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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's sermon


31st October 2004

Fr David Shepherd

All Saints' Sunday 2004

Imagine you have just died and have reached the pearly gates. There, as you expected, stands St. Peter. As with customs at the airport you expect to be let through with a nod. As a member of St. Matthew's it should be just a formality. Then St. Peter stops you. Entry to heaven is dependent on making one last choice. You're asked to choose between heaven and hell. Two scenes are laid before you. One is heaven and the other hell but which is it to be.

First you're shown a man complete with harp standing alone on a cloud surrounded by cool blueness with suitably celestial background music.

Next you're taken downstairs into a smoke filled bar, with a jazz band playing, the drink flowing and everyone enjoying the dancing and having fun.

Which is heaven, which is hell? You must choose. Your eternal destiny is at stake. As a member of St. Matthew's and a frequenter of all those parish social events over the years, you might feel a little crest fallen. However you can't lie to St. Peter. "Actually", you find yourself saying to him, "I'm terribly sorry but I'd think I'd rather go down stairs with all my friends."

"Well done", says St. Peter, "You have chosen well, hell is aloneness on a cloud, and heaven is the jazz club!"

That adapted for local use is a story I first heard on a parish retreat. It was the kind of story designed to make you think, one that turns conventional pieties on their heads.

It leads naturally into our keeping of All Saints' Sunday. In the popular mind saints are terribly good but therefore rather boring and difficult to relate to. They are not like us. All those plaster figures and portraits in stained glass with halos don't exactly help. We find it easier to relate to flawed, broken figures who have come through. Like us, they give us hope.

Once again conventional piety gets it wrong. In truth All Saints' is a celebration of redeemed sinfulness. If we call it All Sinners' Sunday, we will come nearer to the truth. In the N.T. the word saint is used to describe all baptised Christians who in acknowledging their sinfulness, have received salvation in Christ. So we are all saints, ordinary Christians, sharing in the heavenly banquet by the grace of God. Today is our day and not just ours but a day for rejoicing in the company of all Christians in time and space. It is especially for those who are forgotten, who have no special day.

So apart from being like us, what are saints like? They, we, are called to be people of the beatitudes. Jesus says that it is the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated who are blessed. Those words were turned into the hymn 'Blest are the pure in heart', by John Keble the saintly priest-poet of the Oxford Movement who ministered in a remote Gloucestershire village. Like him the saints are those who show us God in Christ.

What are saints like? One of the joys of this feast is in the remembering of people who have shown God to us, who have been 'Christs' to us, usually completely unaware. In the face of an old woman quietly praying we will have seen the God who calls us to pray. In the profound words of an elderly priest or monk we will have heard the voice of Jesus, the Word of God. In the challenging words of a young woman we will have felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to live life to the full. In the heroic sacrificial service of a carer we will have been inspired to serve others as Christ serves us.

All of us will have known and continue to know such saints. With St. Paul we will not cease from giving thanks and from remembering them in our prayers.

With him we pray that we will know the riches of Our Lord Jesus Christ's glorious inheritance among the saints.

Amen

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