A sermon preached on Tuesday 1 November, All Saints' Day 2016 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Reading Luke 6.20-31
For his offerings on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, Rabbi Lionel Blue had a trademark style: a cosy, fireside voice telling homely stories out of which he would draw a moral. It wasn’t always my cup of breakfast tea but it was effective: several of his Thoughts have stuck in my mind.
One centred on a story about two couples playing cards. One player makes a grand slam, and sits back, exultant. ‘You fool!’ hisses his partner: one half of the couple he has just beaten is his boss, and - in his partner’s mind at least - this game of bridge is part of a bigger game of promotion, pay and power; by winning the small game he may have lost the big one.
Now, the promotion game is itself part of an even bigger game, the game of life, in which there are many ideas about what counts as being a winner. Is it just that, business success? Is it about wealth, power, fame? Or is it quality of life, retiring to France, perhaps (proceed with caution on that one); or to Salisbury? Is it having good friends? Or is it integrity, being a person you can face in the mirror every morning? We each have our list, and I suspect that believer and atheist might have quite a few items in common. The question that will really sort us out, though, is this: do you think that the game of life is itself part of a yet bigger game?
Lionel Blue once told another story, about a funeral he took for someone who had done very well in the business game. Blue had talked about heaven, but afterwards one of the mourners said of the dead man, ‘He wouldn’t want your heaven, rabbi. He wouldn’t know what to do with it. So much of him was bound up with this world I doubt if there is much left for the next.’
This ‘next’ world is the arena for the game of eternal life, life with God. It’s the one of which Jesus speaks when he says to those who are shut out and rubbished because they are his followers, ‘Surely your reward is great in heaven.’ He hints at it again when he addresses this world’s winners and losers with those teasing future tenses of his – ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.’
When will this next world, this topsy-turvy future, begin? That is partly a question about when God will make this gonewrong world of ours come right, and there is no shortage of unhomely stories to rekindle our impatience for that day (try, for example, the film I, Daniel Blake). In our hearts, though, the next world can begin now. Indeed, for some it’s already dawning - people who have seen what the real game is, and whose lives show that they are learning to play it, in the big calls and the small decisions of life.
These are the ones Jesus calls ‘blessed’, and the ones we call saints. To receive this title it is not necessary to be endorsed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints; it is (as Marks & Spencer used to put it) exclusively for everyone. All we need, Jesus seems to say, is to listen to his voice, dare to live as though his words are true, and discover that this is the only game that matters in the end.
A great listener to his Master’s voice was a person who has for some while been on the Vatican’s saint agenda: currently called ‘Blessed’, he is one last push from the summit in the long climb to becoming ‘Saint’ John Henry Newman. If he makes it, he will join Osmund and Edmund - two saints associated with this place - and all the other men and women and boys and girls whose lives the church has officially recognised as showing ‘heroic sanctity’.
Way back, though, when he was plain Cardinal Newman, he wrote a prayer that suggests that he might not now be all that bothered about these efforts on his behalf - like a true saint.
Teach me, dear Lord, frequently and attentively to consider this truth: that if I gain the whole world and lose thee, in the end I have lost everything; whereas if I lose the world and gain thee, in the end I have lost nothing. Amen.