The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Wisdom 3: 1 – 9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, John 11: 32 – 44
I love All Saints. It’s one of those deliciously quirky Sundays we Anglicans observe with readings rich in intensity and hymns to stir the soul. By the time we get to the last verse of the Processional hymn even the slowest learner of music is able to sing “Alleluia!”
But it’s also one of those difficult Sundays to preach for – like Christmas and Easter; it all seems to have been said before. You know the origins of the festival. Once the Church’s calendar got too full to accommodate individual saint’s days, a catch-all festival of All Saints was included – way back some time in the 7th century. Quite how Halloween, and its association with evil, hobgoblins and foul fiends, came about remains something of a mystery – most likely coming out of the mediaeval fear of judgment and death. The name of course is a corruption of All Hallows (Saints) Eve.
Be that as it may we have an opportunity today to give thanks to God for all the saints, those countless myriads of people who, as Christians, baptised into our Lord Jesus, have tried to follow Him. Influenced by the Great Commands coming out of the Old Testament – to love God and Neighbour, and the example of Jesus in washing the feet of his friends as a role model of what he meant by loving service, Christians have made a profound difference in the world – mostly, but not always, for good.
Today though, I want to suggest we think slightly differently about what a saint is. I am influenced by three events I have been part of in the last ten days. Each, in their own way, has challenged me to broaden my vision of what being a saint might be. I don’t say that you must accept my words, but at least think about them.
The first was a funeral I conducted here ten days ago. A young woman of 27, struggling with that black dog of depression and bi-polar disorder, gave in to the dog and took her own life – less than a hundred metres from this cathedral. Pippa was an A-grade student, winning a scholarship to one of Adelaide’s prestigious schools. She excelled in words and the ability to communicate. Bored with the humdrum of life chained to a desk (her words) she changed her name and profession, becoming Grace – sex-worker, business owner and champion of those who, like her, lived with the black dog. Her parents spoke at her funeral – lovingly, honestly, openly, and with the deep sadness that only a parent can feel at the funeral of their child. The Cathedral was packed – many, undoubtedly, her ‘clients’ who had found love and comfort in her ministry (yes, I use that word intentionally).
The second was a dinner at parliament a few nights ago. The guest speaker, a Pentecostal pastor, spoke to the assembled MPs (admittedly all Christians) about the call and commitment of those in his church to pray for people in authority. He said time and again that there are Christians praying for those in parliament – by name. We do that here virtually every time we worship both at the Eucharist and at Evensong. So why did I feel so challenged by this speaker’s words? Perhaps because it is easy to pray by rote; easy to pray by remote – and not really take seriously the pressures that our elected representatives in government and opposition are under. I have been feeling extremely angry at the apparent uncaring, unfeeling, callous non-response to our impassioned appeals on behalf of the Iluno family. Barring a miracle in the next days they will be on a plane out of Australia on Wednesday this week. Yet who is it having to make this decision? Someone we, you and me – the voters of the world – elected to represent us. How do we pray for those in parliament?
The third was a service at St Francis Xavier Cathedral last Thursday night. It marked the fiftieth anniversary since the issuing of a document from the Vatican called “Nostra Aetate”. Translated that means ‘in our age’. It was an important recognition by the Roman Catholic Church that people of other religions and faith groups might also have access to the holy. It included an apology to Jews for the appalling treatment of Jews by Catholic Christians. It recognised that Islam and Christianity share the concept of their being only One God. It acknowledged that world religions such as Hinduism, Baha’I and Buddhism, along with Judaism and Islam, share the longing of Christians for unity, peace and love for all. It was a document of deep repentance and commitment – commitment to getting to know people of other faiths in a meaningful and productive way. The service itself was a gentle one where representatives of seven of the world’s faiths read from their holy writings, prayed or sang, and then allowed time for silent reflection. After each a single candle was lit.
Why do I mention these three events on All Saints Sunday? Because I have been challenged recently – again – to ponder on the nature of ‘the holy’, and what makes something or someone ‘holy’. I don’t have the answers, but I do remember a verse in St John’s Gospel – from Chapter 10 where Jesus speaks about himself as the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd … and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold …” (John 10: 15 & 16) What does he mean? Could it be that he is gently chiding the disciples, the early church, and us that our definition of the fold is too narrow? That those whom we consider good and worthy, righteous and holy are not the only ones who fall into the category of saint? It’s an idea at least worth thinking about. It would not be the first time that Jesus challenged our thinking to the very depths of our being.
I said at the beginning that All Saints is deliciously quirky! Let me end by reading that well-known prayer of a 17th century nun, decidedly, and by her own special desire and admission, not a saint.
Lord, You know better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from the craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful, but not moody. Helpful, but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but You know, Lord, I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the endless recital of details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.
I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a lessening cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally, I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet. I do not want to be a saint – some of them are so hard to live with. But a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, Lord, the grace to tell them so.
Finally, a short prayer:
We praise and thank you Holy Spirit of God,
for the men and women you have called to be saints;
from your first fallible frightened friends
who followed you to Jerusalem,
through the centuries of discovery and growth,
people of every class and temperament
down to the present age.
We praise you, Holy Spirit, for calling us to serve you now,
for baptising us to represent you in this broken world.
Help us to be Christ’s united body to heal and reconcile;
help us to share Christ’s life with everyone.
ANZPB pg 672