The Revd Margaret Legg
All Hallow's Eve, All Saints, All Souls - It's not surprising that of the 3 days, the only one that makes its way out of the church and into public consciousness is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Retail sales related to Halloween have risen from £12 million in 2001 to well over £300m 2013. It’s now the UK’s third highest selling festival. All our energy goes into the one that is expressing our deepest fears; the frightening and unsettling aspects of death. We make it fun because the real fear is almost too much to bear. Like Robin telling the story at last night's Halloween service, a terrifying cross between the Wizard Gandalf and Darth Vador, Orson Wells in The Third Man.
Today we celebrate that we don’t need to be afraid, because life is stronger than death. Readings echo each other: Isaiah speaks of who will swallow up death for ever, Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead and his revivifying prepares us for Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He is the one prophesied by Isaiah; because of him death, as Revelation puts it, will be no more. The key to these 3 days is not fear– the key is eternal life.
The Jewish leaders of the day didn’t like it. After that visit to Bethany, Jesus’ life was never safe again. In the next verses, they convene the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the Jewish governing body, and vote to kill him, not realising that they are thus helping to bring about his resurrection, after his death, helping God’s glory to be revealed. John spells this out because at the time of writing, probably late 1st century AD, the church was moving away from its Jewish roots. Christians and Jews begin to be rivals – who are the authentic bearers of Judaic tradition? Well, Jesus of course, writes John! Look at the Jews, carping on that he is a failed healer, showing such a limited understanding of resurrection that it disturbs him. Resurrection is so much more than bringing back to life Lazarus, who will have to die again one day. It is about raising the whole of creation for ever and for eternity. When we subscribe to that, we are saying that new things, new possibilities, new energies can spring up in us, we are saying that we too are active in the process that is bringing to completion the new heaven and new earth of John’s vision. We too can be saints. Saints are not only the famous, world renowned St George, St Joan of Arc, more recently St Mother Teresa. They are people like us.
So how do we live a saintly life? We take a different focus. A few weeks ago there was a four word text to Steve: ‘We are a grandmother!’ Parents are saints. My daughter’s life has changed. She has a new focus - The milk bar!
Joking apart, ‘Saint’ simply means ‘holy’, set apart for God, from the Latin word ‘sanctus’, people who see the world differently because they believe there is a different way to live. A way earthed and nurtured in the belief that life on earth is only part of a bigger picture, with different priorities. A way that speaks out with the voice of truth, even if we’re the only voice at the table that does so; each time we intervene to prevent a misunderstanding that could perhaps sour good relationships, a way that exposes an injustice, even if it puts at risk our freedom and careers. It is a way that strengthens goodness, gives hope, brings life rather than destroying life, a way that helps to make the new Jerusalem of Revelation a reality here on earth. Yes, to live the saintly life can take courage, boldness, nerve to confront wrongdoing, to challenge hypocrisy, to stick to your principles when others around you have ditched theirs.
Teresa was an unremarkable old lady. She helped with the church cleaning – yes it was a good few years ago, in the days when the ladies of the parish ‘did’ for the church!! Quiet but a little stern. I was rather wary of her. Yet she is remembered by hundreds as a saint because of her work with homeless, destitute unmarried mothers back in the days (and I’m talking about the 1950’s and 60’s) when they were ostracised, and their pregnancy known as ‘shame’: it was considered a sin to have a child out of wedlock. Their plight in Ireland was particularly horrid. It was publicised in the film Philomena, starring Steve Coogan and Dame Judi Dench which tells the true story of the brutal separation of an Irish mother and her child, in the days when their babies taken away because their unmarried mothers were judged immoral.
Teresa was different. She stood against that judgemental way. She looked after them, listened to their stories, showed kindness, and guided them towards a future that held hope. She was convinced that society, the law, attitudes were wrong and her conviction came from her faith, her faith taught her compassion stronger than harshness, love stronger than hatred. Teresa helped these women through their ‘shame’ and set them on a fresh path.
I knew nothing about this until she died and it was spoken of at her funeral. It reminded me of a text I was sent this week. At first I thought it was from a random nutcase, rather worrying. ‘Millions of tree s’, it began, and I nearly deleted it(!) but then I read it properly: ‘Millions of trees in the world are accidentally planted by squirrels – who bury nuts, then forget where they hid them. ‘Do good and forget.’ It will grow some day. Today the mischief makers and the forces of darkness have been driven out – by treats symbolically - in order to make way for the forces of good. Today we celebrate the goodness and faith of the saints who have gone before us, and now rest in the peace of eternity. Today may we resolve, to live as saints, planting pockets of goodness and hope in the landscape of our lives.