Oh Lord, I want to be in that number
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
30 October 2011 (All Saints' Sunday)
Tomorrow, we are told, the world’s population will reach 7 billion.
The world’s population has doubled in the past 50 years and grown by a billion since 1999.
The human family is growing fast numerically but what are we able to cope?
Well it depends who you are. If you are fortunate enough to be born into the developed world and of an educated and prosperous family, you may well think we are managing just fine.
Certainly, the world faces challenges and economically there is a very real debt crisis. But for the wealthy, there is sufficient protection and comfort to escape the ravages of famine and poverty.
Our news has been full of natural disasters, wars and uprisings and of course this past week the protest against the banking system and world capitalism focused on the environs of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Ironically, St Paul was a tentmaker from Tarsus and outside London’s cathedral with his dedication is a sea of tents many of them displaying the question: ‘What would Jesus do?’
It is a very good question and one we should not attempt to dismiss.
On this All Saints Sunday, the Church celebrates holiness and community in its tradition and in the dynamic and radical life of faith and prayer.
If we hear the call of God in Jesus to follow him, we need to answer the question, What would Jesus do?
Now the answer will not be in a sentence but it is likely to commit us to something less attractive and comfortable than the faith we currently inhabit.
And to give the answer a particular bite, I would suggest that shutting the doors of London’s cathedral was not the best course of action.
I think the numbers of worshippers and visits might have had to be reduced and rationed but closing the doors is a highly symbolic action.
And if the cathedral really, really had to be completely closed, why not take the worship onto the front steps for all to join in?
I, of course, don’t know the full facts but I am unhappy, deeply, deeply unhappy that those doors were shut to the world.
A cathedral or church’s doors are open to welcome all as Christ himself.
So is this a case of saints and sinners? No.
We are all saints or called to be so, and all saints are sinners.
The trouble is that we love to polarise and simplify our 7 billion strong human condition.
About a third of the world is Christian, so we are a minority but nevertheless the largest faith group on the planet.
So what would Jesus have his saints, his holy people, do?
Today, the future seems fraught with problems on a massive scale and of a challenging order – not least as to how to feed the growing global population as we predict ever-growing shortages of water, food and fuels together with an imbalance between young and old, the ever-present threat of pandemics and our propensity to fight and destroy.
Where do saints fit in? Who are they? What are they?
Well they are not a religious sub-species but anyone who lets God’s light shine through them and change their lives.
They are not professional religious people; they are anybody and everybody.
The Church has traditionally selected an ‘A’ list of celebrities who have given the world a particular example of holiness, virtue, courage and compassion – and often their lives and influence have brought healing and blessings long after their physical deaths.
But saints live in the world and not in windows and niches.
And the glamour of the dark side that so many young people seem to enjoy on All Saints’ Eve, Halloween, albeit with light-hearted fun and the same commitment and belief as the world of Mickey Mouse, - that glamour - needs to be replicated in our imaginative and energetic response to the world and the invitation to participate in God’s radical and life-giving love.
Our readings this morning give us some idea of what we must expect if we are to answer Jesus’ call and be his holy ones.
The passage from the Book of Revelation was written at a time of dispersal for the Jewish people and persecution within a pagan empire. The holy ones of God are therefore those who have come through this ordeal and have not sold out to the prevailing spirit of the age and have held firm to faith and hope and love in the name of God and his truth.
Being brave may well be something that we have forgotten since our confirmation classes.
The next reading from 1 John underlines that the world formed by ego and its attendant appetites of greed, exploitation and conquest was the way that we betrayed and crucified Jesus. God’s children live like Jesus in a relationship with God and one another that is utterly different from that of self-seeking and self-promotion.
And finally to the Gospel reading from St Matthew – Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount names those who live out the values of God’s Kingdom:
the poor in spirit;
those who mourn;
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
the pure in heart;
and the persecuted.
I fear that none of these qualities figure highly in job application forms for any appointment today – probably not even that for the Dean of Rochester!
Our education system is obsessed with information rather than meaning – and holiness, true freedom, is banished as being sectarian and quasi superstitious.
Function and utility have overshadowed meaning, purpose and community.
No wonder the jungle has grown back in our civilisation and continues to diminish and consume human lives throughout the world.
Nations and societies need to live with a vision – a glimpse and aspiration beyond the horizons of the home and the market place.
And that is the function of faith – to furnish humankind with the dimension of God’s greater and transcendent truth.
As a precentor, I am by nature quite keen to teach the world to sing!
And for this All Saints’ Sunday, I have provided for you a bookmark to take away with the words of the best known jazz standard and Dixieland number: When the saints go marching in.
(I’ve also thrown in a Fra Angelico and two Kandinsky’s – albeit in black and white!)
The words are a spiritual, a gospel hymn, and the words are Kingdom words based on images from the Revelation of St John the Divine.
As we start today the ‘mini season’ of ‘The Kingdom’ in the Church, the weeks between All Saints and Advent, the Kingdom words are pretty clear as to what the saints are called to proclaim, live and strive and struggle for.
So our kingdom work includes:
When the rich go out and work
When the air is pure and clean
When we all have food to eat
When our leaders learn to cry
O Lord I want to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in
Please reflect on these lines and remember that politics and holiness are not separate but utterly and intrinsically interrelated.
God has created this universe – and has pronounced that it is good. Matter is holy; all life is holy and the 7 billion strong human family of 2011 is created in God’s own image.
He walks among us a brother in Jesus and it is the relationship of prayer that is the heartbeat of faith and the means of our spiritual union with God.
It catches hold of the days of our lives and gathers us into the common journey back to God in heaven.
It is this journey that we celebrate today, as we give thanks for the saints in heaven and on earth.
We ask for their prayers, even when ours fail and falter. Oh Lord, I want to be in that number.
May the saints of God pray for us and the angels of God watch over us and protect us. Amen.