Sermon for Eve of All Saints Thursday 31 October 2019
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at All Saints Margaret Street at Evensong & Benediction on the Eve of All Saints’, 31 October 2019
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 44. 1-15; Revelation 19.6-10
If you are a regular worshipper in this church then I wonder if you can recall the first time that you came. If you can, then I imagine that like most people, you did this: on entering the church, you looked up. In recent years, coming to this church has been like walking into a jewel box.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. When I was an undergraduate, no excursion to the West End was complete without a trip to Mowbrays Bookshop and a visit here for mass or to light a candle. In those days this church had a rich patina on the walls built up over the years with hefty doses of incense. It’s surely to Fr Alan’s credit that under his leadership this church has been restored to a glory not seen for a long time. Looking up never had such rich rewards.
And because we just have to look up on coming in, this church is countercultural. It speaks of something different to worldly concerns. Indeed, it has always been countercultural.
Back in 1859 when the church was consecrated, the neighbourhood was choc-a-bloc with busy street life but rather more sordid than it is now. Butterfield designed this church to lift the spirits: to give something transcendent to those people whose lives were tough and drab; to raise their gaze; to point them in the direction of the spire – heavenwards; to surround them with images that tell the story of our redemption and to assure them that others (‘the saints’) had trod the path of faith before them.
Life in 1859 hard? Yes, but it was no picnic for any of those depicted in this church. Many of these in the sanctuary, on the walls and in the windows were martyred. The Doctors of the Church had to battle it out with what would eventually be called heresy. If they looked up then so too could the newcomers over 150 years ago.
And today we still look up. And it’s still countercultural. Life may sometimes be tough but by and large it isn’t drab. But it goes against the grain for many of us to spend much time looking up at all. Modern life makes us look down. We are imprisoned by small screens. In the TV age, this only applied in the privacy of own homes. Now it’s all-pervasive. Especially during the day, to walk down Margaret Street is to run the gamut of people staring at their smart phones.
A while back I was almost knocked over by someone speaking loudly and talking in – let’s say, ‘colourful language’. When he became aware of my presence he yelled: ‘Do you mind? This is a private conversation!’ Well, he could have fooled me.
All Saints Margaret Street is doing its job when it’s swimming against the worldly tide. This church calls us beyond ourselves. It beckons us out of our egos and opens our eyes to the glories of heaven.
So, what does ‘heaven’ look like? The answer that we heard from the Book of Revelation this evening is that it is ‘the marriage feast of the Lamb’: and not just any old lamb but the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Agnus Dei is sung here as we make our way to communion, to make that simple physical connection between us and the bread of heaven. And we do this in the company of our brothers and sisters now, and our saintly brothers and sisters whose faith we have inherited.
The writer of Ecclesiasticus may have lived before the revelation of Christ but he certainly knew what he was talking about when he saluted the people and the deeds of past generations: those who had been touched by grace and lived by grace; those whose legacy is marked by valour, wisdom, music and poetry.
And beyond the physical appearance of bread and wine is a whole historical and doctrinal hinterland reaching back to the liberation of God’s ancient people from slavery in Egypt and mediated through the saving grace of Jesus the Jew who we believe is the embodiment, the incarnation of the Creator God. That hinterland, that theology stretches out like a vast landscape and resonates with our own stories.
Why do the scriptures or statues or pictures or music move us so intensely from time to time? Because they are the deep calling to the deep: the times of estrangement or slavery or misery; the times of freedom, liberation or salvation; the times of love and joy and peace.
We know that our faith is true not because we’ve read it in a book but because we have been challenged by it and affirmed. We’ve been immersed in it, in churches like this. We have looked up and we have been raised up.
If our faith is both true – and also true for us – then our response is not going to be just passing on some good news or giving up ourselves to good works, but to worship – that wholehearted self-emptying to the glory of God. In worship we bask in the company of the heavenly realm. Our souls are emptied of self and filled with the Holy Spirit. And it is from this experience that we live and move and have our being.
It is this energy that inspires us to carry out our daily lives in a way that is also countercultural – different to the world. It enables us to do what Christ prayed – that God the Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven isn’t ‘next’. It’s supposed to be now.
So, let’s ask the question again: ‘What does heaven look like?’ We need to move beyond the images all around us and look at the people here, and the people in the street and wherever we go – be that in the real world or the virtual one.
Heaven is before our eyes and it’s countercultural; it stands against selfishness and greed, corruption and violence. Heaven is on parade when beauty triumphs over ugliness; when holy silence quells earthly clamour. And heaven isn’t just all around. It’s also deep within. Our souls are enclosures of heaven’s light.
This evening we ‘praise famous men and women’. Most of us aren’t famous but our vocations are the same as theirs: to be heavenly lights in a darkened world; to clean off the patina of sin and to be a revelation of the glory of God that the world cannot ignore.
May this All Saints Festival be a joyful tribute to the past both ancient and more recent. May our looking up truly call us to looking out and looking inwards so that others may also look up and see what we see.