A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, November 5th, 2017
Today we are keeping the Feast Day of All Saints – one of the major days of the Church calendar.
Peruse any dictionary of saints, even briefly, and it would seem that the term ‘weird and wonderful’ could have been created just for these people. What often sticks in our minds are the rather bizarre and colorful characters behaving in often distinctly odd ways. One of the really famous ones is St Simeon Stylites, a fifth century Syrian who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years. We are told that St Thomas Aquinus’ love of fine dining was such that an oval had to be cut out of his table to accommodate his girth. St Jerome was apparently extremely crabby most of the time. St Cuthbert, patron saint of Durham Cathedral in England, is said to have often spent the entire night standing in the North Sea reciting the Psalter.
Some of this stuff, to be sure, has to be taken with a grain of salt, but much of it is verifiably true. The more extreme the behavior, the more it would be seen and noted by God. It is also true that immense physical endurance, such as living atop a pillar, or praying in icy waters, would bring one closer to God in some way not least through bringing about altered states of consciousness and intense visions.
Our first reading this morning was from the Revelation of St John the Divine. By anyone’s standards it is a strange set of stories. If St John the Divine had lived in the 21st century and brought us a notebook with the account of his frankly somewhat strange visions, what on earth would we, in all honesty, make of them? Well, if we’re honest, I think that we might attribute his visions to some kind of psychiatric condition or to hallucinogens. But the fact is that he brought us some of the most breathtaking, compelling imagery of heaven that exists. God speaks through anyone in any situation and, although to us the lives of many saints may seem bizarrely odd, a common theme running through them is that they have tried with all their might to free their minds and bodies from all the clutter and noise of regular, everyday life.
If some saints are known for their non-conformity, as many are known for their tribulations. People who have responded with dignity, grace and resolve in the face of barbaric cruelty and persecution. The physical and mental violence meted out to Christians over the ages – and right up to our present day – is horrific. Yet, of course, it’s all about context. Very few of us have to endure the extremes of violence that mark the most famous stories, but all of us do on a daily basis have demons to fight, so to speak – temptations, habits, circumstances, that stand between us and God. When we truly stand up to those things, resolved with all our strength to overcome them, we stand in equal stature alongside the most eminent and celebrated of saints.
Just for a moment, I’d like to ask you to call to mind the happiest moments of your life – times when you have been utterly blissful. For me it would certainly include that day that Kelly and I got married in Durham Cathedral, England – coincidentally, only yards from where St Cuthbert is buried.
Where have been the happiest places for you – the places that make you smile inside with a warm glow of appreciation? I certainly know that some combination of forests and lakes gives me that. But then, I am half-Swedish.
I have another question for you: what are the ingredients that combine to make you a happy person? What’s the recipe for a happy you or those you know? Food? Family? Friends? Health? Nice clothes? Good relationships? A roof over your head? Knowing that you are loved? All of these things? Some of them?
These are, one might say, some of the default settings for contentment. If your answers were like mine, then they were probably fairly conditional, fairly circumstantial. In other words, our examples of happiness were dependent on the circumstances being right, they were conditioned by external factors.
A few minutes ago we heard an extract from an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Yeshua, who we know better as Jesus. He took his disciples and left the crowds behind on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and went up onto the adjacent hillside. Kelly and I were fortunate to have had the chance to visit that very place a couple of years ago. And there Jesus started to teach his disciples and, we can imagine, the crowds of people that had been following him about, hanging on his every word.
What does Jesus teach them? Does he teach them concepts in academic theology, does he teach them about the latest scholarship in applied hermeneutics, does he teach them about the presentation of prayer or offer a critique of the social context? Er… well, no, not really. Well, not as such.
That’s not to say that all those complexities of theological learning I’ve just mentioned aren’t important: they are; they are hugely important. But Jesus teaches us something that is, in a sense, much more core, more fundamental than this: he teaches us about the simplicities of happiness.
The Beatitudes are usually translated as ‘Blessed are they’ or ‘Happy are they’, but it seems that the word Jesus used is more akin to ‘joyfulness’. What the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teach us is about a state of well-being, so that even though the circumstances around might be unsettling, or variable, or even unhappy, it is possible to have within us a state of being that can transcend these circumstances and conditions. It is a sense of being that knows that whatever life throws at us, good or bad, we are still cared for by God.
The other thing that the Beatitudes tell us is that there are certain values and principles that we should with us, in our emotional DNA if you like, that help us to make the world around us a better place. Meekness, peacemaking, mercy… that we should strive to humility, to healing rifts, to compassion and kindness. These are what we should strive for. These are the values that will really give us comfort and well-being. When we are going through tough times, and there are plenty of tough times that Jesus describes in the Sermon, we have His assurance of care and comfort. Something that I failed to notice for years in these verses is that they are not directive, they are descriptive. In other words, Jesus is not saying ‘if you want to be blessed, make sure you are poor, mournful, whatever’, as though we have to be those things in order to be blessed; rather, he is saying that when in life we experience these things, as surely we will, we have an absolute assurance that we can still experience an inner well-being which is not dependent on the circumstances we happen to be in at the time, a well-being through knowing that, in the words of the Revelation of St John the Divine, God will be our ‘shepherd, and [that] he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life… [and] …wipe away every tear from [our] eyes."
These are the qualities that mark out saints. Faulty human beings they all were. Indeed, some of them, as we have seen, would be labeled, at best, by our world as ‘misfits’. But the saints are those whom we celebrate today for becoming living embodiments of the Beatitudes. Whether or not the Church recognizes them as saints or not doesn’t really matter.
As well as All Saint’s Day, today is, for this parish, Celebration Sunday. The Stewardship Committee wanted to hold it on All Saints’ Day to emphasize that each and every one of us has a contribution to make in the service of the church, and that, later in this service, when you bring your pledge card to the altar, offering your time, your talents, and your treasure for the coming year, you are doing so as one of the saints and that, whatever your contribution, whether high-profile and frequent or occasional and behind-the-scenes, it all makes a world of difference – and I thank you for doing it.
While the panoply of the famous, officially recognized saints are determined by complex protocols of benchmarks, documented healing miracles, the fact is that we are in the company of saints every day. And perhaps the greatest miracle of All Saints’ tide is that each one of us – without exception – has within us the capacity for sainthood, just waiting to be brought to life!