All Saints - 1 November 2015

Sermon by Margaret Houston on 1st November 2015 at St George's Church

Imagine you were told you were about to go on a very dangerous journey.  You might wonder, what sort of journey are we on? Where are we going? Who is helping us? What dangers might we face?  You might pack things to prepare - a map, a compass, train or plane tickets.

In Sunday School, the children have been hearing the story of Dangerous Journey, the BBC’s children’s adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress.  This is the hero, Christian, at the start of his journey.

No map. No compass. No snacks. No plane tickets. No change of clothes.

Instead, he has this book, which tells him that the place he’s starting from – the City of Destruction – is going to be burned with fire – and that he needs to go to the Celestial City.  That’s it.

He doesn’t look like a very promising hero.  As the children will sing later during communion, “I saw the way-worn traveller / in tattered garments clad ... his back was heavy laden / his strength was almost gone.”

We all start the journey of our lives, like Christian, with very little help.  We have no map, no plane tickets, no compass to show us the way.  Some of us start out better than others – some families are more supportive and loving than others. Some have the means for better education and help.

But all of us are on a journey.

Christian’s journey isn’t called dangerous for nothing.  He falls in the Slough of Despond, has to climb the Hill Difficulty, walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and be imprisoned in Doubting Castle.

But there are also wonderful places on Christian’s journey. He rests in an arbour partway up the Hill Difficulty. He spends the night in the Palace Beautiful, in a room called Peace.  He renews his spirit in the Delectable Mountains.

The journeys of our lives, like Christian’s journey, take us to treacherous places.  I’m glad the children’s version of this book doesn’t scrimp on the demons, the monsters, the ghouls and spooks and villains.  I’m glad that later on in our service, we will hear imagery of battles and warfare – “and when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,” we will sing, “steals on the ear the distant triumph song. And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.”

Yes, this imagery, if taken literally, is disturbing, what with Christianity’s terrible historical – and even current, in many places – links with violence and war.  But this imagery taken metaphorically tells the truth.

“Christians, of all people,” writes Christian educator Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, “should be able to admit that, yes, there most certainly are monsters under the bed.  You are not imagining them.  The world is a scary place.  Our life is not merely a journey in which we may sometimes get tired or lost or discouraged; it is a dangerous venture through a war zone, in which we may be attacked, ambushed, or tempted to join the Enemy’s side; in which we may be assigned to missions calling for all the courage and intelligence we can muster.”

Yes, the journey is dangerous. And yes, we are terribly, terribly, unprepared.

But we also have help. First of all, of course, we have God.  God who became human, to walk this journey with us.  As Pritchard continues: “in that cosmic battle, we have by our side the unlikely superhero from Nazareth, the meek-and-mild carpenter who proved to be stronger than sin, stronger than death; who by his courage and loyalty has faced and defeated the Enemy, and who invites us, and empowers us, to follow him through the darkness to the final victory, with the saints who ‘nobly fought of old’.”

Saints are people who have lived their lives close to God. Their images surround us today – up here, on the door, on the pews – to remind us that their spirits surround us every day.  They worship with us.  In our first reading today, we are reminded that the church has its roots thousands of years ago, in Jesus’s disciples, and in the men, women, and children who have followed Jesus since then, and in all those we love who have gone before us, we have a great cloud of witnesses to surround us.

The saints can be part of our map. In their mistakes and triumphs, their many and different ways of serving God, whether artists, scientists, musicians, activists, writers, helpers, teachers, or any number of things, they show us the way to God.

Wherever you are on your journey today, whether in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the Chamber of Peace, or somewhere else, Jesus has been there before you, and the saints have followed him. And now it’s your turn.  God works with us through our journey – just as Christian is transformed, his burden taken away, new clothes given to him, lessons learned, mistakes made, so each of us will be changed by the places we find ourselves and the people we meet on our journeys.  God loves us as we are, but he doesn’t let us stay that way.  On our journeys in the footsteps of the saints, we change.  We grow.

So what’s the point?  Why are we on this journey?

Our first reading showed God’s promise of the Kingdom, where all the saints will be gathered together in a kingdom where there is no mourning or sorrow or pain, and where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  And Jesus showed God’s Kingdom of abundant life for all the saints in today’s Gospel, when he rose Lazarus from the grave.

And later, the children will sing of the promise of “Palms of victory, crowns of glory, palms of victory I shall wear.”  We will all sing of “the saints triumphant, rising in bright array.”

But we started our service today by singing “Shall We Gather at the River?”

At the end of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian stands on the edge of the Dark River.  Hymns and poems throughout Christian history have used “crossing the river” to mean death.  Maya, Tilly, and Cordelia read of a river of life flowing through the streets of the Kingdom, but this river, the Dark River, comes first.

John Bunyan wrote a second part to Pilgrim’s Progress, showing the journey of Christian’s wife and family.  This is from the end of that book, as the group finds themselves at the Dark River:

“Valiant-for-Truth said, ‘I am going to my Father’s, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My Marks and Scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his Battles who now will be my Rewarder.’

“When the day was come, many accompanied him to the Riverside, into which as he went he said, ‘Death, where is thy Sting?’ And as he went down deeper he said,’ Grave, where is thy Victory?’ So he passed over, and all the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

We are all marked and scarred. We are all burdened.  We are all on a dangerous journey, with no map, no compass, no tickets.  As we make this journey, and as this journey transforms who we are, we have the great cloud of witnesses, the saints, to help us find the way, to be our map, and we have God’s promise that as we stand at the river, death will have no sting, the grave will have no victory, and, as it did for all the saints who nobly fought of old, the trumpets will sound for us on the other side.

Alleluia.  Amen.

Margaret Houston

Holland Park Benefice