Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on All Saints’ Sunday 2017.
Readings: 1 John 3: 1-3, Matthew 5: 1-12.
The gentle season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ has this week taken a colder turn with the fog of darker days and wintry nights. In this part of Oxfordshire perhaps we feel it more intensely, as the ridges trap the cold air in the shady hollows and it gradually spreads out to blanket the hills around. Anyone who walks a dog in the fields of our Benefice will have noticed the difference. There is something strange and somewhat eerie about walking through fog. Unlike mist when the sun still sends out a soft glow and there is the prospect of a bright, beautiful day, fog deadens all around it. You feel like you are walking in an enclosed world which is bounded by white before and behind. Objects and people emerge from the ghostly light and it takes a while to distinguish who or what they are. Fog distorts all around it and confuses the senses. Only the art of hearing seems to respond and somehow traffic is louder, more disjointed and strange in this half hidden world in the clouds.
Cardinal Newman wrote ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me’. In his words he captures that innate human ability and desire to look beyond the world immediately around us. To peer into the future and reflect on the past. This week has been a time of looking back as on Tuesday we celebrated 500 years since Martin Luther purportedly first nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. We have heard many facts about the implications of that fictional event but as anyone who has studied history knows, we cannot be sure of what happened in the mists, or should I say, fog of time past. People and events are easily distorted and lack shape and form. It is only by returning again and again to fragments and shadows that we can re-analyse what we believe we know of the past and create another, a new narrative to fit our present experiences. This is why we continue to peer into the clouds that shroud history, to try, by looking afresh at evidence and data to make dead bones live in order to understand more clearly our experiences of the present. Like walking in fog we only ever really know for sure a few yards ahead and a few yards behind. The rest is an imaginative projection or reconstruction.
On this feast of All Saints, it is worth pausing for a moment just to look around and reflect on where we are as a Christian community: what has been shaped by the past and what the distant horizon may look like. From the pale world of ghostly evidence we can conclude that where we are today stands in continuity with a myriad of events and words from the past, not least Luther’s writings. It is a given for us to be able to read the Bible in our own language, that each of us here at least owns a copy of this book and can read it however and whenever we wish. We no longer need the intermediary of a priest to interpret or even translate scripture for us. On this basis we therefore are all members of a spiritual priesthood which is shared by all who believe. There is no longer the sense of a holy hierarchy where the saints were like angels facilitating and mediating the prayers of ordinary folk. We are all saints and it is through our personal faith and reading scripture that we may directly receive the grace, the love of God. It is not what we do that earns us heavenly points, we are only justified by our faith. But this does not mean that good works are no longer important. Our faith is demonstrated and ratified by a life of holiness, becoming Christ-like ourselves and building up the body of Christ.
The title of Luther’s most famous work was actually called Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Today this word ‘indulgence’ needs to be prefaced by an explanation for us the mechanism for dealing with sin and divine justice has been relegated to a corporate confession at the beginning of a service. The notion to privately speak your sins to a representative of Christ and hearing words of sacramental forgiveness, let alone the examination of conscience and idea of a purgatory of reparation has all but disappeared from our private and community lives. But are we any better than our medieval predecessors at dealings with our failings, being held accountable for what we do and knowing the freedom of forgiveness. For us our confessor is Christ himself in the private confessional of our hearts but are we convinced by his silent forgiveness that we are unconditionally loved. No longer is the Pope for us the embodiment of Christ on earth. We embody Christ to each other through the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
Peering into the mists of time we can perceive just how much of our understanding of our faith and our calling to sanctify ourselves within a community of the faithful is shaped by the past, by Luther’s disputations. But this week we were also reminded that this history has also led to division amongst denominations, violence and bloodshed as well as many Bibles now left unopened on dusty shelves and faith relegated by some to be seen as no more than a private self-help pastime. As we look around us, what do we see emerging from the fog that will lead us forward into the future?
Today Jesus gives us eight cairns, piles of rocks which successive generation have embodied as way markers to keep our eyes fixed not on the distant scene so much, but on the path just ahead. Like comforting way markers, the cairns of the Beatitudes are not stipulations or doctrines or laws but rather fantastical figures that point us and shape us on our journey forward as saints. Each one tells us something about the embodiment of faith. It would be easy to read the Beatitudes as a list of comfortable words to different people in society: those who mourn, those who are persecuted, those who are peacemakers and so forth, and then ask yourself which one are you. But his I think would be to miss the point. Instead they need to be read as one, with the eight stones of the blessing piled one on top of each other, showing the way of God’s kingdom. Taken together they reveal the priorities of the person of faith to be vulnerable and open to God, knowing our need of him, to seek his face and receive his blessing. Then in turn we become the face of Christ and are a blessing to others in seeking righteousness, being merciful, striving for peace and standing up for truth.
The Beatitudes are personal cairns for the road ahead and guide us in the fog of our present age. But they are also corporate cairns, telling us not only what a saints looks like but also what the kingdom of God is like when we act and are the body of Christ on earth. Over the next year each one of our sermons at the Benefice Service will be focusing on one of the Beatitudes. There will be a variety of voices from the diocese who will help us reflect on these words of Christ so we in turn may become more Christ-like and walk with the confidence of the blessed saints however foggy it may become. Amen.
Sermon Series Beatitudes 2018