Friday, November 1, 2013

With our Eyes Wide Open - an All Saints' Day sermon

I have dug out an old sermon for you today. I preached it on All Saints’ Day, 1995, my first Patronal Festival as Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in Brisbane (Australia).

I remember years ago celebrating an early morning Sunday Mass in a tiny wooden church, three quarters of an hour’s drive from the rectory into the glare of the rising sun. There was no town around this church; it stood in the middle of a wind-break of gum trees on the edge of a paddock.

Although the little church was full at Christmas and Easter when the relatives and friends of the tiny handful of Anglicans in the district escaped the city, quite often its congregation numbered only three, including the priest.

Such was the case on the Sunday in question. There were two women present, sitting – as they often did – towards the back. I must admit that, feeling a bit flat, I somewhat perfunctorily began the old Mass from the English Missal. 

But when I came to the Sursum Corda and the well-known words of the Preface, 

“Therefore, with angels and archangels, 
and with all the company of heaven, 
we laud and magnify thy holy name, 
evermore praising thee and saying . . .”, 

something happened to me. 

It’s hard to explain, but for me it was as if I had seen those words for the very first time. Their truth hit me. A door seemed to open, a door into heaven. A great aspect of the Catholic Faith that I had known in my head for most of my life made its way deep into my heart as our little murmured Mass in that unlikely place became for me a real participation in the worship of heaven. And since then, I have found it just about impossible to go to the altar of God without an awareness of being enveloped by the “other” world (which, of course, in Jesus, is not really “other” at all). 

I agree with those who say that being a Christian is a special way of seeing things. We see the same things that others see, but we see them differently; we see their inner, sometimes hidden, significance. And so, for us, our local Christian gathering for worship is the earthly showing forth of the great heavenly gathering around the risen Lord. It is THE SAME GATHERING. In the words of Orthodox Christianity, the Christian liturgy is the “earthly heaven.”

The Letter to the Hebrews is built around the idea of Jesus our great High Priest gathering the liturgical assembly of earth and heaven in the worship of the Father. Do you remember that marvellous passage in which the writer says to those early Christians accustomed to meeting for the Eucharist on earth:

“What you have (already) come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven. You have (already) come to God himself, the supreme Judge, and have (already) been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect; and the Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .” (Hebrews 12:22-24) 

And so, however big or small the congregation is at Mass, we are always infinitely outnumbered by the great company of heaven, the communion of love, into whose fellowship and worship we are drawn by Jesus our High Priest. Today - this morning in this Mass, he will part that Eucharistic veil again; he will open heaven’s door again, and we will find ourselves gazing out upon that world of the saints, the angels, our departed loved ones, that world which is the eternity of God’s love.

Shortly after the experience I have just shared with you, I read F.B. Mackay’s biographical essay on Father Charles Lowder, a great priest of the Catholic revival in the Church of England, and who founded the parish of St Peter’s London Docks, as well as the Society of the Holy Cross. It describes the circumstances of Father Lowder’s first curacy in Somersetshire where he was remembered as 

“ . . . the kind young gentleman who used to come and see us very often, and who said the prayers in church every day by himself.”

Mackay continues: 

“Picture him, still the radiant boy, on a wet winter morning. He unlocks the damp, old country church, and enters the cold, musty place in the dark. He kindles a candle or two and puts on a surplice, the old square pews stretching around him into the darkness. The curate has tolled a few strokes on the bell, but no one responds. After a while, the fresh young voice breaks the hollow stillness, and the prayers are recited ‘to the four walls’, as the neighbours said, but really to the Most Holy Trinity, and with the angels, the archangels, and the whole company of heaven. Out of that acorn grew St Peter’s London Docks.” 

So many priests, evangelists, parish sisters, bush brothers, missionaries, and ordinary Christians trying to cope with the struggles of daily life and ministry, have been nourished in their loneliness and isolation - and strengthened in times of persecution - by that kind of lively sense of the communion of saints. It is my sincere belief that without it we live a shrunken Christian life.

And yet, since the upheavals of the sixteenth century many good and loyal Anglicans have had genuine difficulties with the saints, and especially with the idea of asking them to pray for us. Some of those difficulties may have been justifiable reactions to superstitious practices purportedly widespread in the medieval Church, but, sadly, there emerged a thinking, an attitude, a theology, and even a spirituality far worse than anything medieval - far worse than any “abuses” because it resulted in a truncated and less-than-Christian view of reality, and an iconoclasm that in England involved the mindless destruction of so many shrines, images and holy places, those visual reminders of the love and fellowship we share with ALL our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It was sheer vandalism, equivalent to someone breaking into our home and destroying the photographs and mementos that have been handed down through the family and that help us feel connected to those who have gone before. It was a gigantic spiritual, emotional and psychological trauma from which English speaking Christianity has not recovered - even to this day -, despite the best efforts of the Catholic revival of the last 160 years to which this dear church bears witness. 

The result has been to find close to the heart of much Anglican worship a pinched, mean and miserable idea of the saints. They have been reduced to mere examples for us to follow. You know the kind of thing I mean . . . They led holy lives, and we should follow them, emulate them, and give thanks for them.

Well, that’s not enough. It’s not what the saints WERE that matters; it’s WHAT THEY ARE NOW. And WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW. It is their prayer for us, their friendship with us, their fellowship and communion with us now that is important - not a history lesson about past their earthly lives! They are our friends, our prayer partners, and the sense of worshipping with them as we are swept up into the Lord’s great Offering in the Mass charges the dreariest human life with significance and joy.

I also want to say - especially in the light of tomorrow being All Souls’ Day - that reductionist ideas of the relationship between life here and in the hereafter spill over into our thinking about death, and have a disastrous effect on what happens at funerals. So many modern clergy say that at funerals we can do nothing for the dead, that we can only do something for those left behind. Well, let me tell you, that’s not the Gospel; that’s not a belief in the resurrection of the dead or the communion of saints - the great community of love bound together in Jesus. That’s not the Catholic Faith. 

As your priest I DO something. I pray for the dead. I offer the one perfect sufficient Sacrifice of Jesus for them. I affirm that the Church of Jesus straddles the boundary between this world and the next, with all reality being joined together in him. So, just as I am sure that those who have died continue praying for their family and loved ones on earth, we continue our prayers for them as they experience healing and cleansing on their journey to the fulness of God’s glory.

Let’s remember how that twelfth chapter of Hebrews begins: 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

The picture here is of a race for which many spectators have gathered. They line the route so as to follow the contest. They have run the same race themselves, but now they are there to cheer us on. 

Of course, we think of the Old Testament heroes from the previous chapter, the key chapter in the Bible about faith; but we also think of those holy men and women who followed Jesus and now gaze on his glory in heaven. They were saved by his grace as we are. They responded to the same Word of God that we hear. They belonged to the Catholic Church as we do. They were nourished by the same sacraments that God has given us. They grew in prayer by the working of the same Holy Spirit who dwells within us. They sometimes struggled with doubts and fears, tragedies and failure, as we do. Some of them were gentle souls. Some were grumpy some of the time. But all of them ran the race in this world, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, growing in his love. And in that great cloud of witnesses they love us as brothers and sisters, they pray for us, they urge us on to victory. How natural and right it is for us to seek their intercession! 

If you have ever been involved in the theatre or in musical productions, you will know the world of difference that there is between rehearsing in an empty hall and playing to an enthusiastic full house. Well, in our worship, in our prayer, in our struggles, and in our triumphs, we are playing to a full house. Imagine what our lives and our parish would be like if we really believed that!

Every Mass here on earth is an open door to heaven. Do you remember how St John the Divine, “in the Spirit” “on the Lord’s Day”, the day of the Eucharist, said, 

“After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door” (Revelation 4:1). 

We enter that door this morning. The Lord himself opens that door to enable us to share in his Offering. We gaze out into eternity, we see the throne. We see the four living creatures, the elders, the whole of creation praising and glorifying the Lamb that was slain. We are joined to the praise of that great company of the redeemed as they sing: 

“Worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing. And we hear every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and the sea and all that is in it saying: “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever.” (Revelation 5:12-13) 

We share in that great and glorious worship this morning. Let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes. 

Because he will!

I love the story, in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 6:15-17), of Elisha’s servant going out and seeing horses and chariots surrounding the city. Full of fear he ran inside and said, 

“Master, what shall we do?” Elisha said, “Fear not; for those who are for us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.”

The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and gazing into the spiritual realm he saw the great company of the Lord of Hosts surrounding them.

With our eyes wide open this morning, we see Jesus, our Lord and Saviour who has redeemed us with his precious blood; we also see blessed Mary, the mother of Jesus and our mother too; Mary immaculately conceived, and gloriously assumed into heaven. Mary, who believed the Word of God, who said “yes” to God, who stood at the foot of her Son’s Cross, and who rejoiced at his resurrection; Mary, now higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, leading the praises of earth and heaven, but also our sister in Christ, supporting us with her love and prayers. We see the apostles, the evangelists, ancient saints like Ignatius, Agatha, Lucy, and Polycarp who faced martyrdom for Jesus. We see Benedict, Columba, Aidan, Bede, Dominic, Francis, Teresa, Clare and the other great religious saints. We see St John of the Cross and the other great directors of souls who still help us to cope with the ups and downs of the spiritual life. We see St Therese of Lisieux, St Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Maria Skobtsova, and the other saints of our own time. We see them, and so many others as well. 

With our eyes wide open this morning, we know that in the unity of the Holy Spirit this Eucharistic Mystery joins us to that 

“great multitude which no man can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’” (Revelation 7:9-12)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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