Sermon for All Saints’ Festival Sunday – High Mass Sunday 4 November 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Everett of St Clement Notting Dale
If any festival directs our attention to the fundamental unity of the kingdom of God, it is the feast of All Saints. Today we stake our faith on the claim that dead whom we remember in our prayers are living, and are with us here in our worship. The saints pray in communion with us, strengthening us with their presence.
This concept of a community that transcends space and time can at times seem rather theoretical, but was very real to me on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire. When I opened St Clement’s church, near to Grenfell Tower, at 3 am on 14 June 2017, I felt as if I were in the presence of all those who had worked and worshipped in the church for the past 150 years. I felt them there with me. In that bleak and horrifying moment, I was not alone.
And that sense of community, of the supporting prayer we cannot see, continued in a different way through the many emails, letters and postcards I received in the following weeks. And then in May this year, I met an old friend at St Paul’s Cathedral, at the Bishop of London’s installation. He said to me, ‘You won’t know this. But every time I see you on television I pray for you.’ Of course I didn’t know this, but yet in another sense I did, because throughout that appalling first year we were all very conscious of the support and love we received in prayer.
This sense of transcendent connection is at the very heart of the feast of All Saints, when we are reminded that there are things in heaven and on earth we cannot see, but only intuit. The dead we love and honour are not dead, but living, and they long for us to recognise the light that surrounds and awaits us. Equally, by extension, we know that we are also one with those who live on earth in our own time. The communion of saints is a concept that principally reaches back into a history, but is also reaches out across the globe.
The images we heard this morning in our readings are attempts to picture eternity. In 2 Esdras: of a great multitude praising the Lord with songs, and among them a young man, who places a crown on each of their heads, who receive palms, who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal. And in Hebrews: of the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, of saints and angels in festal gathering. Images such as these may be speculative and they may fall short in many ways, but at their best they have the capacity to feed us, when life seems dull and routine and predictable. Or alternatively, when it feels deeply conflicted, painful and stressful. But then the feast of All Saints speaks to that experience as well.
Three weeks ago, Pope Francis canonized Oscar Romero. Romero was a priest in El Salvador, who rose through the ranks to become Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, in a period of brutal state repression. At the time he was seen as a conservative figure. Many social activists were disappointed by his appointment. But all that changed. He began to speak up about human rights violations. In the days before social media, his radio broadcasts were a powerful reminder of the many acts of torture and murder being committed by the state. On 23 March 1980, he urged soldiers and police to stop following their orders, saying, ‘I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!’ The next day he was shot dead, while celebrating mass.
Oscar Romero is an inspiring example of a man who grew into his role. In the course of three short years as archbishop, his faith led him down an unexpected path to martyrdom. He is now formally recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint. He could never have expected any of this to have happened when he was first made Archbishop of San Salvador. In a way, it is just as well he could not.
A person like Romero makes the concept of martyrdom seem very real. His witness jolts us out of the groove into which we can all too easily settle. His example reminds us that our faith can all too easily become routine. His courageous public call to repentance challenges our tendency to think of faith in purely private and individualistic terms. In a modern martyr such as Romero, we sense a direct connection with the faith of the first Christians.
Christian faith of this kind is edgy and daring, and witnesses to truth and justice. It is never narcissistic and self-regarding, but infused with an outward looking humility. But like many saints, Romero’s journey was a slow one. He only reached the point of becoming the person we remember today towards the end of his life. Circumstances – providence perhaps – led him to the cross he eventually embraced.
One key aspect of Romero’s story was that although he was such a cautious and conservative figure, he spent most of his life resourcing himself for what turned out to be his final challenge. His prayer life was deep and embedded. And so, when the time came to take up his cross, he had the strength to carry it. And so alongside the call to community, the feast of All Saints contains a call to formation, to a long and slow process of interior development. No one becomes a saint by accident, or overnight. A deep, mature faith is the work of a lifetime.
One of the reasons I am so honoured and delighted to be with you this morning is that All Saints Margaret Street has been a hugely important part of my own journey. I first came here in 1979. Although I had been baptized, my family were not churchgoers, and so it would be something of an understatement to say that I was a little surprised by what I discovered on my first visit here. I was standing by the front pew at the right, and as a result when the entry procession began I was overwhelmed by a truly astonishing quantity of incense. And I loved it. I loved every aspect of the worship. It was deeply formative, and I am still nourished by those experiences from forty years ago.
Community, formation . . . and a third element that we remember on the feast of All Saints: memory. We think of time as being purely linear. Night follows day, and day follows night. But some moments in time, some places, are so vivid that when we re-encounter them we are taken right back across the intervening years. Whenever I enter this church, I am drawn to an unexpected place: to the chancel wall, down there, because I would look at it in quiet moments before and during mass. Given what we see around us, this may sound prosaic – even bizarre – but that wall is for me not a wall at all but a door: into an earlier point in time, which is as real for me now as it was then.
The feast of All Saints helps us to remember that our experience of time is fluid. In speaking of an intersection of eternity with the time we experience here and now on earth, this festival encourages us to look beyond what see and hear around us. It helps us to resist a narrowing down to the merely parochial, or diocesan or even national. It expands our sense of community beyond the conventional boundaries of time and – also – space.
When we affirm our belief in the communion of saints, that affirmation demands from us an act of historical imagination, so that we feel a sense of real connection with those who have gone before us, who are so important in our tradition. But it also pushes us out in an act of identification with Christians throughout the world, who belong with us today in one community. The witness of Asia Bibi and other Christians in Pakistan, or the Copts in Egypt who show such extraordinary fortitude in the face of terrorist attacks, reminds that there is a community of saints alive here and now on earth. Their witness humbles us, and teaches us, and inspires us – as much as the example of saints who have gone before us.
Formation, memory, community: key themes in the Eucharist, where all is gathered together in Christ, and key themes for the onward journey of the pilgrim people of God. And so we gather here now, together, in community, in communion with one another, with the saints, with Christ, knowing that before too long we will disperse. We will go out into the world to do what we can to build the kingdom of God, to help to bring into being the justice, mercy and peace proclaimed in our gospel reading – along with Oscar Romero and all the saints living and departed whom we honour and venerate today. As one people, a resurrection people, bound together in Christ.