Morning assembly in the local church school was under way, and the head teacher introduced the vicar, making her monthly visit. It was just before the October half-term so Hallowe’en was approaching, so the head knew she would want to stress that this meant the Eve of All Hallows, All Saints.
As usual, she began her talk with a question. “Now then, who can tell me anything about All Saints?”
A little girl in the front row wriggled excitedly, hand waving aloft. Oh dear, thought the head teacher. Molly had been absent yesterday, when he’d primed the youngsters with suitable facts, and cleared up any misapprehension about the pop group of the same name.
The vicar, however, was delighted to see one of the children make a contribution so she swooped gratefully on Molly. “Well now,” she said to Molly. “What can you tell me about All Saints?”
“I really like them!” Molly enthused. “Especially the stripy ones.”
Silence. Head teacher and vicar exchanged glances, but Molly continued, “Granny always buys me a box when she comes to stay.”
“She means Allsorts, not All Saints!” a boy shouted, and the children squealed with laughter. Before the head teacher could intervene, the vicar smiled and said, “Well done, Molly! All Saints is about All Sorts of people. I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
And, of course, how true that is.
At this time when the Beatitudes are set as the Gospel reading they help us to remember that there are all sorts of saints. We are so familiar with the Beatitudes that we sometimes forget the radical nature of this teaching, right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. But let me remind you that the list of people Jesus mentions as being blessed includes some the world would not consider blessed at all, and not just those who mourn.
We are often told, for example, that the poor in spirit are those who know their own spiritual poverty and their dependence on God. Yet the first Beatitude Matthew records could also be translated “Blessed in spirit are the poor”, as in Luke’s version, where “the poor”, not “the poor in spirit”, are blessed.
Luke also mentions the downright hungry, rather than those who hunger for righteousness. Put the poor and hungry alongside those who mourn, and call them blessed, and you fly in the face of Jewish teaching at the time, which regarded such misfortune as a sign of God’s disfavour, a punishment for sin.
Furthermore, the list makes no reference to keeping commandments or performing religious duties, which the Jewish authorities would have seen as vital for God’s blessing. Its focus is on attitudes, a disposition of the heart towards God and our neighbour. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stresses the importance of the heart, the inner response as opposed to the outward show of religion. The radical element of all this was that anyone, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, whose heart was in the right place, with God, could know themselves blessed by him.
Jesus gathered around him as followers not high-ranking religious officials, but fishermen, a loathed tax collector… even women! Here, at the beginning of his teaching about discipleship, he encourages them and us.
Despite sadness, misfortune, persecution, all who love God and model their lives on his mercy and peace, all whose hearts are thus being purified, will see God at work in their lives and know themselves to be his children. An emphatic present tense in the middle of all those future tenses: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Literally, “the kingdom of heaven is of these”, consists of these. Now.
So who do we commemorate, today on All Saints’ Sunday, or yesterday on All Saints’ Day itself? Well I am sure we remember all those “official” saints recognised by the Church: as I said then those with a large ST. like the Blessed Virgin Mary the apostles and others like them. But then there are those with , you might say, a small sort like 5th century Jerome, translator of the scriptures and Crispin and Crispinian, martyrs at Rome in the 3rd century and then those who we remember in the Anglican church have never formally been declared saints as our brothers and sisters in the Roman communion do like, Isaac watts, an 18th century hymn writer and Janani Luwum, a 20th century bishop and martyr in Uganda, yes remarkable Christians (from all sorts of backgrounds) who have left their mark in this world and serve as examples for disciples today. We remember the whole company of heaven, that great multitude (from all sorts of backgrounds) who stand before God’s throne and worship him.
But we also remember that all Christians are saints-in-training, and all human beings potential saints. It’s difficult enough to think of ourselves as saints, let alone see a halo around people outside the Church! Jesus shocked the religious authorities of his day by opening heaven to outsiders. What can we do to reach out to those who find church services boring or irrelevant? Isn’t it time to reclaim this period around Hallowe’en as a celebration of, and for, all God’s children?
‘See, I am making all things new’ we read in Revelation 21.
There needs to be new beginnings in our work for the church day by day when we work to extend the kingdom of heaven here at St George’s and in the benefice. We all need to bring our ideas. So a fanciful suggestion - what about an All Saints’ party next year, an excuse for fancy dress saints instead of ghosts and witches and holy apple-bobbing instead of trick and treating?
For the whole community. For the kingdom of heaven? Remember it takes allsorts as Molly reminded us and Jesus showed us when he chose his inner team. It takes all sorts – make sure you are one of them.