. That is all except the Methodist Church. You see the surviving brother knew they had a weakness. They had to replace the roof and money was short. So he offered £100,000 to the Methodist minister if he would use the funeral to declare the dead brother to be a saint. The Methodist minister agreed but with one proviso - that half of the money should be provided up front.
It came the day of the funeral and the church was packed. Present were a right collection of gangsters and gangsters’ molls but also present were members of the church wondering how on earth their minister would be able to declare the dead gangster a saint without losing all credibility. Come the moment of the address and the minister went for it. The dead man was he said, a thief, a drunkard, an adulterer and a total hypocrite. The surviving brother by now was mopping the sweat off his brow. This wasn’t what he had planned. His only hope was that somehow the minister would keep his promise if only to get the second half of his payment. Surely he would pronounce the dead man to be a saint.
And the minister did precisely that! As he brought his address to a loud crescendo declaring that the word would have been a better place had the dead man never lived, he concluded with the words;
“But compared with his brother he was an absolute saint!”
Mmmm. Perhaps you can find one of Nottingham’s gangsters who is coming to the end of his life and we can do a similar deal to finance the Back Door Project. I’m up for it but I suspect the Methodist Connexion would need to move me on swiftly for my protection!
So where are the saints? Let’s for a moment look at 2 heroic individuals from the past cent who show us saintly qualities and who challenge us today.
The first of these is Oscar Romero, a pastor, prophet and mystic. Romero came from El Salvador and probably would be seen as a good Christian yet not one who stands out in the popular memory were it not for the last 3 years of his life. He lived in a land that was going through a tempestuous time for sure. But there was little tempestuous about the cautious Romero - well not at first!
You see El Salvador was a land of injustice. A mere 14 families controlled 60% of the arable land. And history shows that this elite was prepared to kill big time to keep its position and to keep indigenous people in their place. By the time Romero became archbishop, some 60% of the peasants were landless. And their conditions were atrocious with even today 25% of Salvadoran children dying before the age of 5 from curable diseases. And this injustice was backed up through repression, torture and killings carried out by a military funded by the United States and with soldiers trained by the notorious US Army School of the Americas.
But now priests were among the victims. Many influenced by liberation theology and the option for the poor proclaimed at Medellin’s council of Bishops were activists on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. Romero himself was socially concerned but at the same time suspicious of liberation theology which he saw as divisive. More than that he tended to see the killings as aberrations rather than as the deliberate policy they were. So when in 1977 he was installed as archbishop of San Salvador there was relief among the elite. The bookish cleric would surely be a restraining force on his clergy - no radical politics here!
But a few weeks later a Jesuit friend of Romero named Rutilio Grande was assassinated. Grande had worked building base communities in which role he had very publicly denounced injustices. Romero demanded an investigation before he went to see the body. That night transformed Romero from a cautious man who sought to make compromises into becoming a man who saw the evil unleashed on his country for what it was. Now like the friend whose radicalism had once troubled him he would stand alongside the poor in their quest for justice. Publicly he held a mass outside the cathedral to replace all other masses, in memory of the dead priest. There he made clear his solidarity with his priests in their work pf solidarity with the poor. And now came a message that he would boycott all government affairs until the repression ended. Indeed as archbishop he was never to attend a single official event. The man of books had become a prophet!
In the three years that followed the repression increased and many priests were among those killed - indeed soon after his own death the murder of American nuns would awaken the United States to just what it had been complicit in. In all 75,000 would die by the time this dirty war came to an end. But as archbishop Romero fearlessly denounced the violence and injustices even as hatred against him increased and the loyalty of many of his bishops became suspect. In a way he had become the good shepherd who seeks to shield his flock by putting his own life on the line - all in the conviction that an order that treated people as disposables was contrary to the gospel of Christ.
A week before his death in one of his radio broadcasts that had offended the elite but brought hope to so many of the suffering, Romero turned to address the military now deeply soaked in the blood of the innocents;
“Brothers, you are from the same peoples: you kill your brother peasants… No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God. Now it is time to recover your consciences so that you first obey your conscience rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, then, in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to the heavens, every day more tumultuously, I ask you, I beg. I order you in the name of God; stop the repression.”
A week later came their response when celebrating the Mass, Romero was shot dead!
But days before his death Romero had told a journalist in an interview;
“You can tell people, if they succeed in killing me, then I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they will realise that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God which is the people will never perish.”
And when the war came to an end the people waved banners remembering that Romero had said he would rise amid the Salvadoran people, banners that proclaimed;
“Archbishop Romero, you have risen in your people.!"
The second heroic individual was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor and academic. Like Romero he lived in tumultuous times. His life was dominated by the rising of the evil of Nazism. And yet he could have escaped the worst of it. You see in the Summer of 1939 he was teaching at a university in New York. Yet to the consternation of his friends who had encouraged him to go there, Bonhoeffer who was already a marked man in the eyes of the Nazis gave up his security to return to Germany. In a letter he explained his decision;
“ I have made a mistake in coming to america. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the trials at this time with my people….. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.”
With this fateful decision Bonhoeffer came to embody the title of his most famous book, “ The Cost of Discipleship.”
His biggest contribution came in the German Church Struggle. At a time when the nationalistic perversion of Christianity known as the German Christians became dominant within the churches, Bonhoeffer was one of those who waged a theological onslaught against the heresy that so often comes when people confuse to loyalty to God with loyalty to state. Bonhoeffer nurtured communities within what became known as the Confessing Church in which to keep the gospel of Christ’s being for all. Despite in his younger days having refused to conduct the funeral of his sister’s Jewish father in law he became a vociferous voice against anti Judaism likening the expulsion of Jews to the expulsion of Christ from Germany.
Like Romero Bonheoffer paid the ultimate price. He had been a double agent in Abwehr through which he had been involved in smuggling Jews to safety in Switzerland. Ultimately a minor role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, in itself a difficult issue for a man who was and remained a pacifist, led to his being hanged a mere week before Hitler’s own death.
Bonhoeffer’s left a theological treasury which raises issues such as whether a church which puts Christ at its centre inevitably has to live on the margins of society. But most of all he leaves us with an example of a man who seeks to act rightly in an age in which both society and church have gone rotten.
Heroic figures like Romero and Bonhoeffer are inspirational. But they are unique rather than being the norm. Most of us can never be like them. And they are so few that they hardly constitute “a cloud of witnesses.” For that we need to see that the cloud of witnesses also contains a host of unknown saints who in various ways point us to the love of Christ and to our calling to remain faithful.
So that Saints aren’t just the super heroes of faith but also everyday followers of Jesus. They include gruff ladies such a Nellie whom I knew when she lived in a small flat in peel on the Isle of Man, a lady whose latest fall was a sign that her days were numbered yet who when I started to pray for her at the end of a visit, thinking rightly that my prayer would be about her, interrupted to tell me to thank God. Thank God - the last thing I felt like doing on what for me was a sad day. Think to of Bob a retired farmer from North Devon who with his with his wife Jean had brought up a terrific family and who whilst spending the last months of his life in considerable pain in a hospital in Bideford, time and again after I had prayed for him, insisted on praying for me. Yes Nellie Ridgeway and Bob Bellew are for me an important part of the cloud of witnesses that is the saints. And you will have their equivalents whom you have had the joy of knowing.
Lesbia Scott was a vicar’s wife who lived for many years on Dartmoor. She wrote hymns for her children. One which appears as far as I know in no British hymn book is to be found in the hymnal of the United Methodist Church in the US. It’s probably a bit too twee for the Brits. And it goes like this;
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, on the street, in the store,
In church, by the sea, in the house next door;
They are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
And I mean to be one too
And in that resolve we find what All Saints is about. We look back and then seeks God’s help to be his saints in our time and place.