Download a pdf of this sermon suitable for printing.

4th November 2007 All Saints' and All Souls' evening service
Rev. Rob Lamerton

Each year I preface my address on All Saints by explaining why we do a job lot on All Saints' and All Souls' Days combined. That is because to observe them separately gives the idea that there is a kind of first class Saint as opposed to and economy class saint (or soul). So I prefer to celebrate the faithful all together, for they and we are together united in the love of God which is expressed in Christ and his Spirit.

Since I was last here for our All Saints' and All Souls' Day combined celebration, both my mother Josie and, just this week, my father Bob have come to the end of their journeys in this life. So I now have two names on the list of those to be remembered.

With my father's death this week, I began arranging his funeral. "Make me a channel of your peace", otherwise called the "Prayer of St Francis"… When I got to the final words "and in dying that we're born to eternal life"…, started me thinking about what it is we believe, and what people think when we use the term "eternal life". There are so many strange images in people's minds about what this might mean. I do believe we need to reinterpret the whole concept in images more appropriate for the 21st Century.

Then I began to ask, "Why do I believe in eternal life?" The answer has to be, "Because I believe in God!" To me, if God is truly God, God must be eternal, beyond the limits of space and time! To believe in "eternal life" is to believe that we might in some way share the life of God and that such a life is not limited or ended when we take our last mortal breath.

Of course, the experience of the disciples at the resurrection of Christ gives us a picture of other people becoming aware of eternal life beyond human death.

All Saints' Day is a confident celebration; confident because it is grounded in what we know of God's promises in Christ. We should not let the modern Halloween—All Hallows Eve, with its ghoulish and scary images—overshadow the observance. The New Testament reminds us that all Christians are saints or HAGIOI—holy ones who have received the mark of God's holiness signified at baptism. But a saint is called to "become what you are". Being the ark of holiness is to become, to grow up into the calling of God both in word and in deed!

Fortunately, we have incense tonight. Incense is symbolic of prayer: the psalms point to its use as symbolic of offering and sacrifice. In ancient Israel it had powers of purification and cleansing. Incense was used extensively in the ritual of the Temple. It was symbolic of royalty and was one of the gifts of the Magi. It was an early Christian symbol of offering to God and grew to prominence in Christian use in the ninth century. Incense has risen in usage only over the last 150 years as a result of the liturgical renewal of the Oxford Movement.

So incense seems to suggest the holiness prayer and offering of saints and faithful people.

The image Jesus paints in Luke 6 in the Sermon on the Plain (as opposed to Matthew's version which is the Sermon on the Mount) doesn't point to great success for the people of faith. Instead it points to the reassurance of grace—God's benevolence in spite of our failures. Wealth, success and popularity are nice, but they are fleeting and only applicable in this life.

Out of the experience of God's grace and blessing must grow a holiness of life, a saintliness:

love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you,
forgive, turn the other cheek,
be generous, give.

Surely these are the reversals of fortune brought about by God's people. They seem crazy but have surprising results!

There is, isn't there—because they undermine the ways of the world—a certain craziness about our attempts to know, love and serve God. I think Jesus is the archetype of this crazy attitude! It is also about the Christian hope, "the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints" as St Paul calls it.

As we celebrate today, recall your favourite Saint (Mine are St Columba and St Nicholas.) and recall someone who revealed God's love to you (I remember Alex Urban.).

For some, this service is akin to pagan ritual. People say, "Why pray for and with those who no longer need our prayers?" I find that very sad. So I want to conclude with some words from a book by Bishop Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham.

But there are many other reasons for praying, in addition to anxiety about someone's particular state. True prayer is an out flowing of love; if I love someone, I will want to pray for them, not necessarily because they are in difficulties, not necessarily because there is a particular need of which I'm aware, but simply because holding them up in God's presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do, and because I believe that God chooses to work through our prayers for other people's benefit, whatever sort of benefit that may be. Now love doesn't stop at death—or, if it does, it's a pretty poor sort of love! In fact, grief could almost be defined as the form love takes when the object of love has been removed; it is love embracing an empty space, love kissing thin air and feeling the pain of that nothingness. But there is no reason at all why love should discontinue the practice of holding the beloved in prayer before God.

… Once you get rid of the abuses which have pulled prayer out of shape, there is no reason why prayer should not stop just because the person you are praying for happens now to be "with Christ, which is far better". Why not simply celebrate the fact? — N.T. Wright. For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed. SPCK, pp.73-74.

May the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory! Amen.