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Sermon: Evensong - All Saints 2014

Sunday 2nd November 2014
Isaiah 65: 17-end
Heb 11:32-12:2
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Dark, impassioned, magnificently defiant.

Just some of the words used to describe Rembrandt's late works at the National Gallery. To be in the presence of his paintings and etchings is to be in the company of saints; he takes us on a journey through life; he captures moments; the beyond breaks in.  The art critic Laura Cumming describes the exhibition as an ethereal vision and earthly worlds

Rembrandt takes us to the heart of human life; and powerfully, compassionately enables us to gaze on faces that have loved and lost, hoped and endured.  He lends dignity to our frailty; infusing every gesture and glance with grace.  He holds us between life and death; without losing passion for the former he makes us confront the later.

He looks on human beings with absolute attention; his portraits scrutinise us: the tenderness and sensuality of a sleeping woman; the injustice and brutality of a hanged teenager. We are caught up in Bathsheba's moment of decision as she holds David letter - loyalty to king or husband weighs on her heart.  We are captivated by the moment of distraction in the face the young Titus, Rembrandt's son, as he day dreams at his desk.  We ponder what meaning, consolation or inspiration the old woman is finding in the book she is reading with undivided attention.

In The Jewish Bride the love of a nameless couple endures.  Their posture captures the exclusive intimacy of love. It is a seal upon their hearts as their hands touch, across her breast. We see beyond the luxurious dress to a generous love that responds to others; a love that is a crown upon their heads.

Such grace and humility is evoked too in Paul, Francis and Bartholomew - the saints we know by name.  They look on death through a lens of love; their contemplation is fearless; their hope tangible.  Even in the darkest moments, on the cusp of momentous decisions, as life is relinquished, mercy breaks in. 

This evening we gather as friends, as brothers and sisters, as strangers and pilgrims here on earth.  We gather to pause to be caught up in this interlude of praise and prayer.  We bring with us the longings and fears that mark our faces; the hopes and sorrows that shine in our eyes.  What Rembrandt captures in oil and canvas, we are: human beings, called to the fullness of life.  The light he captures is more than an artist's skill; it is the light of God irradiating us, and radiating from us.

We celebrate that light shining forth in the lives of people across the generations who lived and died in deep attention to God and to others.  In the power of the Spirit, they bore witness to the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.   We know them not by name. Yet the brightness of lives and their faithful prayers inspire us; their commitment challenged injustice and revealed the hope of a better world. We too are called to make known the glory of God's Kingdom.

Rowan Williams said holy people make you feel better than you are. Good people make you feel worse than you are.  What might he mean?  Perhaps in part it is the difference between self-reliance and self-assurance; between what we do and who we are; between works and being. Being good can be a burden because we are trying to do too much out of our own reserves of energy.  'Goodness' by itself makes us feel inadequate or discouraged; it’s too much to live up to; it seems unattainable. 

Holiness on the other hand, is rooted in God, his love and forgiveness.  Saints trust in God; they lived in and for his love - at moments of decision, moments of tenderness, moments of loss; in moments of contemplation and in the work entrusted to them.  Theirs is not a goodness that crushes our spirit; theirs is a holiness that inspires and raises us up; it offers mutual encouragement.

Hebrews presents a list of very human saints: judges, kings, and prophets - those who sought justice, righteousness and mercy.  Gideon and Barak wrestled with doubts. Samson relied on his immense strength and was seduced by beauty. Jephthah and David wavered in faithfulness to God seeking their own gratification with dire consequences.  Yet, God's Spirit restored them; they learnt courage, humility and wisdom.  Alongside them are the men and women who are unnamed and unknown to us, but who walk with us as God’s pilgrim people. 

In them we find hope; for God works through us despite our weakness.  They are commended for their faith, not their goodness.  In them, something of the light of God shines forth.  They are our companions. They inspire us to persevere when we waver or feel overwhelmed. 

Like them, we are to look to Jesus. He is a pioneer because in him, death is defeated; he is the perfecter of faith; he is our hope.  In his life, death and resurrection God’s Kingdom breaks in.

Isaiah's vision is inspirational; but for it to become a reality we have to embrace the challenge of aligning our lives, our world with God's new creation. Through the Spirit, that same power is at work in us as we run the race set before us.

This afternoon, members of cathedral youth group spent a lot of time thinking about saints and heroes; about prophets and God's Kingdom.  We listened to Bob Marley's Redemption Song and discussed Martin Luther King & Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose pursuit of freedom cost them their lives.  We thought about how we can be prophetic as we take a stand against injustice or bullying; whilst also seeing every human being as made in the image of God. 

Isaiah speaks of the promise of new heavens and a new earth. Jerusalem is to be a joy and its people a delight.  Hopes will be realised and blessings will be poured out on all people.  No more distress, suffering, tears and death; no more exploitation and destruction. Instead God draws all things to himself in stability, refreshment and peace.  This afternoon we shared that sense of assurance; our weeping will come to end. We also shared the challenge of responding to the cries of others in their distress; living in a way that showed God's kingdom.

Here in prayer and praise our vision is renewed and our lives are reshaped; here we are equipped to fulfil God’s purposes in the world.  We hear the honest cries of the psalmist; we hear the prophetic call to justice in Mary's song; we hear Simeon rejoice in the light of Christ.  Worship inspires us to build trust, to seek justice, to cultivate patience, to learn forgiveness.  Worship draws us into the way of holiness: our humanity is transformed by God's grace.

As God's saints, we are not called to random acts of goodness but to intentional acts of witness.  Giving an account of the hope that is in us; the hope that creation will be renewed; that the signs of God's Kingdom are made known in love, justice and compassion.  We do that in the power of the Spirit praying within us; inspiring us; filling us with joy and delight, compassion and wisdom.

We are to embody Isaiah's vision. May whoever crosses the threshold of this place be drawn into the abundance of God's love - the curious, the fearful, the joyful, the broken hearted. May they find inspiration and encouragement in the beauty of holiness.

May we leave this place - walking in the world as God's saints.  Be passionate, generous, forgiving encouraging and prophetically defiant. May our lives, our faces reflect the light that Rembrandt captures: the light of God illumining all that we are; guiding and shaping us.  Light that radiates from us - light that is a gift not a possession. May we show forth in our lives that ethereal vision in our earthly world.

You are a holy people; shine as lights in the world!

Be impassioned; magnificently defiant!