Revelation 7.9-17 and Matthew 5.1-12
So, why do we celebrate All Saints? If we lived in Southampton, we might be forgiven for thinking that today is a day for celebrating a certain football club. You see, 'the Saints' started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team?
The Rev'd Richard Coles is a parish priest and public broadcaster whom you may have heard on my favourite Radio Station...good old Radio 4 (or what some people still call 'The Home Service!'). He has published a book called 'The Loves of the Improbable Saints', in which he has written up stories about some of the strange people who have been made Saints by the Catholic Church.
For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham? Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying. Then there's St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher. Its a great name isn't it? It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.
I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people - though there's no-one around here who would benefit from his prayers!. There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information. Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet? "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"
Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes! And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place. Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer: "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."
Whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them. Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ. So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus. I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!
No, the festival of All Saints is nothing about football, and very little about silly or funny patron saints. Rather it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven. The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints. It's a term which we can all own, if we are followers of Christ. Hmm...St Tom of Portsmouth....has a bit of ring to it?
The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one. We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant. In the same way that we pray for each other here on earth, the Church teaches that we should also pray for those who have died, and that they pray for us. That is why many churches have icons...pictures of Saints in heaven, whom we can ask to pray for us, as we continue to pray for them. Orthodox Christians believe that icons are windows into heaven - so much so that the light of heaven itself changes the features of the saints that we see in them. That's why features in icons are usually slightly elongated.
Our two readings today remind us that, as the Bible says, God is the God of the living, and of the dead. The dead are held by him, in his love, until the great end of days that we all hope for. Our first reading, from the book of Revelation, paints vivid picture of what it is like to dwell with God in heaven. In language that is rich with symbolism, we are given a picture of a great multitude of people from every race, tribe and tongue, gathered before the throne of God. In a piece of symbolism that only the Bible can pull off, everyone is wearing a white robe, because it has been 'washed in the blood of the Lamb!'. Its a wonderful vision, isn't it? I'm personally drawn very deeply to the notion that all these people are gathered from every nation...its not a vision that the likes of UKIP supporters might be very happy with. Together, all the nationalities of the world are as one...all dressed in white, all waving palm branches. There is neither rich nor poor, because the text says 'they will hunger no more, and thirst no more'. The human need to accumulate stuff will be irrelevant, as all peoples focus on loving God.
Some people take the underlying themes of Revelation quite literally - they believe that the visions of John are a prediction that will one day come literally true. Personally, I'm not quite so sure...I tend to see the visions of Revelation as poetry which points us towards a spiritual reality that we can claim today. God is already with us. In Jesus, God has already made his home with mortals. For those who truly trust in him, whether they be alive or dead, there need be no more mourning, or crying or pain.
That's what Jesus meant, I think, when he declared that the Kingdom of Heaven is among you...and then listed, in the Beatitudes, the kinds of ways in which life would change when the Kingdom and its spiritual values were put into practice on earth. Jesus promises that a world that is suffused with the Kingdom will be unlike our present reality. In fact it will be upside down to what we've become used to. Those who mourn will be comforted. The meekest and the lowliest will be put in charge - they will inherit the earth.
And the the poor will inherit the Kingdom. According to a report published by Oxfam last week, almost half the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. And here's another startling statistic from the same report...the richest 85 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the bottom HALF of the world's population.
Let me ask you a question which might help to bring this home. Since 2009, just before the last election when the great 'credit crunch' began, how much as your income grown since then? 2%? 3%? My little NatWest savings account gives me a half of one percent interest on my savings.
During the same period, from 2009 to 2012, the wealthiest one per cent of Americans saw their incomes grow by 31.4%...which the other 99% experienced growth of just 0.4%!
I find it incredible that we Christians seem able to cheerfully ignore those kinds of statistics. We seem to be content to let these kinds of injustice go on. We stand by and watch the poor getting poorer and poorer, while the rich simply hoover-up the world's wealth.
Why, for example, is Ebola such a problem in West Africa? It's because West Africa is POOR. They don't have the infrastructure, the doctors, the nurses, the medical supplies, the hospitals, the isolation wards that the West has. They don't have these things because the west refuses to share them.
Jesus points the way to a different reality though. Jesus points to a world in which there is equality among all people. Jesus dreams of a Kingdom in which those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Jesus promises a way of life in which the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor...who find themselves blessed.
How are we to get there? How is such a lofty vision to be fulfilled? The answer is...one saint at a time. The Saints are those who are in love with God. The Saints are those who have been so touched by the reality of God, that they will go to extra-ordinary lengths for God's sake, and for the sake of Jesus' vision. Don't focus on Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher...I'm sure he was a great guy. But the Saints we really need to give thanks for are the ones whose lives transformed the lives of others around them. Saints like our own St Mark, who had the courage to write down the stories about Jesus, as dangerous as that was in his day. Saints like St Francis, who gave up all his inherited wealth so that he could be one with the poor, and serve them. Saints like St Nicholas, who rescued children from slavery and abuse.
We continue to remember the Saints because they give us tangible, real examples, of what the Kingdom could be like. Their lives of self-sacrifice offer us a different way of being, a way that we can embrace if we choose. We give thanks for those present day saints who are living extraordinary lives right now...lives that our poured out in the service of others.
And we wonder...could God be calling us to that kind of life too?