A sermon preached by The Revd Stephen Tucker on All Saints Day, Friday 1 November 2019
One of my favourite paintings of heaven is to be found in the friary of San Marco in Florence. It is one of a whole series of frescoes painted by Fra Angelico. It shows the results of the final judgement. Down the centre of the painting there is a row of open graves; on the left is heaven. Heaven is a garden in which a variety of angels are doing a round dance and welcoming the new arrivals, who are looking round as though rather puzzled to be finding themselves where they are. Some of the angels also look slightly puzzled as though they hadn't expected certain individuals to be there. There's a sort of "Good-heavens-fancy-seeing-you-here," quality to the picture, which is entirely as it should be.
Opponents of Christianity have often accused us of inventing ‘Pie in the sky when you die’. It has been said that, "Probably no invention came more easily to man than heaven." But surely that is wrong. If you think about it, heaven would be impossible to invent on the scale with which the Church has described it. For the Church has down the ages peopled heaven with such an extraordinary crowd of saints that no human institution could possibly contain them all without breaking down in total confusion. If we were to invent a heaven, we would of course fill it with people like us, and above all people we agreed with. Our heaven would never contain the possibility of being totally astonished by another person's presence.
One such astonishing presence might be the whisky priest from Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. Set in Mexico, the novel concerns an alcoholic Catholic priest hunted down during an anti-clerical purge by a left-wing government. In the end the priest gets captured. Although he has been a failure in so many ways, he can't quite rid himself of the bad conscience which forces him to go on doing what priests are supposed to do. As he wakes up in a crowded cell on the morning of his execution these thoughts occur to him;
He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty handed ... It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint, a little courage. He felt like someone who had missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.
We might ask ourselves tonight whether we have ever felt like that. Do we want to be saintly people, do we feel called to holiness, and if so, how might we be guided by the huge varieties of saintliness manifested in the church down the ages? That of course is going to be difficult for me to answer. I am likely to be influenced only by the saints I happen to admire and agree with. So perhaps a better way to approach the matter is through the sins of the saints. The modern response to accusations of having done something wrong is usually to protest your innocence, and run for cover. The saints on the other hand protest their guilt regularly, and humbly. A group of early monks in the Egyptian desert once came together to put on trial one of their brethren who had been caught in some wrong doing. The monks invited a wise and saintly old man to join them. He arrived carrying a leaking jug filled with water that trickled to the ground. When asked what on earth he was doing, he replied," My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." The monks immediately forgave the monk on trial.
The saints are always honest. They always find themselves out, long before anyone else does. They know themselves as sinners not because they are hung up on some kind of guilt neurosis, but because they always have before them the ideal of goodness, the love of Christ which leads him to the cross. And before that ideal, the saints will always know themselves to be falling short; but that is not a cause for depression or crippling guilt. Faced with the love of God in Christ, the saints have no fear of admitting their sinfulness. They know the sole purpose of God’s love is to draw them to itself. Freely admitting their sinfulness, enables the Saints to open up a space in their lives for amazing grace to produce unexpected results.
For what makes a saint in this life is not how good he or she is, but the way in which he or she allows God's grace to work with his or her weaknesses, sins and failures. What makes a saint is not an absence of fear or guilt, of emotional scars and painful memories. What makes a saint is the acceptance of the painfulness and muddle of life. It is this which enables the saint to be compassionate with those who are muddled, guilty and in pain. In the companionship of woundedness, the love of God can be made present. The saints are those who have come to terms with their humanity in a divine way.
The purpose of this celebration tonight is of course to give thanks for the enormous diversity of goodness manifested in all those who have become human in a divine way. Tonight, we remind ourselves that we are called to be a part of this great cloud of witnesses in whose humanity the grace of God has worked so gloriously. We are to be enlightened by what Ephesians refers to as ‘the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints.’ Acknowledging such an inheritance is a potentially risky business because you never know with whom you'll be dancing cheek to cheek when you're in heaven. So, it's best to learn to dance to the music of heaven here and now, discovering how to shock each other with a capacity for unexpected, heroic, courageous, faithful, loving, joyful, improvisatory, persistent, humble, penitent, honest, un-self-regarding, merciful, overflowing, intelligent, heart-warming, magnanimous, devil-may-care goodness.
Our collect this evening contains the rather unexpected image of God knitting. ‘You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your son Christ our Lord.’ God knits together a vast worshipping community of the faithful with all their different ways of being holy. And he knits together in each one of us the ability to know ourselves as sinners yet open to amazing grace. And if you’re not feeling either very holy or very penitent, then it’s important to remember that God never drops a stitch. Amen.