Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. “But I say to you that listen, 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 also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your 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.
We celebrate today those who have gone before us, those we call saints, and I have to say, I think there’s a pitfall here: the danger lies in our tendency to consider as saints only those who have made a huge impact on the world, people such as Martin Luther-King or Mother Teresa or those who have an exotic back-story. I give you a couple of examples of those from The Reverend Richard Coles’ wonderful little book Lives of improbable saints: let’s start with Saint Umberto The Blessed, and I quote, He was count of Savoy and is now celebrated as patron saint of monks with complicated sex lives.
How about St. Fiacre? (No, me neither.) I quote again, He was an Irishman who has become the patron saint of those who suffer from piles following a story that he sat down on a stone in so holy a way that it softened.
Hmmm! How does one sit down in a holy way?
Finally, and my personal favourite, St. Martha of Bethany: she was the sister of Mary Magdalene and after Jesus’ ascension she got into a boat without sails, oars or a rudder and was miraculously conveyed to Marseilles and from there she made her way to Arles which, at the time, was being plagued by a dragon which lived in a river, destroying and eating their ships. After it had feasted and digestion took its course, it did an enormous poo, which covered an ace of ground, was as bright as glass and burned those who touched it. When Martha came across it eating a sailor, she simply sprinkled it with holy water and it stood as meekly as a lamb while Martha tethered it with her underwear. Then everyone killed it with spears.
When we use the word ‘Saint’ we may, perhaps, think of such as Umberto, Fiacre and Martha with their mad back stories (and snigger) or those incredible, almost superhuman Christians of the past, maybe even those who were martyred for their faith like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. In the Roman Catholic Church, true sainthood is reserved only for those to whom a certain number of miracles can be attributed. However, the American Methodist Pastor, writer and academic James Howell, in his book, Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, tells us,
Saints do not possess an extra layer of muscle. They are not taller, and they do not sport superior IQs. They are not richer, and their parents are not more clever than yours or mine. They have no bat-like perception that enables them to fly in the dark. They are flesh and blood, just like you and me, no stronger, no more intelligent.
So, what exactly do we mean when we talk of saints and sainthood?
In the New Testament, the word ‘saints’ simply means ‘holy ones’, or ‘faithful ones’. All faithful Christians are counted as saints: that’s you and me.
And that is the point James Howell tells us and then goes on to say, Saints simply offer themselves to God, knowing they are not the elite, fully cognizant that they are inadequate to the task, that their abilities are limited and fallible.
So, given that definition, let’s look at our Gospel for today. The gospel for this All Saints’ Day comes from the Sermon on the Plain that Jesus preaches in Luke’s Gospel. The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel may be more familiar, but what Luke gives us appears more provocative: it is a series of blessings followed by a parallel series of woes.
Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now, who are hated by all. Something better awaits you when the great day comes.
But woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh, who are well spoken about by everybody. When the great day comes, you will find yourself desolate.
These contrasts are enough in themselves to make us uneasy. But then come some verses that must rank high on the list of bible passages all of us like to pass over quickly as though they were not there. Jesus goes on to say; Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
There are texts from the Bible that people like to embroider in needlepoint and put up on the living room wall. There are texts from the Bible that are written in splendid, colourful calligraphy and appear on greetings cards. But rarely, if ever, are texts such as these chosen for such display: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
And if these calls to doing good, and blessing, and prayer are not challenging enough, upsetting enough, Jesus then gets more specific. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also.
The Church is challenging in assigning this passage to the feast of All Saints’. In the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus presents the template for God’s kingdom – and in terms of its moral and ethical dimension, it’s pretty much summed up in the last verse, Do to others as you would have them do to you.
In this text from Luke for All Saints Sunday Jesus was turning the world of his disciples upside down. That’s why the reading in the bulletin is set out in the way it is. I say that, because the blessings and woes that Jesus spells out are the opposite of the ideals people believed in at the time – and indeed today. This text stands as a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in Luke. It began with Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she spoke the Magnificat about the lowly being lifted up and the powerful put down. It can be seen in Jesus’ first sermon when he quoted the prophet, Isaiah, saying that the poor and marginalized would have good news preached to them and it ended with Jesus telling the crucified thief next to him that he would be with him in paradise that day.
Throughout Luke, Jesus’ presence in the world was turning that world upside down. Then we move to the part of the text that puts our faith to the test. It tells us to love and do good to no-gooders (a loose paraphrase). Don’t strike back. Give to those less fortunate without a thought about what’s in it for you. That’s the stuff of being a saint – and when we’re faced with such challenges we need to ask to what extent we really want to change. Isn’t selfishness our natural inclination, being sinners as well as saints? Sainthood begins with our understanding of the depth of God’s love. It is unconditional, meaning that it has no requirements or prior conditions before it is given. It is that same approach which is expected of us and we in turn can turn our worlds, our spheres of influence, upside down.
I think it’s difficult enough for us to show that kind of love to loved ones, let alone enemies. Your significant other gets out of bed on the wrong side; your teenage children or grandchildren are being bolshie; your elderly relatives are being unreasonably demanding; your oldest friend is being insensitive or offhand: its hard work – and these are people we love. Where do we start with the rest? That line-manager who seems to take pleasure in winding you up; that neighbour who regularly parks in a careless way or whose love for his dog blinds him to the fact that it is persistently barking late at night; those kids who throw litter in your garden on the way home from school and then get lippy when you tell them off; that driver who cuts you up; the shop keeper who seems to think he’s doing you a favour when he serves you; the cold-caller from yet another PPI company and so on. What of them?
What of them indeed?
The thing is we aren’t given choices about how we respond to others: the teaching of today’s Gospel is supported throughout scripture and as an example we have St. Paul’s advice to the Christians in Philippi. If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus. (Phil 2.1-5)
These are the marks of discipleship in this life and the marks of sainthood and they should turn lives upside down.
Last week I was involved in two funerals: here at St. John’s we said our goodbyes to our own beloved Mabel and at St. Luke’s we said our goodbyes to Angela’s Mum, Laura. I know there is a tendency in Eulogies to concentrate on the positive and I’ve never been to a funeral where someone stands up and says, “Now about my Dad: he was a nasty piece of work and we all hated him.” That being said, as I sat and listened to the eulogies for Mabel and Laura I was reminded what awesome women they had been in their unostentatious discipleship with so many acts of quiet and selfless service behind the scenes with no expectation of praise or reward. These women were models of sainthood in the sense we’ve been discussing this morning: disciples of quiet humility and commitment in their love of God and service of others. No bells and whistles, no flashing lights and no miracles – at least, as far as I’m aware -, yet saints nevertheless and as such, saints who in their own ways, turned others’ lives upside down.
In the Apostles Creed we declare the Church’s belief in the Communion of all the Saints. That means that we, members of the church here on earth, are connected with all those faithful Christians who have ever lived. Happy are those who mourn. Because our mourning is part of our ongoing relationship with those we’ve lost, part of what it means to belong to the communion of the saints. That means that in Christ we still have a relationship with them. We are connected and related to Mabel and Laura and to all those we’ve lost and think about and remember before God today. And, in Christ, and in God’s kingdom, they still have a relationship, a communion, with us. And there’s comfort in knowing that. All Saints includes them. And it includes us.