Sermon for Solemn Evensong, Te Deum & Solemn Benediction Sunday 3 November 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Ian Brothwood, St Michael & All Angels Croydon
‘We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.’
Paul, following his customary structure, begins his letter to the Colossians with a greeting and an introductory thanksgiving. As usual, the greeting is addressed to tois hagiois, the saints. This time of course to the saints in Colossae. A perfect reminder to us as we celebrate All Saints of the concept as the church triumphant and the church militant; the saints in heaven and the saints on earth. So we here are part of that totality of the mystical body of Christ. All Saints. It could be argued, then, that in this Festival of All Saints we are, in part, celebrating ourselves.
My first experience of the Margaret Street All Saints Festival was way back in 1976, when I was in my first year of reading theology at King’s College. I can’t remember who the preachers were and what was said. I do, though, remember thinking, as someone from the sticks, that religion in London was very long! Now I realize I was young and foolish, green behind the ears and very impetuous but I did find it all terribly earnest and very worthy; uncomfortably so because after the final service, after all that overwhelming saintliness I felt the terrible urge to indulge in some old-fashioned naughtiness! Somehow the message about me and my – apparent – sinfulness, or maybe it was my lack of saintliness, was troublingly dispiriting. And now, here I am, 37 years on, preaching in the final service of the 2013 Festival and I’m sure you will have found the Festival exciting and inspiring. For myself I would like to think I am now somewhat more sophisticated in my thinking (maybe some would want to argue about that) but, after all these years, I still recognize the essence of that feeling, although I now understand with much greater clarity and, I hope, insight, what made me react in that adverse way.
It is all to do with our journey of faith, of personal sanctity, holiness and the human condition. Back in those days frequent confession was de rigueur and I always felt there was constant pressure to think and ponder upon one’s sinfulness in a psychologically unhealthy way. This approach, though important, and, yes on one level vital in our spirituality, can become very partial and one-sided when juxtaposed with our life in the round. And while the pendulum has swung too far the other way I do think some readjustment was needed. After years of making my own confession and after years of hearing confessions as a priest, I have constantly worried that we can be in danger of becoming too introspective with an unhealthy preoccupation with feelings of underlying unworthiness while losing sight of a much broader picture. My meditation on the Christian life has been heavily influenced by the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonheoffer. A long time ago I copied out some of his words which have always stayed with me. He wrote ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’ Bonheoffer is talking about the opposite of that stifling introspection which focuses too heavily on our inward selves and, instead, gives a skewed perspective of our humanity.
The fatalistic view point of our humanity finds its apotheosis in the General Confession of the Book of Common Prayer, which, after lamenting our various failings proclaims, ‘And there is no health in us.’ Now Dr Cranmer took a particularly dim view of humanity’s sinfulness and this attitude pervades the BCP, but, ‘there is no health in us’ – really? I’m sorry but I don’t believe it. I know there is a strong traditional of spirituality which seeks to emphasize this darker side of our humanity. And it can be lovely to indulge ourselves and to wallow in that self-abasement– I’ve done it myself so many times, particularly in the Lenten Litany when we solemnly but somewhat deliciously intone, have mercy upon us, miserable sinners – but in the end, it leaves me cold and profoundly unsatisfied in the depths of my being. The crucible of our humanity is fired with a much more complicated mixture.
When Charles Williams wrote, ‘our common day should relate itself to extraordinary subjects and ends; to glory, to joy, to purity and power’ he was putting into plain words the Christian doctrine of humankind found in Genesis: ‘God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.’ It is the subtle mixture of the natural and supernatural which is part of the essence of who we are. Sanctity and saintliness is not defined simply by our sinfulness and how we deal with it – some of the saints led appalling lives – it is also to be seen how we glorify God, of how the spark of the creator God is seen working in and through us. In other words how we take a much more positive anthropology into our Christian thinking.
Andrew Elphinstone wrote a challenging and much underestimated book called: ‘Freedom, suffering and love’. Strangely enough it was published in that fateful year of 1976. Among other things he was making the case for a much more positive view of us as created human beings. He was asking: can we be so bad – are we not part of God’s creation affirmed in the Incarnation, indeed the crowning glory of creation? So Elphinstone wrote, ‘Christianity has never been sure of itself in balancing the two aspects of man’s being, the earth-born and the heaven-bent, the noble and the ignoble, the uniquely privileged and the equally specially condemned.’ and after outlining this dichotomy he went on: ‘Christianity has tended to have a condemnatory view of man, emphasizing his sinfulness, his nothingness or his transitoriness. The credibility gap which some feel to lie between the church and the world may be caused partly by the hunch that Christian faith is loaded too heavily on the pessimistic side and is not imparting a real or worthy symptom of what man is.’ Well, I couldn’t agree more.
To further tease out the point I am seeking to make I turn to the greatest of all the Saints: Our Blessed Lady. She gives us a clue to all I have been speaking of in the glorious opening of her Magnificat: ‘My soul’, she says, ‘magnifies the Lord’. To magnify means at its basic level to make things look bigger; it may, therefore, seem very odd of Mary to say she magnifies the Lord for, surely, we cannot do anything to make God more than he already is. In a sermon at the Walsingham May Bank Holiday Festival a number of years ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that ‘when we magnify someone we make them bigger in the sense of giving them more room: we step back, we put on our preoccupations and goals and plans aside so as to let the reality of something else live in us for that moment.’ Therefore, when we magnify God we forget ourselves so that the sheer beauty and radiance of God comes alive within us and fills our lives. We have made him bigger in our lives; like Mary, we have magnified him. And it works both ways for, in the words of the old translation, Mary in her Magnificat continued very intriguingly: ‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. It appears to be an extraordinary claim that as Mary gives room to God, God makes her greater. The lesson for us is that she made room for God by putting all her own plans, hopes and expectations aside and accepting the vision and future God had for her. This is what we are called to do and the paradox here is that when we give room for God we don’t become more God-like, we, in fact, become more human. This is because in making room for God we clear out all that stops us from being fully human, all that makes us less than we could and should be. It is all about giving God space in our lives thereby allowing our humanity to blossom into its fullest glory. In doing so we ourselves magnify the Lord and we in turn are magnified. This beautifully echoes those words of Bonheoffer: ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’
But where does this lead us? How can we make this space, how can we magnify the Lord? Is it in what we do, or is it in who we are? Perhaps we can turn to the philosophers for help. It was Immanuel Kant, after Socrates, who opined that to be is to do; the existentialist John-Paul Sartre thought that to do is to be; the distinguished American philosopher Frank Sinatra sang do be do be do. I know it’s an old joke but it takes us to the heart of the matter and as is so often the case, the artist comes closer to the truth. To make space for God is both to be and to do. Who we are is revealed by what we do; what we do is driven by who we are. Who am I? is a profound question and the answer will give us an idea as to how much space we are making for God. Who am I? What are my priorities? What am I doing? The key to holiness of life is striking the perfect balance of being and doing.
For myself, I think this feast of All Saints is a hugely important and a timely reminder of who and what we are as the church. I don’t want to be too negative or to labour the point but the church in its institutional form is of little or no help. So I won’t dwell on the tensions in General Synod, or the fixation on human sexuality as if it was a matter of doctrinal orthodoxy, but this is a quote from the Daily Telegraph of a month or so ago: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that the Anglican Church is tottering on the brink of disintegration amid disputes between liberals and traditionalists. He said the Church was coming perilously close to plunging into a ‘ravine of intolerance’. It is enough to make you want to weep. It makes us and the church look small. It can make the adherents of the gospel seem mean-spirited and in the end, most tragically, instead of magnifying God we appear to diminish God. We try to chop God down to the small shape and size of our human limitations.
So here we are, at the All Saints Festival, contemplating how we can restore true holiness and saintly living in the church so we can be a credible witness to the world. It’s about being alive, living fully, joyfully, secure in the knowledge of who and what we are as we are transformed from glory to glory.
‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’ So we pay attention to our personal sanctity but not at the cost of being so self-absorbed that we put ourselves at the centre of our own little world. We understand our true worth as the crowning glory of God in creation, who God loves without measure. We magnify God and ourselves by moving over and letting him into our lives: we put our own preoccupations, worries and concerns to one side and make space for our hearts to be filled with love for those who need our prayer and our care and concern. And finally a suggestion for you – when you meditate on your life as a saint of God perhaps it would help to have the musical philosophy of the old maestro himself as a mantra singling softly in the background: do be do be do! Amen.