A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 5th November 2023
We are now in the season of the church year when we remember people. We remember the great saints of old, people who did extraordinary things in Biblical times such as the apostles, or Saint Paul, and people down the ages: Saint Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, William Tyndale, Edward the Confessor, or Oscar Romero in recent times. We call this the kingdom season because these saints point us towards God’s kingdom as it unfolds before us down the ages.
But this is a season when we also remember ordinary people who have in their own way pointed us to God’s kingdom.
Furthermore, this is a season when we particularly remember those who died in the two great wars of the 20th century. But war continues. Now our attention is particularly drawn to the war in Israel and Gaza. This week we have heard the appalling accounts of medical staff in Gaza treating huge numbers of casualties, and who are having to answer the most difficult of all questions: who, in the midst of this unspeakable horror, violence, rage and despair shall we treat to live, and who shall we have to allow to die?
In the face of such extreme dilemmas, the Christian community, which makes up about a quarter of the human race, has something more to say than death in this season. We hold before each other and before God all who have gone before us, some commemorated in great books, or works of art, or even in stained glass windows. Our lives have been shaped by the great Christian saints. But our lives have also been shaped by the memory of the ordinary people we have known: family, friends, colleagues and so on. We need to remember that we, the living, also shape the memories we have and share, of those who have gone before us.
We gather in prayer tonight, in communion with all the saints living and departed, whose lives with all their loves, encouragements and mistakes witness to their lives with us. There is a real sense that wherever we gather, those who have gone with us are there, having shaped our lives and the way we respond to the present: in the doctor’s surgery anxiously awaiting news of a medical diagnosis, in the classroom, in the coroners court, in the tutorial, in a family party, after our homes have been flooded, after an earthquake, or an act of war. The presence of those who have died shapes the actions of us the living, most often because we loved them.
In remembering those who have died through war, we often pray that they did not die in vain. We pray that good may have come out of war. But we should also be mindful that in honoring them, we may possibly be led to think that there is glory in war, even though it inevitably leads to more death. We know this glory is a hallmark of many terrorist organizations. However difficult, the peaceful resolution of conflict has always to be the priority.
The communion of saints gives us a very different perspective. On this day when we remember those who have gone before us for many reasons, we need to remind ourselves that our lives are short. They may be marked by good works, but they are also marked by foolishness, by miscalculation, by lack of imagination, by triumphs, by selfishness, and yet they have vitality. These are the qualities found in all the saints, known and unknown, and in all those we have known and remember now. As we remember them today let us think of them as people who continue to encourage us with passion, with vision, with courage, with enquiring minds, with humour, and with love, even though they were also flawed.
Let us be clear: the saints do not invite us to learn how to die, but instead how to live the rest of our lives. Let us pray that God will give us the faith, hope and love which are the gifts of his kingdom for all the saints and for all of us, now and in the future. Amen.