November 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION All Saints/All Souls
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Theme: Although Sunday is technically All Souls' Day, all but the most pedantic among us will be celebrating All Saints; and the obvious theme is that title, or some variation on it. I'm going for "Saints, Souls, and Other Good Sorts".
Introduction. There is a deceptive air about our readings this week: they seem nice, gentle, (perhaps the word I'm looking for is "saintly") after some of the challenges thrown at us by the readings over the last few weeks. They seem descriptive rather than prescriptive, showing us something rather than exhorting us to do something. But, of course, the subtext is always the same: we are called to be participants, not admiring spectators. We begin with this wonderful vision of the final outcome, all the more extraordinary when we remember that it was written down by a man in exile (if not actually in a forced labour camp) on the island of Patmos in a time of severe persecution, when the number of Christians would have been a few thousand scattered around a few countries. The aged St John brings that vision down to earth, but what he says is just as astonishing. Talking to a faith community that has already experienced splits and walk-outs, he insists that we are already children of God, destined to grow up to become like God. And we finish with the "Executive Summary" of the Sermon on the Mount, better known to us as the Beatitudes. So comforting, aren't they?
Background. November is the month of remembrance, and I have been doing a lot of that recently. For the last few weeks I have had the privilege of taking the Sunday services at St Peter's, Caversham. There in a little dark corner of the sacristy is an old photograph of St Peter's, Caversham (near Reading) in Berkshire, U.K. It was in that church that my maternal grandfather was serving as rector when he died in 1941. So although I never met him, I have been remembering him in a very powerful way, as I have reflected on the extraordinary "coincidence" by which, 73 years after his death and 12,000 miles from "his" church, his only grandson stands in another St Peter's, Caversham exercising the same ministry.
And I have been remembering his only child, my mother, who was born on 27th October 1914, and so last Monday was the centenary of her birth. It was also the 48th anniversary of the day I left England on board the "Northern Star", never to return. (No, I did NOT choose that date – that really was a coincidence!) So I have been remembering that part of my story, including a few very special people who had a big influence on me as I grew up.
In a somewhat different way I have been remembering another part of my life story. I have been reading some modern New Zealand political history, and in particular a collection of essays by different contributors published as The Bolger Years 1990-1997. Most of the contributors had been colleagues or staff of Mr Bolger during those years in which he was our Prime Minister, which did not mean they all saw things in quite the way he did. I was particularly interested in the contribution from Ruth Richardson, who, before she rose to public prominence, was a colleague and friend of mine when we worked on the Law Reform Division of the Department of Justice. It was there that she met the man she would marry, Andrew Wright, who was also a friend and colleague of mine. (My only claim to fame is that Ruth and Andy gave me the honour of proposing the toast to the happy couple at their wedding in 1975 – and it must have "worked" because they will be celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary next year!)
So I have been remembering Ruth, and reflecting again on her "vision" which drove and shaped her whole professional life. Here is a brief extract from her essay commenting on the drastic changes to social welfare benefits made in her so-called "mother-of-all-budgets": For my part, I believed that the measures were needed to restore the integrity of our welfare arrangements, to confer personal opportunity and to promote personal responsibility. As a matter of values I felt that we were no longer promoting the idea that it was good for people to invest in their own abilities and to do well as a result of their efforts. I felt that welfare as it had become suffered from moral bankruptcy. This is so Ruth as I remember her from those early days! Her public image might be of a closed-minded economic ideologue obsessed with balancing the books and unconcerned with the effect her policies was having on countless victims. Yet who among our other Ministers of Finance would express their whole approach in terms of moral values? That's why I always found it so difficult to argue with her, even though I disagreed with her on just about everything!
But I'm now a little closer to unravelling this mystery. Notice that expression "to do well", and compare it with a slightly different (and more biblical) expression, "to do good". I may have used this story before in these Notes, about a man who asked a church group if, as parents, we had ever urged our children to work hard at school so that they could get a good job, have a good career, earn a good income, etc. All of us agreed that we had. Then he asked how many of us had urged our children to work hard at school so that they might be of greater service to others? Politicians and parents might agree that we want our children to grow up to be "the best they can be", but how long would that agreement last if they were asked to define what exactly they meant by "best"? How many would instantly respond that by "best" they meant the kindest, the most compassionate, the most loving etc.?
My grandfather was gifted intellectually: he graduated from Oxford University with an M.A. Yet it appears that he never wrote any books, articles or essays, nor lectured or taught at any institution. When I asked my mother what she remembered of his preaching she had no recollection of it at all. What she did remember was her father going out every day, whatever the weather, on his bicycle to visit his parishioners, by which he meant everyone who lived within the parish boundaries , regardless of whether or not they ever set foot in St Peter's. By all accounts, he did a lot of good; but had he done well, bearing in mind how much he had invested in his own abilities?
I shall remember my grandfather and my mother on All Souls' Day. But what about on All Saints Day? Oh, yes, because I have no doubt that they are among the "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands". Not because, in my grandfather's case, he was a faithful priest; and not because, in my mother's case, she had the unique privilege of bringing me into the world; but in each case because he and she were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the language of the New Testament, that's what makes them (and us) saints. To quote my old friend Ruth way out of context, TINA – there is no alternative.
Revelation 7:9-17. One of my early mentors when I entered the ordained ministry warned me that there were two groups of people in the church to be very wary of, a fairly large group and a much smaller one. The fairly large group was made up of people who had no intention of being healed, but wanted you to keep trying anyway. The smaller group comprised those whose favourite book of the Bible was Revelation! No comment! But at least we have a wonderful reminder in this week's extract from this most mysterious and bewildering book that there is much to look forward to. It reminds us that God IS working his purposes out, and that there WILL come a time when all those purposes are worked out, to the praise and glory of his holy name.
Taking It Personally.
· Who will you be remembering on All Souls' Day? Make a list of those who come to mind readily. What makes them so special for you? When did you last gift thanks for them?
· Now recall that All Souls' Day is officially the "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed". Are there any on your list who don't "qualify"? Does that bother you?
· In the Prayers of the People on page 414 of the Prayer Book "we remember with thanksgiving those who have died in the faith of Christ, and those whose faith is known to you alone". Does that help?
· What is your definition of a "saint"?
· Whether or not New Zealand needs a new flag, the fact is we do not have a patron saint. Should we? Which saint should it be?
· The practice used to be to give a child the name of a saint, either at birth or at baptism, in the hope of inspiring the child to follow that saint's example. Do you bear a saint's name? If so, have you drawn any particular inspiration from that saint?
· Does your local church have a patron saint? If so, in what way does it bear the stamp of that particular saint?
1 John 3:1-3. This passage is like one of those "but wait – there's more!" advertisements. John starts by telling us that God has graciously conferred a title upon us: we have the right to call ourselves children of God. But then he goes further; it is more than a title, it is a reality – we ARE children of God. The reason why we are not recognised as such by the world is that the world does not recognise God. The implication is that we "look like God", but no one recognises that because they do not know what God looks like. But there is still more to come, the exact details of which are presently unclear, but one thing is certain: when God is fully revealed we shall be like him. We may recall last week's passage from Leviticus: "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"; or as Jesus put it (Matthew 5:48) "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Taking It Personally.
· A passage for slow, personal reflection. Do you believe what this passage is telling you?
· Try the bathroom mirror exercise. Look yourself in the eye and tell yourself, "I am a child of God."
· Looking over the last "term", what sort of report card might you be carrying back to your Father?
Matthew 5:1-12. This is the heart of Jesus' teaching about attitude rather than belief or action. Notice that it is directed to his disciples – he and they have ascended the mountain leaving the crowds below. [Echoes of Moses going up the mountain to meet with God while the people waited below.] Last week Jesus gave us the Summary of the Law; later in this "Sermon" (7:12) he gives us his version of the Golden Rule. They are both in the active voice – do this. The Beatitudes are different – be like this. The rest of the "Sermon" – comprising chapter 5:13-chapter 7:27 – expounds on them.
Taking It Personally.
· Time for a thorough spiritual stock-take. Be as objective as you can. Do not beat yourself up, nor try to justify any failings. The purpose is to come closer to seeing and understanding yourself as you are so far.
· Remember that through the grace of God you are improving! Yes, you are!