All Saints’ Sunday 2013
Now that the Vicar of Enfield – Mike Edge - has retired, there are a few things down in that parish that Jackie and I are helping out with. She is not with us this morning, because she is conducting baptisms there today. And one of the things that I‘ve taken on is to do a monthly assembly at St Andrew’s School. You may think that this is water off a duck’s back to me, but let me tell you that until recently I hadn’t done an assembly for about fifteen years, with one exception – I did one at St Paul’s Cathedral School once, and hadn’t done any before that since I was a curate in Cambridge. And I’m doing another next week – on Remembrance Day – which means I’ll have done as many in 2 months as I did in the previous fifteen years.
As is the way these days – the topics of school assemblies are determined in advance, so having said which days I could do it, I was bowled the wonderfully opaque title of ‘happiness’. A school assembly on happiness.
Now I won’t bore you with my mundane and inane attempts to enthuse the kids about happiness – suffice it to say I wound them up nicely before handing the stage back to the Headteacher. But the reason I mention it is because in thinking about happiness, I presented to them the rather obvious contrast between people who were always happy and those who were always miserable. And the archetypes of such people – so wonderfully encapsulated by A.A. Milne, are of course Tigger, and Eeyore. So you can imagine me – I won’t demonstrate - bouncing up and down like Tigger, and moaning like Eeyore. You get the picture. I’m told the kids loved it - Phew.
Tigger – the epitome of enthusiasm and delight – the ever optimistic optimist.
Eeyore - the moaning Minnie – the pessimistic naysayer.
We all know people like them…. which are you I wonder?
Let’s not go there…
But rather let’s turn to today’s gospel.
Our translation says ‘blessed are they’, but some Bibles translate the Greek word makarioi, as ‘happy’. Blessed are those who are pure in heart. Happy are those who are pure in heart. The difference is subtle, and there is a lot of debate, which I’m not going to explore.
Because what interests me, and perhaps would have interested the children at assembly, is that here are a series of sayings by Jesus – which Matthew also quotes on the famous Sermon on the Mount – in which he contrasts those who are happy with those who are sad – full of woe. Or those who are blessed with those who are cursed. And it is a kind of Tigger/Eeyore act.
There is optimism for those who suffer for righteousness sake, and pessimism about those who are rich. These are hard words to hear: for like Eeyore Jesus tells those who are rich, who are full, that because you’ve had your fun your world will be turned upside down. Woe to you who are laughing, because you’ll be crying soon. And if anyone likes you and says nice things about you – just watch it. Actually, so serious are these warnings, that they make Eeyore look like a party entertainer - a mere clown.
But these are not jokes. Rather they are an indication of the topsy-turvy nature of God and his ways for the world. The low shall be raised, the high shall fall. Whatever your lot in the world now, it will be reversed. It’s a literary technique of contrasting opposites to make a strong point, but it also happens to be how things shall be in the coming Kingdom of God. So these are salutary words to comfortable people in a rich nation. This is not about rising gas prices, poor railway services or too many noisy fireworks going off at night, but about the eternal salvation of our souls and bodies.
Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints – the illuminating, eternal life affirming festival of gratitude for the lives and ministries of all the saints, with whom we are in communion on a constant basis. That festival which has been turned to dark, death-savouring mockery by the Americanised, trivialized trick or treatery of Halloween. And later today we shall remember the faithful departed as we move into All Souls’ mode, when we try to remember that real grief and gratitude for lives loved and lost can be glorified in the eternal promises of the topsy turvy God who turns mourning into joy, grief to gladness and despair to hope. We shall remember that as we lay win Green to rest in the Memorial Garden – she is was and is one of the saints – one of all those saints – whose souls find rest in the Lord.
Meanwhile there is the practical sting in the tale of all this upturning of expected norms. For not only are we told that those who weep will cry, and the rich shall be poor, we are told what to do about it. In our daily lives – the daily life of a saint if you like – a saint: that’s you and me – in our daily lives, we are told to turn the other cheek; to love our enemies, and to pray for those who abuse us. These are familiar words which have become part of the currency of modern talk. Yet hearing them, knowing them, and doing them are not the same thing. Turning the other cheek, being kind to those who are unkind to us, or who rip us off, hurt our friends, defraud us or serve us up various forms of injustice – these are hard things to do. ‘Love your enemies’ slips off the tongue far too easily when you don’t have any, or when it is not oneself who is the victim of the way in which society operates, or is a victim of the webs of deceit and lies that criminals often spin. Too often there are dilemmas too big to brush off with a phrase like ‘do good to those who hate you’.
Add to this, giving away your coat, give to all beggars, allow people to steal from you and curse you without riposte. These are hard words indeed. And yet, they are the marks of sainthood, and we are all called to be saints. The Christian faith was never meant to be, and never will be easy.
Saints are only special people inasmuch as they are beloved of God, and that is all of us. Saints are not saints because they behave like this, but rather, as saints, we are called to behave like that. God’s love is not conditional, but it comes first. He loves us, forgives us, and calls us into better lives – in that order.
So it is that when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, as we do today, we are celebrating not only those for whom Jesus’ call to love enemies and offer the shirt from their back was both real and actual, we are also celebrating our own status as saints, and recalling our own feeble attempts to live as saints called to love others as ourselves. And the key is to treat others as we would be treated ourselves.
And the meaning of that, which is often overlooked, does not lie in the idea that we should treat people as we would want them to treat us – be nice to others and they’ll be nice to you. ‘Do as you would be done by’ is not about other people at all.
No it’s deeper and better than that: And it’s all about forgiveness. Because we do all hurt others and behave badly, even if it is the case that we are not thieves or murderers or beggars.
Such people do exist, and they might be us. Why are you, or I, not a beggar, a murderer or a thief? It is a complex question that cuts to the core of who we are and why we are, as we are. But if we were beggars, murders or thieves, how would we want to be treated? We would not want to be bullied, punished, made an example of, imprisoned, cast into darkness. No-one wants that: Imagine they were you – what would you want? You would want a second chance – you would want forgiveness, remission, renewal – a fresh start. Which is, in fact what God calls us to in our dealings with others. Not to buy them cake because they give us cake, but to forgive as we would want to be forgiven if we were in need of forgiveness. Which of course, we all are. And which, also, of course, God has done for us in Christ.
So when we read, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It does not mean, do to others what you want them to do to or for you. Rather it means, do to others what you want God to do for you. Or even, do to others the same as God has already done for you.
For that is the way of the saints.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/11/13