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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Hope and the Death of Death

It’s good to be with you on All Saints Sunday and to be launching this sermon series on hope. There is an evocative aspect to this time of year as autumn dies into winter, when the light is eclipsed and the first frosts come.  It can be a forlorn season when spirits are low and summer a beautiful but fading memory.  The solstice beckons, and dark times, and perhaps forebodings about what another year may bring: for our world, for our society, for ourselves. 

Yet we know within ourselves that the turning of the year tells a truth about the transience of things, the necessity of dying, our own mortality. The Christian and civic calendars echo this time of fall and of loss with the commemoration of the dead on All Souls’ Day followed by Armistice Day not long after.  Yet the liturgy lays over it a quite different way of construing winter: with the joyful celebration of All Saints, and with the exquisite season of longing and expectancy which is Advent.  Liturgical winter is not only a time for the burning of the leaves but for the rising of the sap; of light penetrating the darkness of this world, of grace and truth ordering our wayward human lives, of love everlasting transfiguring our loneliness, struggle and pain.  It is a time to rediscover hope.

I am sure you agree that hope is in short supply right now.  Like the colliding weather systems that made Hurricane Sandy such an awesome and destructive power across the Caribbean and North America, it is as if many different kinds of turbulence have come together in this decade to make things appear even more precarious than they were before.  I am thinking of the economic chaos whose millions of victims are the voiceless poor and those with least resources to withstand its angry shocks; and of the recognition of how close we are to irreversible climate change; and of the relentless conflicts tearing apart the Arab world; and of the failure of powerful wealthy nations to make lasting inroads into global poverty. I could go on.  If the church can speak a single word into this state we are in, it must surely be hope: daring to look both into ourselves and beyond ourselves for the power to give us back our dignity, rebuild fragmented societies and mend a broken world.

And if hope is needed to transform the big story of the world and its future, it is also needed to transform the little stories of our personal lives and relationships.  I say little: but they are not little to us. Each day many face fightings within and fears without that constitute a powerful undertow dragging us away from the light and immortality for which we were made. Physical or mental illness, ageing, misfortune, broken relationships, addictive behaviour, unhealed memories, loss: these are our personal equivalents of the global threats that on good days we try to pretend are not as bad as we had feared, and on less good days have the capacity to paralyse us with the thought that one day this little light of ours will be put out for ever.

This makes All Saints’ tide all the more of a gift.  At this time of year, the liturgy invites us to celebrate those who were and are lights in the world.  It says to us: notice what fills the pages of history and what is all around you today: the goodness, the graciousness, the joy, the perseverance, the charity of the people we call saints.  Sainthood is not the sentimental whitewashing of a human life to make it seem something that it isn’t.  Nor is it often heroic, as if the only way of holiness is to scale Himalayan peaks of faith, discipline and good works.  The secret lies in the ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday.  Pusey said that sanctity doesn’t mean doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways.  ‘Extraordinary’ means doing them for God, making drudgery divine:  The saints are emblems of hope: because they light little fires in dark rooms and inspire us to go on believing, trusting, hoping against hope in the God who makes all things new as our reading puts it.. 

One of these is death itself, the last enemy that we have faced on All Souls’ Day.  Today’s gospel tells of how Jesus raises Lazarus back to life.  Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived was a favourite place for Jesus.  There he found what he had had to renounce for the sake of his ministry: friendship, family and foyer, the warmth of care and affection, a place to call home.  So Lazarus’ death is a blow not just for his own family but for Jesus too: ‘see how he loved him’ they say.  St John uses this story as an introduction to his account of the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes up the rest of the gospel.  It’s a kind of visual aid: the man who died and came back from the dead announces what Jesus himself is about to do, only more gloriously, for when Jesus comes back from the dead, all things will begin to become new for he will be alive for ever.

But this beautiful story doesn’t simply illustrate a truth about Jesus crucified and risen in history.  It gives us a picture of what we ourselves are in him: those who have been brought back to life through the power and grace of God.  We are Lazarus, once held by our grave cloths as people who were not yet truly alive, emerging blinking and bewildered out of our tombs into the strong light of day into which the risen Saviour has led us. We are Lazarus, sought out and found by the searching loving grace of God that rolls away the stones that imprison us, opening up amazing new doors of possibility: new life, new purpose, new meaning, new joy, new hope.  This is St John’s message.  It is about how Jesus transforms our lives: like the man born blind who comes to see; like the woman at the well whose thirst is quenched; like the water turned into wine and the bread multiplied on the hillside.  It’s the light shining in the darkness as we shall soon hear in the Christmas gospel, and the darkness never again being able to overcome it. 

And this, I think, is what St John would mean by sainthood.  To be a saint is to live the new life God offers us in Jesus, to find that the ordinariness of work, leisure and relationships becomes something extraordinary because we learn to see God and bless him in it all.  So All Saints is about who and what we are as the people of God, faithfully following Jesus, speaking his words of truth and love, living in the strength of God as points of inspiration and challenge in a world that has so little time for him. The secret is to live out of gratitude for the love of God that made us and redeems us and sustains us. 

At All Saints’ tide, I think of the men, women and children who have lived that way in past ages and have completed their journeys and are now at rest.  I think of those who have loved me into life, influenced me, touched me in important ways, but for whom I would not be here now as a priest, a Christian and a man.  Like Lazarus, who was no-one in particular, simply a friend of Jesus in whom the life-changing power of God made all the difference.  That is why we celebrate that great multitude no-one can number who were faithful unto death, and have now received the crown of life, and in whose company, God willing, we shall one day find ourselves sharing in the vision of God when death shall be no more, neither mourning nor crying nor pain, for the first things have passed away, and the One seated on the throne says: ‘behold, I am making all things new.’. 

Blackburn Cathedral
4 November 2012
(Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44)
The first in a series of sermons at the Cathedral on the theme of hope.

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