Every Saint has a Past and Every Sinner a Future
A sermon by Revd Richard Carter.
Readings for this service: Matthew 5.1-13
Have you ever met someone who you thought was holy or even a saint? Following this last week in British political and national life it seems hardly surprising that we have all grown a little wary of those who set themselves up as role models or representatives of virtue. One of the marks of our celebrity culture today is that nothing makes for a better scoop than a scandal in which a famous person’s sins and failures are exposed on a front page and nothing more newsworthy than the lurid details of how someone of fame or reputation, or standing has messed up or caused scandal and such hurt. But it can take on the quality of a witch hunt- with a media frenzy which has smelt blood. While this may indeed hold people to account for their actions and bring about change for the better- it often feels like trial by fear, and rumour where no one is willing to defend the accused for fear that they too will also be accused. The argument is that this brings transformation but these trials often leave one feeling deeply uneasy- like becoming the spectator of a public flogging. One remembers Jesus at the side of the woman taken in adultery: “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.”
A frequent theme of the psalms is the prayer
“O lord do not let me be put to shame
Do not let my enemies exult or gloat over me.”
At the very centre of our Gospel is the realisation of our need of God’s mercy- Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner. The knowledge we all have feet of clay and that we all, every single one of us stand in need of God’s redemptive love and forgiveness whether accused or guilty bystander. That it seems to me is the starting point for All Saints. Not human infallibility but human fallibility- the saints not as those who set themselves up as celebrities of righteousness. But those who deeply knew their need of God’s saving grace. I am reminded of the first response of Peter. The saint on whom Jesus Christ is to build his church- he says to Jesus “Get away from me for I am a sinful man.” And yet this is the very man who Jesus chooses, even though he knows there will be other failures and betrayal along the road. It is the ability to admit our need of God that allows God’s love to inhabit and change us. Think of Christ’s words when he was eating at the house of the Pharisees and a woman who was a sinner washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair and anoints his feet with oil, everyone is outraged and then Jesus says: “her sins which were many have been forgiven: hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.”
How counter to the ways of the world this is- that it is not our strengths that bring us close to God, – not our sense of our own righteousness, but our realisation of our need of mercy. Notice that Christ is not in any way excusing the sin but he is saying that here in the brokenness of our humanity his love must born. How often have you noticed that someone’s real humanity is not so much revealed in their successes and achievements but in the moments of their lives when they are broken open by loss tragedy or failure, or even shame. “Could we start again Lord? Could we start again?”
And that hope is the very heart of today’s Gospel
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the persecuted for righteousness sake. They are not blessed because of their poverty, or mourning or persecution. Who wants to be poor or meek or powerless or in grief- but the blessing comes because it is here in this place of poverty and need that God breaks in and fills with his presence. Because when everything else has failed it is only love and mercy that remains. Remains even when you may yourself feel that you have been utterly abandoned. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” These Beatitudes are at the very heart of our Gospel. Christ calls those who are willing to admit their need of God- to come with him- to sit around him, not in a hierarchy of righteousness but as those called into community with him- ready to listen and to be filled by his truth and grace. The realisation that the blessings of God come when we are stripped down- when there is room for God because the space is no longer taken by own reputation, or self-sufficiency or pride or self-justification. Here is the place where a new honesty is born. It is then we meet the one willing to carry the cross of shame and never ever give up on us. It is here in humility like those first disciples and saints we can become inheritors of a new kingdom and truth. His death and resurrection in us.
Think of it-so many of these we call Saints- they discover God not in the moments they triumph but in the moments of desolation and abandonment. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus realising that he is persecuting- putting to death- the God he claims to serve- blinded by that light of Christ he has to be led by the hand. Think of St Augustine who has cared so much for his own reputation and fame, who has been unable to leave behind his wants and desires and addictions yet finds himself haunted and pursued by his sense of failure and sinfulness. There is a scene in the Confessions of St Augustine where he looks through into a room where he sees Saint Ambrose writing at his desk- he notices the peace and quietness of Ambrose’s demeanour which is in such contrast to his own inner turmoil and restless. Augustine is envious for a peace that he cannot seize or gain for himself despite his brilliance and erudition. It is only later that he will discover that “God makes us for himself and our hearts are restless until we rest in God.” Or think of St Francis who goes off to fight in battle for his hill town of Assisi but returns broken by imprisonment and despair and discovers Christ when he leaves everything behind, literally stripping himself naked of the clothes he wears and in poverty kisses a leper in whom he sees Christ. Indeed think of our on St Martin who discovers Christ not in the glory of battle but when he gets down from his horse and though laughed at by his fellow soldiers shares his cloak with a vulnerable beggar.
I am blessed to have known 7 men who have now become modern martyrs of the church and who have even been given a place in the Anglican calendar of martyrs and saints of those who have excited others to holiness –remembered each year on 24 April. The Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood who died in 2003. And the thing I remember most about them was not their holiness but their humanity. Or I should I better say the holiness of their humanity. Brother Tony who I remember staying awake all night to keep a fire burning so that mosquitoes would not bite me to pieces while I slept. Tony whose father was lost when he was young and came to our community in search of belonging and the love of God. Brother Francis my dear friend, who walked the road with me with bare feet as together we shared our hopes and fears- he showed such gentleness and courage and a refusal to allow others to be victimised. Nothing was so strong as his gentleness and nothing so gentle as his strength. Or Brother Robin whose hand-shake used to almost break my fingers, who sometimes used to sleep late for Morning Prayer but was always there when you needed him as reliable as a rock- or Brother Alfred who I prayed for to give up smoking and who cared for the sick with devotion and whom the children loved. These were the human friends who through their love and faithfulness and courage as Peacemakers the whole of our church now remember and even have an icon in Canterbury Cathedral. Human fallible saints, capable of sin capable also of becoming the bearers of God’s grace- men who knew their need of God’s mercy and because of that mercy incarnated that mercy themselves in their own lives and death.
What is it that excites us to holiness? It is this simple grace often born in struggle- often revealed by God in the wounds of our lives. A love which is much greater than us and our agendas- which breaks through the facades and the dishonesties and the desire for reputation but says I love you as you are while you are still a sinner- I have called you be my witness.
And of course many of those who share the life of the saints in light would be very different from the kind of stereo types we might imagine on all Saints Day. Perhaps there are prophets like Manuela Sykes up there in heaven who everyone else wishes would keep silent but still she keeps on asking in a voice like thunder “What about the women, or women like Cecelia Gilmour who have the courage to leave everything behind and cross the world in the strength of their faith and in the knowledge that despite all the adversity they face- “I know my redeemer liveth.” Or perhaps Marjorie Wilkinson who will be trying to take over from Martha to make the sandwiches of heaven or maybe trying out some of her sandwich fillings on the angels. Or blessed Brian Mears as steady as a ship in a storm who is already just as at home in heaven as he was on earth because for Brian there was actually no difference- you live the life here on earth that you will be invited to live in heaven- without fanfare or trumpet. I better not talk about him just in case he’s listening in for all saints and souls- he wouldn’t want to hear himself praised for he always believed to God be the glory.
You see we have this great cloud of witnesses. And we too can become one of them when in the depths of our need and brokenness we discover the love and grace of our servant God who comes to save us and blinds us with his grace.