The Love of All the Saints

Sermon given at MCC North London on the 31st October, 2010 for All Saints Day. 

Most of you know, I have just moved to Oxford to start a post-graduate degree in theology. I’m studying in an Anglican seminary with a strong Catholic tradition, so it’s been something of a culture shock, to say the least!

In the past four weeks I have observed saints’ days, sung psalms – and worse, sung them in Latin – and I’m beginning to understand things that have never been part of my worship before. When I arrived here, I was slightly surprised to see a long list on the chapel noticeboard of the saints’ days and their observances. I’m a good child of the Reformation, I wasn’t sure I could cope…

Today is the Sunday before All Saints’ Day, which falls tomorrow, and something that I have found quite striking since I’ve been here is really how much there is to learn from the lives of the saints.

In the past month, there are Christians all over the world who have celebrated feast days including St. Theresa of Avila, Ss. Simon and Jude, St. Luke the Evangelist and my current favourite St. Frideswide, who is the patron saint both of the city and University of Oxford.

St. Simon and St. Jude – the patron saint of lost causes – were two of the twelve named apostles of Jesus. Very little has been written in the scriptures about either of them but tradition, through the extra-canonical ‘Acts of Simon and Jude’ has them as early missionaries throughout the Middle East. They would, like St. Paul, have travelled as peripatetic preachers and evangelists. They are venerated as the founding saints of the Armenian Apostolic church and were martyred at around the same time as St. Paul on the site that is now Beirut, in the Lebanon.

St. Frideswide – it’s a good Saxon name, if you wondered – was local to Oxford, and has become the patron saint of the city and its University. She founded a priory in the 8th century, which was destroyed by fire in the 11th century along with its chronicles, so the records of its early life are lost. I was rebuilt around 1122 and then was dissolved under the Reformation of Henry VIII in the 1520s. Tradition, and Anglo Saxon writings, say that she had taken a vow of chastity and entered holy orders, but was pursued by a local nobleman determined to marry her. She hid in a pigsty to escape him and was saved when he was struck blind (or possibly fell from his horse and broke his neck – sadly this was in the days before reliable BBC coverage). Either way, she went on to live according to her vows and to found Christ Church College, Oxford.

St. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun in sixteenth century Spain. She joined a holy order having been fascinated from an early age with the religious life and fell grievously ill whilst cloistered. During her illness, which lasted for many years, she had increasingly vivid visions of the glory of heaven. In response to these visions, she became determined always to live out her faith and express her convictions through practical means. She made this resolution as a response what she – along with the Protestant reformers working throughout Europe – saw as the increasing corruption and indulgence in the Catholic Church. She withdrew into a new order which took seriously its vows of seclusion and poverty but also suffered serious persecution in a time of significant religious confusion. She eventually died, presumably of the illness she had suffered since she was a young woman, having devoted the last years of her life to travelling southern Spain founding new convents.

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.’ 

Luke – whose life and work was also celebrated in a feast this month – records these as the words of Jesus to a large crowd of his disciples. Many of the people gathered there were asking for healing in body or spirit, some had already been healed, and all were listening raptly to the words of Jesus. There is no less diversity in reasons for seeking Jesus today than there were on that day in Judea (southern Israel) two millennia ago. The words he spoke to them then have comforted people throughout the centuries and inspired incredible works.

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you, who follow the example of Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles, the first Christian saints, including Simon and Jude, who left everything they had and followed him. Blessed is the person who goes without, who is impoverished for the sake of the Gospel or for their brothers and sisters in Christ.
And, because we should also take this at face value, blessed are you who are suffering poverty because of the actions of others. 

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’

Blessed are you who mourns for the state of the world, or you who has lost something you thought was your whole life. Blessed are you who are suffering in your mind and spirit, who are worn out by a world that seems to be so far from being the good it was created to be.

St. Teresa, as well as suffering from physical illness, suffered from crippling depressions at times in her life. She felt abandoned by God, and believed herself unworthy of God’s care. She spoke repeatedly of how desperately miserable this made her but later in life, true to the words of scripture, she found deep joy in a life of prayer, and reassurance in the love of God. She said,

“Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything … Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”

St. Teresa of Avila, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1615
in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, image from Wikimedia Commons

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

One thing the saints seem to have in common is a triumph over adversity. They share this with the great prophets of the Old Testament – Elijah sulking under trees, Ezekiel exiled to Babylon, Job afflicted with sores and illnesses we cannot begin to imagine. The lives of these great people – whether they are recorded in Scripture or handed down through centuries of tradition – are an inspiration to all who hear them because they speak to an eternal truth and that truth is at the heart of the beatitudes.

What makes reading and learning about saints so wonderful is that, although they are exemplary, they are all human. They suffer illnesses of body, mind and spirit, just like we do. They face the difficult calling to live lives worthy of the God who created them, just like we do. And sometimes they get it wrong, just like we do. When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, I don’t suppose he imagined a church culture where people are named saints and recognised annually for their contribution to the Christian life, but I don’t suppose he’d disapprove. When he congratulates the Ephesians on their love for all the saints, he is talking of their reverence for those who have walked in the way of Christ before them. He is acknowledging that within the body of Christ there are many individuals performing their own functions and living their own way, and we can all learn something from observing others.

When we commit to a Christian way of living we commit to a life of learning from experience. Just as we know from experience the truth from tonight’s Gospel reading that all things – the good and the bad – are transient and must not be taken for granted, so we learn from observing the lives of others how we are to respond to the changing circumstances of our lives. In the lives of the saints we see how to be generous when times are good, and humbly give to others. We see how to find courage and hope after a time of darkness. We learn how important it is to stay committed to God in word, thought and deed and in the sure and certain hope that God’s love endures forever.

I’ll leave you with a thought that is expressed in MCC churches throughout the world when we welcome new members into our congregation. When you meet someone new,

“remember that they will have as much to teach you as you will have to teach them.”

Amen.

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Week 0: Things I have learned

Things I have learned about Oxford:

  1. There is a different word for everything here. Fees are ‘battels’, Freshers’ week is ‘Week 0’ or ‘Noughth week’, a PhD is a ‘DPhil’, etc.
  2. You can be fined £50 for not wearing the correct academic dress – right down to your freshly laundered black socks – on certain occasions (including exams),
  3. Blackwell’s on Broad Street is amazing. It is now my joint-equal favourite bookshop alongside Waterstone’s Gower Street (London),
  4. The University of Cambridge was founded because of scholars dissenting from Oxford (rather like UCL from King’s, I suppose),
  5. Lectures are optional, and any student of the University can attend any lecture,
  6. If you place the Examination Regulations book against a wall and hit the bottom of a wine bottle against it a few times, you can remove the cork without a corkscrew.
The Cloisters and the House
(from www.ssho.ox.ac.uk) 
Things I have learned about St. Stephen’s House,
  1. The current buildings were originally the residence of a closed religious order called the Cowley* Fathers, there is a secret staircase to the street that was used by a doctor to avoid breaching the closed order, and the old mortuary is now the House computer room (it’s still pretty chill in there),
  2. The House has only been a full Permanent Private Hall of the University since 2004, and it remains the case that a large number of students are Anglican ordinands.
  3. The Founders’ Chapel in the roof has a mural in which the saints are apparently depicted with the faces of various former members of staff, and if the windows in the chapel are opened, “pigeons come in and crap everywhere and you have to get a man with a gun to shoot them”.
I’m sure there was more said this week than that, it’s amazing how quickly it deserts you! I’m really enjoying my time here so far, everyone is delightful and I think the structure of the days (based around prayer and mass services) is really lovely. It’s nice to have a motivation to get up at 6:30am, so I can really get going with things. I’m hoping it will help to keep me on track with my studies. I haven’t made it to evensong yet, because I’m nervous about singing the wrong tunes. That said, no one has minded yet that I keep making mistakes, thank God for the patience of the church and her clergy!
On that note, I already have work to be cracking on with. I’m looking forward to lectures starting for me on Tuesday, and have got several courses of lectures mapped out this term that I’m planning to attend. These range from the ones that will get me through my exams (Introductions to the Old and New Testaments, Christian Moral Reasoning, God, Christ and Salvation) through to the things that interest me (Religious Philosophy, Diversity in the Church). Whatever else happens, it’s going to be a good year of learning. 
*Cow in Cowley is pronounced like the animal, not so that it rhymes with Rowley!