We are, these days, very keen to dig the dirt on leaders and celebrities: social media exist on this . No one would bother to read Twitter or Facebook were it not for scandal, and our national newspapers follow not very far behind. I have mixed feelings about this: one the one hand, it is good that people are held to account for unacceptable behaviour – think of Boris Johnson and his lockdown parties, and, more seriously about people like Jimmy Saville who used his status as a sort of secular saint to abuse children for decades; similarly the Church of England Bishop, Peter Ball who was regarded as a saint but who abused boys and young men in terrible ways. Exposure of those who harm others is essential – it is why each parish must a safeguarding officer
On the other hand, just because someone has an affair doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be a competent politician, a brilliant footballer or gifted singer. And it is very easy for a good life to be trashed in popular opinion because of a deficiency which is small in comparison to the rest of that person’s life. I think particularly of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; there are now some questions about her practice. I sat next to an Irish Roman Catholic lady on a plane a couple of years ago, who berated Mother Teresa and insisted she was evil. But, in truth, she was a woman who did great good, who struggled for her faith, and who brought out great good in others, including my own grandmother who knitted thousands of vests for the street children amongst whom Mother Theresa worked.
I think the pressure is particularly on those who profess to have faith – as soon as any person of faith puts a foot wrong they are branded as a hypocrite. I have heard, many times, over my years as a priest, people say that they don’t come to church because churches are full of hypocrites. People who say this are often surprised when I agree with them and say that most people who come to church are acutely aware of their shortcomings – and that this is exactly why they come to church.
There is this misconception that we, who come to church, along with those who attend mosque or synagogue or gurdwara, pretend to be perfect, pretending to be Saints (with a capital S) failing to recognise that we are fallible people who get things wrong and who have feet of clay. And of course, we sometimes deserve these accusations because, too often, the church has taken the moral high ground, and has been quick to point the finger at those it deems morally deficient. There has been uproar this last fortnight from some bishops of the Anglican Communion because the person who has been appointed to be the next Dean of Canterbury Cathedral is in a civil partnership. The next time one of those Bishops is caught doing something wrong, there will be accusations of hypocrisy – and maybe rightly so.
I think what is missing in all this is humility: the ability to take the log out of our own eye, as Jesus said, before we seek to remove a twig from the eye of the person whom we accuse.
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday – All Saints day is actually on Tuesday and tomorrow, Halloween, is the eve of All Saints or All Hallows – nothing to do with witches and ghosts but the beginning of our annual remembrance of the great Saints (with a capital S) of our faith. Wednesday is All Souls day – this is the day when we remember more ordinary saints (saints with a small ‘s’) who have gone before us, and where we who profess faith can find a home.
And here we can turn to today’s Gospel reading, to the Beatitudes, for clues.
Rev’d Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin In The Fields in Trafalgar Square, London preached a brilliant sermon 11 years ago now, about the Beatitudes and specifically about the commas which divide each beatitude. So, “Blessed are you who are poor – comma – for yours is the kingdom of God.
He said this:
‘Every beatitude comes in three parts. There’s the first part, which is really a description of the cross. It’s poor, it’s thirsty, it’s meek, it’s merciful, it’s persecuted. Then there’s the last part, which is a description of the resurrection. Each beatitude has a resurrection promise. “They will be comforted… they will inherit the earth… they will be filled… they will receive mercy… they will be called children of God… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The beatitudes are a description of Jesus in his cross and in his resurrection…
But wait. Between the cross and the resurrection lies a comma. Every beatitude has a comma in the middle. That comma is a kind of valley between the horror of the cross and the wonder of the resurrection. I want you to think about that comma for a moment. That pause – that place where the cross and the resurrection meet. That comma is your life as a Christian. To be a Christian is to dwell in that comma that lies between the first and second half of each beatitude. That comma is your home on earth. That comma represents the pathos and the joy of the Christian life. That comma is where you find Jesus.
What does it look like to be a Christian? Jesus is saying, the people who know are those who are closest to my cross. The closer you get to my cross, the closer you get to resurrection. If you’re one of those people, happy are you. If you’re not one of those people, start hanging around with those who are. That’s what it means to dwell in the comma. Jesus is the place where cross and resurrection meet… This is where we meet Jesus. This is what Christianity is. This is where to find it. This is how to live it. This is blessedness. Blessed, blessed are you.’
That, comma, this life we have in God’s world, is the place where we work out our faith, this is where we practice for eternity, this is where be become what God envisaged us for when he knitted us together in our mother’s womb, as the psalmist says. This life we have been is the melting pot for saints (small s for most of us) – where we make mistakes and do things we shouldn’t and come to God, again and again seeking forgiveness and healing. This is the place of grace – where the Holy Spirit works within us, slowly transforming us until we come to carry more and more the likeness of the One in whose image we are made.
All Saints and All Souls tide is the time of year to reflect on these things – the time when we remember that to be a Christian is to live between the cross and the resurrection, to meet Jesus in those who suffer, to bring hope, to work for hope, to repent, to bring our pride, our lack of humility, our holier than thou attitudes to the foot of the cross, to the place of the comma, where the love of God meets the pain of the world – to be faithful in this place where there are no easy answers. This uncomfortable place is the place where God’s image is slowly restored in us and God’s likeness in us is slowly restored – where we become saints.
you call us to be faithful in our everyday lives,
in times of joy and of sorrow,
in busyness and at rest,
in the simple things and the complicated ones.
Help us to follow you faithfully,
to seek your guidance and strength,
and to believe even when you feel far away.
the world is your gift and our home.
Give us determination and courage
to live kindly and gently on the earth.
Forgive our greed; our constant need for more.
We pray for the world’s leaders,
that they will not let us down in their deliberations and decisions.
We pray for young people,
giving thanks for their voices, calling for change;
and that we older humans
will leave them a world that can sustain life,
a world of justice and peace.
God of love, you know of human pain.
We bring to you all who suffer;
those who are ill or frail,
those who are poor or homeless,
refugees, political prisoners, prisoners of conscience
those who are anxious or sad or lonely,
those who have lost loved ones
and those whose lives are drawing to a close,
In our suffering you often seem far away.
Bless us all with the knowledge of your presence,
and help us to be faithful even when life is dark.
And we give you thanks
for those who inspire and guide us,
for those whose memory we treasure,
for your voice calling us to follow,
and for your great love for us,
constant and true even when we waver or turn away.
Bless us in our lives’ journeys,
and, at the end, bring us home to you. Amen