Sermon for Festival Sunday High Mass Sunday 3 November 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Isaiah 56. 3-8; Psalm 33.1-5; Hebrews 12.18-24; Matthew 5.1-12
As a rule, Vicars of All Saints only get to preach at the Festival when a guest preacher has called off: but on this occasion, I thought I would make an exception.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grown up: an engine-driver, a pilot, a ballerina, a doctor, a nurse, a footballer, prime minister? Now, when we think we are grown up, what do we want to be? Do we want to be a saint?
When a brilliant young German theologian called Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent a year at Union Seminary in New York in the 1930s, one of his fellow foreign students was a young French Protestant pastor. They discussed what they hoped to be. The Frenchman said: “a saint.” Bonhoeffer, more hesitantly, said he wanted to have faith. Of course you can’t be the one without the other; and Bonhoeffer’s faith would lead him to a martyr’s death at the hands of the evil regime he resisted in the name of the Lord he had chosen – or been chosen – to follow.
Martyrdom and sainthood are not choices you’ll find on offer at the school or university careers fair. Discipleship is the response to a call: For some a clear and unmistakable: “Follow Me;” for others more gradually – even reluctantly – perhaps even kicking and screaming – recognized and accepted.
In today’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus taking his recently-called “disciples” apart to teach them about what being a “disciple” actually means. That teaching forms what we know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” As Moses had brought the Law from Mount Sinai to teach the Israelites how to be God’s chosen people; so a new and greater Moses teaches his disciples. This is not just an event in the past but the pattern of what the risen Lord, who is our Teacher continues to do, Sunday by Sunday, day by day, as he gathers us his disciples for worship. This is what he is doing this morning through a much lesser Moses.
In the Sermon on the Mount, and in St. Luke’s equivalent, which those of us who were here on Friday heard the opening of, Jesus radicalises the demands of that instruction given through Moses. He teaches them not to judge others; not to depend on worldly wealth and status but on God; to pray; to examine not just their outward actions but their inward motivations.
The Beatitudes speak of that poverty of spirit which is total dependence on God that we see in Jesus; of that sorrow for the world’s pain which burned in his heart of love; of that humility in which he entered the depths of our being; of that passion for the righteousness of the kingdom of God which brought conflict with the powers of this world; of that forgiving mercy seen on the cross; of that purity of heart which is total devotion to the will of God sustained by prayer; of that peace-making which makes friends of enemies; and of its cost paid on the cross.
And in St. Luke he spells out what that means in practice: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also; and from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even you shirt, Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Well, if this is what Jesus expects of his disciples, we might echo St. Teresa of Avila who, in the midst of more than usually trying circumstances had a good moan at God. And when God replied: “Teresa, did you not know that this is how I treat my friends?” She responded, as only a saint would dare to: “Then, no wonder you have so few of them!”
If this is what is involved in being a disciple or a saint, we might well think: “No thanks! Count me out!” Given a choice between heroic sanctity and comfortable mediocrity, the pilgrim’s way or the comfy armchair – give me the soft option every time!
And yet, something in me, keeps being drawn back to that life dedicated totally to the service of God and neighbour which Jesus both teaches and lives out; that life we see, too, in the lives of the saints. It challenges us to be better than we are, to be, or at least to want to try to be, some of those things we hear in the gospels and see in the lives of the saints.
When St. Thomas Aquinas’s sister asked him how to become a saint, he replied: “Want it.” In all their variety, the saints share that single-mindedness and determination we call “purity of heart.” The opposite of holiness is not pride but sloth. The Greek word for it acedia means literally “not caring”. More than just idleness, it is giving up on what God wants us to be.
More creditably, we might think, “There is no way I can do this on my own” – and we’d be right. But we are not meant to do it on our own. The Lord is with us. In the Beatitudes, blessings come before callings: blessings on those who are poor, who mourn, on the humble of the earth, who hunger and thirst for righteousness – because they are denied them. Only then come the blessings on those who are called to be merciful as God is merciful; to be devoted to God’s will as Jesus was; to make peace in a divided world; to resist evil whatever the cost.
While Jesus calls each of us, it is not to be isolated individuals but members of a community, the Church. Among Bonhoeffer’s other writings is one of his doctoral dissertations. It’s called “Communio Sanctorum” – the Latin phrase from the creed which we usually translate “Communion of Saints,” but which can also mean “communion in holy things.” It speaks of the essentially communal nature of Christianity.
As you would expect from a German academic thesis, it is no easy read. Much more accessible to the likes of you and me, is the little book he wrote for those he was training for the ministry of the Confessing Church. It’s called “Life Together.” It speaks of the Church’s practices of communal and personal prayer, the sacraments and meditation on scripture, self-examination and confession, practical as well as academic work together. These put flesh on the bones of that community which he saw as essential to maintaining Christian life and identity in the midst of a world with its gods of power and wealth, ideology and race.
Disciples and saints are not produced in a vacuum but in a web of relationships. It is not good for us to be alone; we need others to share our joys and sorrows, to help carry our burdens when we are weighed down and weary.
City centre churches like this one can be odd places. With no natural community, we have to build community with the people God sends us – and sometimes we wish he had sent them somewhere else. But being in a community with an odd bunch of people we have not chosen and who might not have chosen us– and seen from outside we are a pretty odd bunch – many of whom would not fit in at Family Mass at St. Suburbia’s – gives us ample opportunity to learn to be more Christ-like, more humble, more forgiving, more merciful, more conscious of our own failings, more aware of our dependence on others.
For those among us who live alone – the case for many in this congregation and in this city, this merely highlights the need for friends and friendship – but a friendship which is more than an echo chamber; people who simply agree with everything we say; reinforce our prejudices, confirm us in our complacencies, rather than challenging us to examine them and change; to want more, to be more and to do more.
A congregation can also be a school of holiness by forcing us to look outside ourselves; beyond our own comfort zones. Think of those words from Isaiah that promise of inclusion to outsiders; foreigners and eunuchs all find their place in God’s house; that “house of prayer for all nations.”
This house of prayer has long had a place for outsiders – it has been a safe space for those whose sexuality did not fit the conventions of Church life and thinking. But outsiders who have found a place inside can exclude in their turn – being a victim of discrimination does not bring freedom from original sin. One group which suffers discrimination does not always see the link with others who do.
Bonhoeffer wrote when the Church was facing what he recognized, as most did not, its greatest moral challenge in the last century. That challenge came from an ideology which denied the very humanity of many of God’s children; which saw them as sub-humans, as vermin to be exploited and exterminated. It was a challenge which in large measure the Church failed to meet. Its reputation saved only by those who remained faithful at the cost of their lives.
If we read on to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we find that the disciples have been joined by a crowd of people who are listening in. That crowd is still there; it is the world outside which, at least some of the time listens to what we say and watches what we do.
Alas, much of what they have seen and heard lately has not been of holy lives but of the unholy abuse of the vulnerable; and of an institution more concerned to protect its reputation than its children. We can say that these kinds of things have been happening in all sorts of other bodies. But the difference is that those others do not claim to be holy. We do – and we will rightly be judged by that standard.
When I was ordained over 40 years ago, none of us could have imagined the depth of this crisis. The Church is rightly spending time and money and effort on making sure that our churches and our schools are safe spaces for the vulnerable of all ages. But if its reputation and, therefore, its capacity for mission, is to be restored, it will only be by a renewal of holiness, deeply rooted in prayer and penitence; worked out in sacrificial lives, in our homes and families, our marriages and partnerships and friendships, our communities and workplaces; worked out in that unsung service which seeks no reward other than knowing that we do God’s will.
If this all sounds more like Purgatory than Heaven, let me repeat something I said at our friend Mark Busby’s funeral after his tragic death. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatory is not a place of despair but of hope and of gradually increasing light. It is a place where people sing together. It is full of people who are in the process of learning from each other, flourishing as they acquire deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, as they rediscover the human capacity for happiness. Unlike Hell which is populated by isolated individuals, these souls see themselves as a community, a fellowship, whose suffering, praying and singing is done together. This is not just a picture of the next life but of how life should be in the here and now: it is a place where people behave as we should behave now. It is a picture of the church as a school of disciples, a workshop of holiness, where by sharing in holy things together we are made holy; where by blessing others we find ourselves blessed.
This is such a place, one where people learn and sing, worship and serve, suffer and rejoice together. It has been my calling as it was that Bishop Michael Marshall, who was to have been with us but is unwell, and of Fr. David who is here, before me, to help people, as Fr. Gerald said the other night, to “look up,” to see where God is at work among us, where Christ walks among us, where his Spirit is moving; so that the saints in this place are not just on the walls and in the windows but in the congregation; that with his grace we might truly become All Saints.