Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day 2016
Start Date 1st Nov 2016 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Two years ago at this time I was in the United States of America where the Abbey Choir was undertaking a concert tour and where I was supporting the work of the American Fund for Westminster Abbey. I was with the Choir in New Haven Connecticut on All Saints’ Day and had been invited to preach the sermon at the Sung Eucharist at Trinity Episcopal Church. The previous Friday as the guest of a New Haven family I had experienced trick or treat in its full-blown American form for the first time. It was fun, houses adorned with spiders’ webs, and fabulous ghoulish and ghastly costumes being worn by children and some parents alike. And a lot of candy, what we would call sweets, seemed to be on offer.

I began my sermon on All Saints’ Day in New Haven by saying that I had never encountered Hallowe’en in its full American form, until the previous Friday evening. In England, I explained, we have a certain hesitancy about Hallowe’en, although commercial forces encourage us to mark the day. But I wanted to say, after my experience on Friday: Who can doubt the warm-hearted family values involved in getting kids to play little devils and stuffing their mouths with teeth-decaying candy? I can’t now remember whether anyone in the congregation that day laughed. I hope they did.

I have to say I wonder whether people marking Hallowe’en, whether in the United States or here or anywhere else come to that, generally have any idea what Hallowe’en means: the Eve of All Hallows. And a more familiar word for All Hallows is All Saints: the Eve of All Saints’ Day. I heard recently an explanation of why Hallowe’en began to be celebrated with people dressing as ghouls or ghosts. The first point was that it had never been the practice in England but had been the custom in Ireland and had thus been exported to the United States in the 19th century, and gradually become commercialised and detached from its original meaning. So, what was that original purpose? It was put like this.

November is when, in this part of the world, the evenings are drawing in. The crops have been harvested and the harvest celebrated; the beer has been brewed and the slaughtered animals salted; the coming months of the winter will be cold and drear. Not only that but many people, with the summer’s plenty gone, will face hunger and even starvation through the winter, and quite possibly an epidemic of disease. In other words, the long dark night and short dull days threaten danger and even death in primitive communities. So, Hallowe’en began as a chance to stare death in the face and to dare it to do its worst, to mock death and make fun of it, to tame it with ridicule and to put it in its place. Then All Hallows’ Day itself, this great festival we celebrate today, raises our sights and lifts us far from the anxieties and fears and torments of this world to the glory of heaven.

Well, the evenings are dark now, so let us too lift our sights to heaven, where the saints of God reign in glory: the apostles and martyrs, the bishops, pastors and evangelists, the virgins and religious, the vast company of those who have been recognised on earth and in heaven as exemplary Christians, people who can inspire us to follow their example of piety, long-suffering and great goodness. They reign in glory and eternally worship almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As St John tells us, ‘Day and night without ceasing they sing, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

There are not too many visions of heaven in the bible. The prophet Isaiah had a vision of heaven when he was called as a prophet. ‘I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The prophet Ezekiel too begins his prophecy with a vision of heaven. Jesus after his baptism looked up and saw heaven opened and heard the voice of God. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, just before he was stoned to death, ‘gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’’

These visions are surely both inspiring and encouraging. They inspire us to focus our own lives more clearly and deliberately on the prospect of heaven for ourselves and for those who are dear to us, to order our lives in such a way that we live here on earth by the values of heaven. But these visions also encourage us to spread the values of heaven here on earth, to work to build the kingdom of heaven here through our own living and our example.

What does this mean in practice? Of course, it is Jesus who teaches us to pray. And the prayer he teaches us the Lord’s Prayer is at its heart a prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. God is in heaven, we acknowledge, where God reigns surrounded by the angels and saints. But we want God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s rule, to be on earth, just as it is already in heaven. Anything which runs counter to God’s will, God’s way, God’s rule, we wish to see extinguished on earth as it is in heaven. So Jesus teaches us. We want hunger to go away: Give us this day our daily bread. This prayer is not just for ourselves but for all those who are hungry. We want sin to go away: Forgive us our trespasses. And we know that we cannot expect to be forgiven unless we forgive others: As we forgive those who trespass against us. And we wish to avoid being put in a position where our faith us really tested to the uttermost, in other words, we want to avoid the threat of persecution: Lead us not into temptation. And above all, we want hatred and cruelty and disease and all that harms and destroys to go away: Deliver us from evil.

In St Luke’s Gospel, as we heard earlier, we find Jesus teaching about the values of the kingdom of God and how they might come on earth. They are strikingly more challenging than being polite to people and not kicking the cat. They turn the values of the world upside down. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, says our Lord. Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, defame you. And woe to you if you are rich or have a full belly or are laughing. Or when people speak well of you. We are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. No wonder Jesus said, ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

The saints whom we celebrate tonight, and for whom we truly thank God, stared death in the face and dared it to do its worst, mocked death and made fun of it, tamed it with ridicule and put it in its place. May we follow their example and seek to build God’s kingdom on earth, so that we can be ready to join them in all the joy and glory of heaven.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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