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Sermon for All Saints Sunday

October 1, 2016


the servants of our God….144,000 – words from book of Revelation

In the name.

‘We don’t need another hero’ sang Tina Turner in 1985

My nephew described his RE teacher and the content of his lessons. There’s a rather dated series of textbooks entitled ‘Faith in Action’. Each one is a brief biography. Mother Teresa helping the needy in India. Trevor Huddleston fighting apartheid. David Wilkerson working with drug addicts. Gladys Aylward trekking across Chinese mountains with orphans, escaping the bombing in World War 2. In words to the teacher which got my nephew suspended: ‘I hate all this religion.  It’s all about bloody heroes.  What about ordinary people?  What about my mum – a single parent who bought three of us up.

I have difficulties with the notion of saints as heroes too. I object to those in power defining who are appropriate role modes of orthodox belief, piety and righteous behaviour. When we say, “She is a saint,” we are saying more about ourselves than the person we are honouring. It reflects our own values and beliefs, if not our behaviour. When the church declares it, it is an exercise in power. It is a statement that that person’s beliefs, values and behaviour are to be emulated.  Defining good versus bad, it becomes a subtle form of coercion. If you doubt it, why was the Roman Catholic Church in such a rush to canonise Pope John Paul II? Why did they violate their own standard that it takes generations to give someone the title of “Saint”?  Could it be to strengthen his conservative imprint on the Church?

Feminist theologian Carter Heyward had to preach a sermon on All Saints Day. She suggested that the problem with saints is that they show us who we are NOT. She wants to believe in a god who loves all, who chooses all, Christians, Jews, pagans, whatever. Yet All Saints Day can give the impression that God chooses this person and not that person. She suggests that we don’t need heroes who show us what we are not. We need helpers who show us who we are. Supermen and wonderwomen diminish our sense of shared power.Helpers call us forth into our power.

The saints were flawed people. The novel Silence by Shusako Endo,  is the story of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan (based on a real person Sebastião Rodrigues). The title, Silence,  refers to the seeming absence of God while people are being tortured for their faith in him. Just 90 years after missionary Francis Xavier’s arrival, Japan closed its doors to the “contagion” from the outside world, and its leaders did their violent best to eradicate this foreign religion.Over 4000 people are known to have died for their faith and thousands of others suffered misery and ruination. Because Christians threatened the power of the shogun, torture and execution were used against believers  as authorities grew increasingly deter­mined to make them recant. Christians were forced to trample on fumie, religious images, often of Jesus or Mary, in order to demonstrate that they were no longer believers. Refusal usually meant death. The missionary trampled because, otherwise, a group of lay people would be tortured and killed. He remarked: “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for [them]; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

Was he a flawed, unheroic saint? Like a flawed icon. Icons — unlike Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite art – ­make no attempt to make their object beautiful. There are no blond young men among the icons of Christ, and no sweet virgins among icons of the Mother of God.  The icons’ beauty lies in what they rep­resent, not in what they are in themselves, which is wood and egg-based paint, often cracked and peeling or in some other way defective. The icon may be flawed, yet still it does its work of representing and embodying the holy ones

Artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh depicted ordinary people (and even in Van Gogh’s case their old decaying boots) without any attempt to beautify them, or to hide their warts, but held them in a kind of stillness that makes them holy and beautiful. Mindful Ministry: Creative, Theological and Practical Perspectives – Ross and Judith Thompson

St. Gregory of Nyssa likens us to pieces of corroded iron, “If freed from rust by a whetstone, that which but a moment ago was dark will shine and glisten like the sun,” and “the divine beauty with which we are stamped will again shine forth in us.”

The author of Revelation says that the number that shall be saved is 144,000 – twelve times twelve times a thousand – a figure in Hebrew number symbolism that stands for all the different kinds of people there are in the world. It is an expression that speaks of the universality, the inclusiveness, the catholicity of God’s Kingdom, rather than of a tiny, privileged elite.

If there are any particular kinds of people you don’t like, you’d better not go to heaven. They’re all going to be there!

It is said that a Seventh Century monk, Saint Adamnan of Iona, was granted a vision of the saints in heaven, gathered around the throne of God. An Irish text, several centuries later, described it this way:  ” there is not a back of any of them, or his side, towards another. ….the Lord hath arranged them and kept them, face to face in their ranks and in their circles equally high all round about the throne, ….and their faces all towards God.”

The saints are our witnesses that something better is possible, If we hold on to the goal: the vision of that Heavenly Kingdom for whose coming on earth the saints pray daily, and of which every Mass is foretaste and promise. St. Adamnan’s City – where things are so wonderfully arranged that no one has his back turned on anyone else, but all stand face to face, and in their circles equally high, with all their faces towards God.

the servants of our God….144,000

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