Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day 2013
1 November 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
“When a Syrian woman was shot by a sniper in Aleppo, her motionless body lay in the street for dead. But a dramatic rescue video caught by CNN showed a brave seventeen-year-old boy who risked his life to save hers.
“‘We had a feeling she was still alive. We wanted to save her, to get her to a hospital,’ he told CNN. As gunshots continuously fired at him, the boy crawled along the road until he reached the injured woman.
“‘I said to myself, it’s God’s will if I die next to this woman,’ he told CNN. He tied a rope to her legs and then crawled back to safety.” Sadly the woman died from her injuries.
I came across this story on Huffington Post and then saw the CNN video and interview with the boy. I was struck by the words, ‘who risked his life to save hers.’
He risked his life to save another.
We live with risk. We would rather not. We try to avoid risk as far as we can. We want children and young people and people at work to be protected from risk. Corporations and public companies and places like Westminster Abbey have an obligation to assess the risk of what they do and to be as risk averse as possible. We come to think that all risks can be moderated and most can be excluded, that we can live without risk. But we cannot. Risk is part of life.
Most of us in the global West, most of us here this evening, do not expect to have to assess the risk of crawling along a road to drag an injured woman to safety under persistent gun-fire. Would we walk away? What we would actually do in the circumstances we cannot know. People summon superhuman powers when necessary.
Today, All Saints’ Day, the Church remembers and celebrates countless acts of heroism and heroic lives. The stories of the saints remind us of people without number willing to dedicate their lives to the service of God and of their fellow human beings, to risk their lives to save others, and to give their lives away for their faith.
It has been estimated that through Christian history seventy million Christians have died as martyrs, of whom forty-five million died in the twentieth century. The Church categorises the saints as apostles, martyrs, confessors, pastors, evangelists and religious: that is, the twelve apostles of our Lord and other biblical Christians so-called such as St Paul; the martyrs who gave their lives for our Lord Jesus Christ through the shedding of their blood; confessors who witnessed to Christ and acted heroically, amongst whom we proudly number our own St Edward, king and confessor; pastors, mostly but not exclusively bishops, who cared for the flock of Christ; evangelists, who spread the word of God as missionaries to those who had not heard it; and religious, like St Francis and St Benedict, people who committed their lives to what has been called ‘white martyrdom’, a life of self-sacrificial service short of the shedding of blood. So, the number of those who are recognised as saints is enormous, impossible to count.
A small number of the saints are remembered here and in other churches on their feast days. But today, All Saints’ Day, allows us to honour them all: to give thanks for their witness, for their lives, for their faith. And we learn from their example, so that we like them might receive the crown of life in the presence of the Father, so that we can be part of the number of whom we sang at the beginning of the service:
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
We admire the commitment of that young man at Aleppo who risked his life for a fellow human being. But if we are to follow the example of the Christian saints, we too must find our motive and a special source of power for living and perhaps dying as they have done, to serve God as he deserves: ‘to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do God’s will.’ [Prayer of St Ignatius]
How can we live like that? How did the apostles come to live like that? Following our Lord did not make them heroic. Too often we see them in the Gospels missing the point, being concerned with their own status, being motivated by fear. It was not his teaching that converted them to living selflessly.
Even the power of the resurrection of our Lord did not shake them out of their fear and self-centredness. They ran away from the empty tomb because they were afraid. They continued, even after our Lord’s resurrection appearances, to fear, to lock themselves in the Upper Room.
The decisive moment, the moment that changed their lives and that changed history, the moment that drove away all fear, was the moment when the power of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them as tongues of flame danced on their heads and a rushing mighty wind blew through the house. Then, and only then, did they go out to preach the gospel without any fear for their lives. Then and only then would they risk their lives and become careless of their own health and safety. St Peter asked to be crucified upside down rather than being crucified as our Lord had been. He did not count himself worthy to be crucified like our Lord.
It is the gift of the Holy Spirit at the moment when we need superhuman strength that can enable weak human beings like ourselves to transcend what seems to us in moments of repose to be possible and to fulfil our calling. But even the Holy Spirit of God will not force us to do what we might.
So if we are to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, to receive his strength and do his will, we must cultivate the habit of paying attention to his voice in us, through an informed conscience, through prayer, through studying the Word of God, through the sacraments. Then we shall be ready to hear and heed at the moment when courage is required, when risk is presented, when the opportunity occurs for true selfless service after the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we heard in the epistle to the Ephesians, ‘In Christ you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.’
May the Holy Spirit who sealed with his power all the saints of God, continue to seal us too and enable us to join that happy band of pilgrims who have come to the Promised Land and enjoy the very presence of God and are drawn into that eternal banquet of which here on earth, here at this service, we have in the Holy Eucharist a rich and beautiful foretaste.