All Saints: 1 John 3, 1-3 & Matthew 5, 1-12
Has anyone here got a favourite saint? Well, I have two favourite saints - Andrew and of course Laurence. I had to say that didn’t I? But I also like some of the more unusual or bizarre saints, people like St. Jacqueline who decided that she was called to live in a tree from where she regularly rebuked Pope Innocent III for his wickedness, or St Sithney who believed that God had asked him if he’d mind being the patron saint of dogs and spent the rest of his life dressed up as a dog.
But seriously, why bother? Why bother celebrating and remembering the Saints? Well apart from the fact that some of them are really amusing they help bring the Christian story to life. Saints are animators of the gospel. Yes, I know we have the official saints whose status is granted by the Pope after a period of beatification, but we also have the broader ‘communion of saints', those inhabitants of heaven who have helped nurture and shape the life of faith. Saints are people who inspired by the gospel stories and the person of Jesus leave their mark. Saints are people who incorporate God’s story into their own life story. Saints are people who contemplate the gospel truths, exercise compassion towards others and act with courage.
We all have the opportunity to become saints but more importantly we all have the opportunity to shape an earthly communion of saints; a communion which provides an effective witness to our Christian faith. That’s one of the reasons I like the concept of ‘All Saints’; it reminds us that our witness is to be collective as well as personal.
So how do we mature towards sainthood? I would like to suggest that it is through opening ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit within us and by praying, in the words of the reading from 1 John, that we may one day ‘be like him;’ Jesus. And, it is also through contemplating the words of Scripture, perhaps especially the words of the Beatitudes, that we have heard in the reading from Matthew’s gospel. These are verses that Bishop Steven would like the diocese to contemplate and digest. He believes, and I agree with him, that if we can take the beatitudes to heart we will become a more Christlike church. We will become a more holy, or saintly, church. And, it is through sharing in the Eucharist. It is through sharing in the Eucharist that we become one body.
Prayer, scripture, Eucharist. As I said last week these three are our spiritual nutrients. If we engage with these three with open hearts and minds we will grow into the likeness of Jesus. That’s the genius of Christianity. We need to be as Saints in the world today. The future of the church depends on ordinary people just like you and me opening ourselves up the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
Can I ask you to take the pew sheet home with you and reflect on today’s readings each and every day and take them to heart? These readings are too precious just to be Sunday readings. They point us in the direction of becoming a more Christlike church, and that, in a nutshell is our mission.
Sermon - Francis of Assisi: Micah 6, 6-8 & Luke 12, 22-34
In recent years there has been something of a recovery in Franciscan Spirituality. If you were so inclined you could begin a journey of inquiry which could ultimately lead to you becoming something called a Third Party or Tertiary Franciscan; living as a Franciscan brother or sister in the community. I strongly believe that Francis is very much a saint for our times and that we need to learn lessons from the life and witness of St. Francis. Clearly the current Pope, despite being a Jesuit, also believes this to be the case.
St. Francis famously heard the voice of God saying to him ‘rebuild my church.’ We too need to hear that voice. The job of building the church is after all never done and in each generation it feels as though the church loses sight of the essentials. The essentials are the building blocks which allow us to rebuild the church. So what are these essentials; the bricks and mortar of our faith? The answer is given in the readings:
That we should ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with y/our God.’ These are lovely words, but they are also active words. We are not only to talk prophetically about justice but we are to do justice. We are to love acts of kindness, both when we receive them and when we give them and, we are to walk, that is to say press on through life, with a spirit of humility. Francis, with the prophet Micah, insists that we should be ‘doers of the word.’ Our faith should be both active and highly infectious.
The gospel reading points us in the direction of trust and simplicity, or even poverty of spirit. These are to be are underlying attitudes or beatitudes. Why should we care about justice, kindness, humility, trust and simplicity or poverty of heart? Well the answer is three-fold: first because they are good for us, they bring us back into relationship with God. They are essential spiritual nutrients; our five a day (justice, kindness, humility, trust, simplicity / poverty). Secondly, because as I have already suggested they are the bricks and mortar that help re-build the church. A church which isn’t characterised by the active living out of these virtues is a dying, decaying church. Such a church can ultimately only become a ruin, an historic artefact, a place that points towards a legacy lost. Do we want to become such a church? Thirdly, and most importantly, because these virtues are in and of themselves evangelical.
This week I was struck, as I mentioned this morning, by a young woman who wishes to convert to Christianity on the basis that she has encountered what she believes to be an authentic expression of Christian communal spirituality. I was also moved to hear the story of an Israeli woman who visited this church during the week and was amazed by the words on the door ‘all, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ She told a member of the congregation that what she sensed when she went into the church was a sense of deep peace and even deeper love. These are amazing accounts. They are real testimonies to how the Holy Spirit works, when the commitment exists to ‘rebuild the church,’ using the bricks and mortar of:
- Doing justice
- Loving kindness
- Walking humbly
- And all, in a spirit of trust, simplicity and poverty
These virtues form the very essence of Franciscan Spirituality. They are ours to re-capture and enact. If we do so we will like Francis ‘re-build’ the ‘church.’
Let me finish with a quote attributed to St. Francis which I would invite you to take home with you and mull on:
‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel only using words where necessary.’
Trinity 18: The Ten Commandments Exodus 20, 1-4, 7-9, 19-20 & Matthew 21, 33-end
There is a saying isn’t there that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ I guess many of us will have heard the Ten Commandments so often that it becomes easy to gloss over the depth of their meaning; it’s like that with a lot of the words we both hear and say in church on a regular basis. And, yet just occasionally, it is good to ponder anew the foundations of our faith which are summarised through the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Grace and so forth. In Lent next year I plan to do some teaching on the Lord’s Prayer but today let’s focus on the Ten Commandments. I will, however, be doing so with reference to the Lord’s Prayer.
Recently I met with a very remarkable lady. She was born into another faith and yet wants her children to be brought up in a distinctly Christian environment. She above all else values the notion of religious community at its best. She explained to me that she wants her children to have the freedom to be the people that only they can be, but that she wants them to live within certain moral limits. She also wants them to know their place in the greater scheme of things; in other words to know that God is God and they are his creation. What I would want to suggest is that this lady, who has to my knowledge never received any formal theological training, possesses a profound understanding of the theology behind the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments begin with the notion that God is to be treated with awe and respect; he is after all the ‘our Father who art in heaven.’ To rank anything alongside or even above God is to commit the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is the most dangerous of all sins because what it does is to invert the most sacred of relationships. When people individually, or even communally, commit idolatry what they are essentially doing is ranking themselves above God in the pecking order. The result of this can only ever be the misuse of power and authority. The consequence then becomes, as we have heard in the gospel reading, tyranny, violence and ultimately death. So, as Christians to pray ‘Our Father’ is to acknowledge our status before the all loving God, which in turn frees us from the temptation to commit the worst of sins.
The remainder of the commandments then provide people of faith with the basic standards of morality to govern life. They set boundaries. They suggest we shouldn’t steal, that we shouldn’t covet, or tell lies, and that we should honour our parents. What they are doing, again by reference to the Lord’s Prayer, is suggesting that we shouldn’t commit acts of ‘trespass.’
Trespass is an interesting word and has clear technical and legal connotations but I prefer to think about the word as a real infringement against other people’s freedom to be themselves; the people they were created to be. When we ‘trespass’ we cross not just technical but moral boundaries. And, of course, the place where sin, or ‘trespass’ begins the toxic journey of disrespect, intolerance and violence is in our hearts, in our desires, hence the commandment that we shouldn’t ‘covet.’ Coveting and idolatry are the very DNA of sin.
If we want to live out the Ten Commandments the place where we must start is by paying honest attention to the state of our hearts. The phrases in the Lord’s Prayer ‘our Father who art in heaven’ and ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ are perhaps appeals to be liberated from the sins of idolatry and the tendency to covet?
So are the Ten Commandments sufficient to allow us to live a truly moral life; one which ensures that our relationships are characterised by respect for both God and each other? Are they alone capable of allowing us to live as God’s chosen people in harmony with others? I suspect not! Now that may in itself sound blasphemous but what I would want to suggest is that they are the starting point. They are our basic Christian duties, and there is nothing wrong with duty. Duty is not an old fashioned, passed its sell-by-date notion. But, what we really need, for the sake of human flourishing, is duty animated and strengthened by love. Jesus after all sums up the entirety of the law by stressing that we should first love God and then love our neighbour. Love is the divine impulse, the energy that makes all things good.
So when we read the Ten Commandments and pray the Lord’s Prayer let us do so having opened ourselves up to the Love of God, for when we do so the words ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ become real and explicit through the way we live our lives and people, like the lady I spoke with earlier in the week, will continue to be drawn into the community of faith.
Living the Ten Commandments animated by love is to live a life of infectious evangelical witness and, put simply, that is our calling; yours and mine.
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