Sunday Sermon - Sunday 31st October

Sermon for All Saints Day

Isaiah 25.6-9

Revelation 21. 1-6

John 11. 32-44

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit of life,


Today we celebrate All Saints Day, a moment in time when we reflect on what it means to be saintly. Saints can take all sorts of shapes and forms; today, with All Saints Day coinciding with the start of the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow it’s intriguing to see how many saints have been closely associated with caring for, and in some cases being saved by, the natural world. There was St Felix of Nola , reputedly saved from Roman persecution in the year 250 when spiders miraculously wove a web around the doorway where he was hiding and the Roman soldiers, who fortunately were all scared of spiders, ran away! Or St. Basil the Younger, who was thrown into the sea in the C10th and rescued by dolphins!

Being saintly and caring for creation have gone hand in hand for centuries. Today it might help us to see the world as saints have seen it through the centuries. A thousand years before our current climate emergency St. Hildegaard of Bingen wrote…

  • The Earth sustains humanity. It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.”

  • “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.”

  • “Humankind is called to co-create, so that we might cultivate the earthly, and thereby create the heavenly.”

Hildegard shares her view that all creation is an expression of God’s goodness with St. Francis of Assisi, who ‘picked up little worms from the road and put them in a safe place so they would not be trampled underfoot’ because he associated them with the words ‘I am a worm and not a man.’ from psalm 22, the psalm Christ cries from at his crucifixion. In the words of today’s psalm, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it,’

We might perhaps see David Attenborough or Greta Thunberg as modern day saints for the environment, as they work to raise our awareness of the climate emergency, or we might instead look closer to home, at people we know who are making determined steps [quite literally] to emulate Hildegarde and Francis in their own care for the environment. Last month I met a woman called Barbara who is one of a group walking for 60 days from Newhaven to Glasgow as a pilgrimage to raise awareness of climate action. Barbara, who arrived in Glasgow on Thursday, is answering her own personal calling to sainthood, but it’s one we can all try and emulate. We can all eat less meat, drive less, buy less stuff, waste less food. Multiplied many times over, our individual actions are what will do most to limit the worst effects of climate change. A few weeks ago a group of us met to set up a Green Churches movement in Lewes, with the aim of acting together as the body of Christ in Lewes to inspire action for climate change. As we’re all part of that one body we all need to play our own part in tackling the climate crisis. You may have taken part in last night’s vigil for the climate; you may have heard church bells ringing across the town as a sign that the churches are taking action on climate change seriously. . A few weeks ago, the Lewes think tank heard from professor Liz Hill from Sussex university. At the end of her talk on climate change she was asked who she thought would have the greatest impact on changing human attitudes and behaviour at this critical time for the planet and its future, and her reply was that it was the churches acting together rather than exhortations from politicians and experts which had the greatest potential to change peoples’ behaviour. Leading these changes is, perhaps, is what 21st century saints are being called to do.

One of the things that saints, whether a thousand years ago or now, also do is tell us things we’d perhaps rather not hear, whether it’s about our lifestyles and their impact on the planet, or, as in today’s readings, about life and death. Halloween and all Saints bump up against one another in a very intriguing way in this respect; Last night little [and not so little] children dressed up as witches, ghosts and skeletons and went from house to house ringing doorbells and demanding ‘trick or treat?’, and this strange fascination with death as something associated with vampires, ghosts and fancy dress parties ends for many people there, with children full of sweets and adults with hangovers. The scary costumes get thrown away and the pumpkin lanterns left to rot. Some people believe that Halloween has its origins in an ancient Celtic custom whereby people believed it was a time when the boundary between the living and the dead became porous and they needed to dress up in disguise to ward of the spirits of the departed . Something about our current approach to Halloween with its relentless focus on the dead as existing in a world of darkness and menace and the fears which we make fun of through dressing up as zombies and vampires suggests that what Halloween represents for many people nowadays is really a chance to sidestep death by turning it into a carnival of crazy costumes and disguise.

Our readings today however don’t sidestep the true impact of death. Jesus himself is shown sharing in the fear and grief we all learn to be part of our human experience when someone we love dies. It’s part of being human and Jesus shares in Martha and Mary’s grief... There’s a little detail in John’s telling of the Lazarus story that helps us here. Mary doesn’t go to the tomb to weep, as everyone around her expects, she goes instead to Jesus. And Jesus’s response is not to tell her that everything will be alright, or that her brother is only sleeping. He weeps with her and for her. Before he acts as a channel for God’s power he himself has to express his own grief. He shows us how to respond to death; entering into another person’s loss and weeping alongside them. The reality of death and dying isn’t disguised either; Mary tells Jesus that ‘already there is a stench’. So much of the story forces us to confront the harsh finality of death, the aspects of death and dying which we fear most and which perhaps are at the heart of our Halloween costumes and practices, all of which mock the thing we’re perhaps most scared of. At the heart of Jesus’ response, is prayer. It’s his prayer to his father in heaven that enables him to free Lazarus . Lazarus comes out still bound, reminding us that Jesus will later leave his own tomb unbound and free of coverings. ‘Unbind him and let him go’ is perhaps a way of letting us know that one day we like Lazarus will be unbound and let go, into the new heaven and the new earth which we hear about in Revelation. And thinking of the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation brings us back to thoughts of our own immensely ancient earth, as we know it to be today, which in places such as our sterile coral reefs and ruined rainforests might remind us a little of Lazarus, seemingly also dead and gone for ever. And yet the power of this story is its hope. ‘Unbind him and let him go’says Jesus, freeing Lazarus from the tomb.

And so today, as we remember the saints and their example to us of caring for the environment and cherishing being close to nature, let us pray for God’s presence in the decisions being made in Glasgow, and in the ones we make about our own lifestyles, that like Lazarus the earth may be ‘unbound’ and freed from the crisis we all face , and that we might all become saints for the cause of the world and its well being.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,