Sermon for ALL SAINTS’ FESTIVAL SUNDAY – PROCESSION AND HIGH MASS Sunday 2 November 2014
Sermon preached by The Very Reverend Peter Bradley, Dean of Sheffield
Hebrews 11.18-24 Matthew 5.1-12
When the deans are finally–finally!–asked to take part in Strictly Come Dancing I am counting on an early exit. When I dance—and that is a very rare event—when I dance I spend my time looking down at my feet to ensure that I don’t stamp on my partner’s toes. As I count furiously, ONE two three, ONE two three, ONE two three, my brow furrows and I start biting my lip. There’s something about this self-consciousness, staring down at the dance floor, that simply ends any possibility of dancing with flair. I have all the grace of that poor contestant on the television who was said to be dragged about the dance floor with all the grace of a Hoover.
Now there’s an insight in today’s Gospel reading that can help with my dancing, but it’s got a profounder application as well. We need to go quite deeply into the teaching of Jesus to understand just what this insight might be.
Jesus kept running across people like me who were counting the steps. They were doing their best to live a good life, struggling to keep the commandments, to be faithful to God and to love their neighbour. Think of the enthusiastic young entrepreneur who rushes towards Jesus to ask for advice (Mark 10.17-27). This entrepreneur has carefully kept all the commandments, knows his Bible, is genuinely seeking to serve God, but he ends up disappointed.
Or there’s one of Jesus’s closest friends, Martha, who welcomes Jesus into her home and spends her time carefully preparing dinner for him. But when she asks him for help, she is left with her worries (Luke 10.38-42).
Or there’s Jesus story of the older brother who serves his father all his life with care and love, in good times or in bad, but who ends up feeling that he’s lost out (Luke 15.11-32).
There are many, many, more such people whose stories are told in the Gospel. They were all people who were working hard, rightly, to be good people and to walk in the ways of God. Why was it not enough for the enthusiastic young entrepreneur to keep the commandments and know the Scriptures? Why was it not enough for Martha to serve Jesus in her own home and to feed him? Why was it not enough for the older son to serve his father every day of his life? This was something that puzzled the religious leaders of the time, and it has puzzled the disciples of Jesus through the ages. Why was struggling to keep the commandments, and to serve God and our neighbour not enough?
In each case, what the person was doing was indeed good. They were keeping time and stepping carefully, making their way across the dance floor, but in each case this was not enough. It seems that it is not even enough to keep the commandments and do what is right. Why?
Listen to the answers given by Jesus to each of these three. Speaking to the enthusiastic young entrepreneur, we read in the Gospel according to St Mark that (Mark 10.21), Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said,
‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
So, confusingly, Jesus tells the entrepreneur that he lacks one thing, and then gives him three instructions (to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and to follow Jesus). The enthusiastic young entrepreneur lacks a heart that is open to God and to his neighbour: his riches are filling his heart, not God.
To his friend Martha complaining that she is too busy and her sister is doing nothing, Jesus says (Luke 10.41-42)
But the Lord answered her,
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.’
We must not hear Jesus as criticizing Martha or belittling her service of him. Overwhelmed by many small worries, she lacks a heart that is open to receive from God.
And in telling the mysterious story of the runaway son, Jesus has the father say to the older brother who is complaining that his father is making too much of a fuss of his son who has wasted all his money (Luke 15.31-32),
‘Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found’.
Again the cross, older brother lacks an open heart, ready to have compassion on his brother, who “was lost and has been found.”
In each case–the entrepreneur, Martha, the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son–in each case these are good people, patiently counting steps and keeping time, but they are not dancing properly. They have not opened their heart to God fully, but are keeping themselves in reserve.
The writer of the Gospel according to John identifies this need to open our hearts fully to God as discovering a “thirst” for God. It is so important that Jesus himself cries out on the cross, “I thirst” (John 19.28). Jesus has come so that we might discover our deep thirst for God, and cry out to God so that our thirst can be slaked. At the core (Matthew 5.6)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
This is the blessing at the heart of the Beatitudes which ties the others together. Following Jesus, becoming a saint, is about discovering the hunger and thirst for God deep within us.
Following Jesus, therefore, is not just about doing the right thing; it is about opening our heart fully so that we can become completely transparent to God. When we dance like this, we feel the rhythm in our bones; we don’t need to count the steps because we are one with the music. There are no judges on this dance floor. We become the dance, one with God. This is the union that God wants with us. God wants us to know our “thirst for the water of life” deep within us, and to open our hearts fully to receive this water of life.
There’s a wonderful story of the desert fathers and mothers that explains what this might mean. The desert fathers and mothers were a group of Christians in the third and fourth centuries who felt called to a simpler life of prayer. They lived in the desert and scrublands of Egypt.
Listen to an exchange between a younger desert monk named Lot and the older, more experienced desert monk Joseph. Lot said to Joseph, “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence… what more should I do?” Joseph stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”
This monk Joseph understands the teaching of Jesus very deeply. He knows that following Jesus is not simply about keeping the rules, but about opening our whole life to God’s power and love, “becoming all flame”.
So if we can trust God more deeply, open our hearts fully to God, and drink the water of life, it will be good for our dancing too. Let us open our hearts to God today, so that we might be transformed and become saints.