A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 31 October 2021 by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: John 11. 32-44
Have you ever met someone who you thought was holy or even a saint? Someone you believed was a truly good person? Look down the list of those who have died in the last year. There are I believe some pretty special people there. What is it that distinguishes a person’s life when they die. It’s certainly not piousness, or self-righteousness, or someone who thinks they have climbed the ladder of perfection. Far from it, most of the people who have known who I miss most have often had hard, tough, painful lives, those who in tragedy and loss they have discovered who they are and what they believe in. The true witnesses of Christ have lived through the mess and the struggle and emerged not unscathed but somehow more human- We have all grown wary of those who set themselves up as role models or representatives of virtue. And true sainthood is also very different from celebrity- that exhausting search to be famous, to be well-known, and in the public spotlight no matter what.
At the very centre of our Gospel is the realisation of our need of God’s mercy. 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, forgiveness and blessing. 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, the one who betrays him 3 times and is still chosen even though Jesus knows there will be other failures 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, – 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 be born. “Could we start again Lord. Could we start again” It seems that there are certain qualities that stand out in a holy life. And one of the most important qualities is humility. The humility to stand aside and let the light and the love of Christ shine through. Not to let oneself be defined by one’s failures or inadequacies but rather through a generous opening to others and God- to become defined by love. Or to become like a mirror, mirroring back to God and the world the love they have received from God becoming the witness of a grace and a goodness larger than themselves.
“Don’t turn away,” Says the poet Rumi. “Don’t turn away. Keep your eye on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you”
Look at Mary in today’s Gospel reading, weeping over the death of her brother Lazarus. She is not a detached icon of holiness. She is real- flesh and blood, someone who knows Christ but is broken open- she does not understand the pain of the world or the meaning of death and separation. How could Jesus have allowed this to happen. Mary does not understand and neither do we. All she knows is that they want Jesus here with her. Mary and Martha will not only feel the grief of Lazarus’ death they will also see him emerging from the tomb- they will not only witness the cross they are also going to be he witnesses of resurrection and Christ going begore them leading them to become witnesses of hope. His wounds will not only be signs of pain they will also become for them signs of resurrection
Mary lets go of her unworthiness. Our feelings of failure can often be marks of pride in that we are somehow unable to accept that we too can mess things up. We have to understand that God’s radical acceptance is God’s radical acceptance of us too- all of us. This is not a ladder of perfection but an unfolding into wholeness, an opening up. Think of a seed which falls on the ground and dies but then through no power of its own its shoot unfolding drawn towards the sun. Think of so many of those 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- so blinded by that light of Christ he has to be led by the hand like a child. 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. He is envious for a peace that he cannot seize or gain for himself despite his brilliance and erudition. And Augustine realises “Lord you have made me for yourself and my heart is restless until I rest in you” 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 later, living in poverty, kissing a leper in whom he sees Christ. Indeed think of our own 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.
Remember Julian of Norwich living through the horror of the black death and the One Hundred Year War but receiving her profound revelation in that time of plague. She wrote:
I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover.
There is a pattern here. Three things. A faith born in the struggle of the past. Hope in the future through Christ’s call. And love. Love now. Love lived in the immediacy of the present. Faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love. God’s 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 while you are still a sinner- I have called you be my own. And all will be well I have prepared a place for you.”
So who are the saints in your life which have helped you to see God? I wonder who are that great crowd of witnesses? Mary the mother of God, or a friend down the road who showed you love and stood by you when you needed it most. I think of my own beloved grandmother, whose wonderful husband committed suicide and left her without home or money, who suffered from nightly insomnia, who I remember hiding at the back so she wouldn’t get noticed and yet, any yet who was always there for me and my brothers, always our advocate, our comforter our defender our belonging. She was the one we longed to arrive and wanted to hold onto always-and whose car we would watch out for because it signified the arrival of love for us, with a packet of Rowntree’s fruit pastels for each of us. Are not these the very gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Who do you remember today? Maybe someone quite close to home- Alison who week after week handed out cups of tea and coffee to the congregation and buttered 300 hot cross buns alone on Good Friday so everyone could share in this community, or Jean carefully preparing supper for her friends and caring for her cat and knowing by name most of the people of those who lived in her road. Or Rod welcoming newcomers on the portico making sure no one was left out and the last were treated as the first. Or Annie who wove gold with her music group and became the mother too so many asylum seekers. There are many others We have this great cloud of witnesses. And we can become witnesses too when in the depths of our need and brokenness we discover the love and grace of our servant Lord, who comes to save us and heal us through his unfolding, to call us out of the grave, to unbind us, and let us go free.
Look towards the bandaged place- that’s where the light shines through.