Fr Tony Meek's Sermon for all Saints Sunday
3rd November 2002
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I have contrived to miss seeing thus far all of the programmes in the television series to find the Greatest Briton. It all seems too contrived, the selection list designed to create sellable television rather than an honest result. How can you compare Darwin with Brunel or Churchill, or any of them with the late Princess of Wales.. We seem no longer to live in an age of heroes. People sometimes complain that there don't appear to be great leaders around today - in Church, or State, or anywhere else. First, they don't fit well into government or management by committee. Secondly, the tabloids usually find, or perhaps more usually invent, weak spots in anybody foolish enough to raise their head above the parapet. I wonder how John Wesley, or Mr Gladstone or Winston Churchill would have fared if they had been constantly on the television screen.
In any case, we don't seem to like leaders. It may have been Oliver Cromwell's men who knocked down the statues in our cathedrals. But we do the same with heroes of the past. Our age likes to discover that people are no better than they ought to be. If you write a biography about someone without mentioning any offbeat sexual preferences or some whiff of financial irregularity, it is not likely to sell, even here in the refined and cultured Home Counties.
In his second letter to the Corinthians (ch4v7) St Paul wrote, 'But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.' In one way, our refusal to put people on pedestals is in accordance with what St Paul wrote. When God calls men and women to his service, he doesn't wait until he finds someone perfect. Think of his chosen race. We read in page after page of the Old Testament how people disobeyed him, turned from him, got it all wrong, became obstinate and self-willed.
Yet this people, above all races, understood the dealings of God with men. He chose Jacob - who was mean and sly and deceitful - yet he had within him the drive and vision that were needed.
If I may put it this way, God has always taken enormous risks: with the peasant girl chosen to be the mother of his Son; or with Paul, who could lose his temper and fall into despair, yet had within him the heart of the matter.
I'd like to bring this closer to home. Where did you get your faith from? You got it from men and women who lived by it, witnessed to it and passed it on for twenty centuries. But more directly, you got it again from people: from parents; from clergy in your parishes; from teachers in school or church; from someone who bothered about you in days of adolescence, someone to whom you could turn; from a friend who set you right when you were on the wrong track; from Billy Graham in the Haringey Arena. It was through people that God made himself known to you. One of my favourite sayings is that 'Christianity is caught, not taught.'
Maybe you were influenced by the lives and writings of Christians who lived in past centuries. And they were none of them perfect people. They had their blind spots, their sins. Sometimes their actions seemed to belie the faith for which they stood. How could Christians in the eighteenth century be so blind to the evils of the slave trade. How could some Victorian churchmen readily accept an order of society that permitted such massive inequalities of wealth?
Yet these peoples' imperfections do not deny the validity of the things they taught. As Fr Harry Williams has said, 'Saintliness doesn't mean all-round perfection.' So don't let a person's weaknesses blind you to those good qualities in him or her, which are of Christ. To repeat what St Paul wrote, 'We have this treasure in clay jars.
I asked you one question just now, 'How did you get your faith?' Now I ask another, 'How is that faith going to be passed on?' The answer is surely the same, through people. It can be passed on through those of you who are parents and through those of you who are able to make something of your role as godparents. I hope all those who are privileged to take on that role do regard it as a most solemn and inescapable duty. It saddens me at Baptisms to encounter godparents who patently have no faith of their own and who have been chosen only to avoid family unpleasantness.
Faith can be passed on by those of you who teach; through those of you who are caring about people in your neighbourhood; through those of you who are trying to help others through bad times; through those of you who are helping to change for good the character of the society in which we live.
Were you in one of those categories? You should have been. There was something there for each and every one of you. If you are doing nothing to pass on your faith, what is your faith to you? Many churches are dedicated to All Saints. I heard of a coach party from such a church arriving at some diocesan jamboree. The breathless leader announced their arrival to the official on the gate, 'We're All Saints.' I hope they were. I hope you are. There is no reason for you not to be.
Remember once again, God does not wait for perfect people when he wants men and women to serve him. He above all knows how long he would have to wait for that! The clergy aren't perfect: I know this, because I am one of them! But as the great Methodist Lord Soper once said about the selection of ministers, 'We've only got the laity to choose from.'
I am sure you are all familiar with the 26th Article of Religion - which is not an invitation to scurry to your Books of Common Prayer to look it up now! It deals with the 'Unworthiness of Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacrament' That is a source of great comfort to all clergy - and perhaps to their congregations!
In that same chapter from St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, we also find the words (ch4v5) 'We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.' It has been said that no true preacher of the gospel wants people to say of him, 'He's a wonderful man.' But rather, 'Christ is a wonderful Saviour.'
All this applies to congregations as well as to preachers, to laity as well as to clergy. We do not want people to think of our local church as simply a jolly and helpful club (though it's no bad thing if they do also think of it in this way!); we want them to know the Lord of the Church.
An old evangelical hymn ran:-
May his beauty rest on me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.
In fact, the less we think about ourselves as we seek to commend our faith, the better. In his book 'Your Faith', David Edwards notes that the really attractive person is often the person most interested in other people.
Of course, none of us is good enough or clever enough for the task of communicating the Gospel. But then, no one ever has been. Our faith has come to us through imperfect people, and will be passed on by imperfect people.
We are no better than jars of clay to contain this treasure, but it is not ourselves we preach, but Jesus Christ as Lord. You are all saints. If your faith means anything to you, make sure you share it. And begin by doing so with those you love the most.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Last updated 09/11/2002 10:30:00 Author: Fr Tony Meek