Posts Tagged ‘saints’

November 2, 2019

All Saints – 2019

Luke 6:20-31

Marian Free

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

The concept of saint is a complex one. As I pointed out in pew sheet there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to defining sainthood. Those who have been identified as saints by the church have ranged from political to apolitical, from academics to those with no education, from cloistered to engaged with the world. They may have experienced torture and violent deaths, or they may have lived quietly till the end. Even the history of the word ‘saint can be problematic. In the New Testament αγιος (‘holy’) was used by Paul to describe anyone who had come to believe in Jesus as the Christ. He addresses four of his letters to ‘those called to be saints’ (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Phil 1:1).

This does not mean that the communities to whom Paul wrote provided examples of holiness for successive generations of Christians to emulate – far from it. According to Paul’s criteria, any baptized person was holy (άγιος – a saint). Included under this umbrella were the believers in Corinth. His first letter to that community reveals that their behaviour was both divisive and immoral – not at all consistent with the image of ‘saint’ with which we are familiar. Paul has to chide members of this congregation for competing with each other, taking each other to court and celebrating the eucharist in ways that discriminated against the poor. One of their number is said to have been sleeping with his father’s wife (a behaviour apparently condoned by the remainder of the community!) and yet Paul writes: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints.” In Paul’s world, simply being “in Jesus” made a person holy.

As time passed, and the early flush of enthusiasm disappeared and the founders – the apostles and their followers – passed into memory, the church became increasingly institutionalised and the fire and the passion of the early days settled into more of a routine. Acts of courage and steadfastness were no longer the day to day experience of those who believed and behaving in a “Christian” way came to be second nature. Despite this, there were faithful people who continued to behave in extraordinary ways, to do extraordinary things and to act with extraordinary courage – whether they took themselves off to the desert to pray in solitude or had an ability to teach or to heal or had faced violence against them. These individuals stood apart from the run-of -the-mill Christian. They were sought out for their wisdom, their teaching, or their ability to heal and they were admired for their courage and their fortitude. In the absence of the apostles, such people became the heroes of the faith and they were venerated by those whose faith and the practice of it, did not aspire to such great heights. The title ‘saint’ was no longer applied to everyone, but only to these few whose lives had been an example to all.

Not only were these saints revered in their lifetime, when they died their memory was honoured each year on the day of their death. Over time the number of people revered as saints proliferated to the point that a more formal way of identifying people as such was developed. We know process this as canonization (something we have observed in recent times in the case of Mary McKillop and Mother Teresa among others). The practice of remembering saints on the day of their death continued, but now the number was limited to those recognized by Rome. Despite the Reformation, the Anglican Church continues to honour a somewhat smaller number of saints but, unlike our Roman sisters and brothers, we have not added to that number since King Charles the 1st was identified as a saint in 1660. Instead, every province has the authority to name as “holy” those who lives stand out as an example to us but who would be unknown to people in other parts of the communion.

In Australia we remember Eliza Hassal, a pioneer of the Church Missionary Society, William Broughton, the first Bishop of Australia, Sister Emma SSA, the superior of the Sisters of the Sacred Advent here in Brisbane, Frederic Barker, bishop and pioneer of Moore Theological College, Georgian Molloy, pioneer church leader and botanist and Sydney Kirkby, pioneer of outback ministry and founder of the Bush Church Aid Society.  Our Calendar also includes women and men whose impact has been felt here, even if they have lived in other countries or belonged to other denominations. These include the martyrs of Uganda, Evelyn Underhill, spiritual writer, William Wilberforce, social reformer, Mary Summer founder of the Mother’s Union and the twentieth century martyrs including Archbishop Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

All of these are remembered on the day of their death so why, you might ask, do we celebrate today as All Saints Day? According to Denis Hamm All Saints Day began as a commemoration of early martyrs who names were unrecorded and who therefore could not be remembered on the day of their martyrdom.

Whatever its origins, today provides an occasion for each of us to reflect on the lives of all those who have gone before us, especially those whose faithfulness, courage and witness have thrown a light on our tentativeness, our timidity and our silence. It is an opportunity to examine our own faith (or lack of it) and to allow ourselves to be challenged and inspired by those who allowed nothing to stand between them and Christ, who faced danger and privation, endured solitude and misunderstanding, who stood up for what is right and who were not afraid to confront injustice and oppression.

Today we thank God for the lives of all the saints – known and unknown. We pray that their lives may influence our own and that our own will not be found wanting.

 

 

 

 

It’s not fair – the injustice of God

September 23, 2017

Pentecost 16 – 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity overlooks our faults and opens the gates of heaven to all who believe. Amen.

Imagine this scenario: Ever since you were a small child you had one ambition – to swim at the Olympics. To achieve your goal you got up at 5:00am every morning – summer and winter – and trained for at least an hour before school. After school you would be back at the pool for more training before going home and completing your homework. As you grew older your social life was non-existent. Your friends were all out partying, going to movies and forming relationships, but your life was focused on swimming. Swimming dictated almost every aspect of your life, how much you slept, what you ate, how much you exercised. And it was not only training that took up your time. There were also the competitions – local, state and national – that not only ate into your holidays, but also required you and your family to raise enough money for transport and accommodation.

Never mind, all your hard work and sacrifice has finally paid off. You have made it to the Olympics. You come first in the heats, first in the semi-finals and now you are ready for the finals and, you hope, for gold. The gun sounds, you are off to a good start. You know that you are swimming well, keeping to the plan. You can’t be sure, but it feels like you are ahead of the others in the race. You make the final tumble and put everything you have into the last lap and yes! when you raise your head from the water the swimmer closest to you is only just reaching for the end of the pool. It’s yours! the gold medal that you have worked for most of your life. You are already imagining yourself on the winning podium, wearing the medal and proudly hearing the national anthem fill the stadium.

You get out of the pool grab your towel and head towards the waiting journalists when your daydreams are interrupted by a “special announcement”. “We are pleased to announce that for the first time in the history of the Olympics we are going to recognise the hard work of all the competitors in this event. Everyone is a winner. Everyone will take home a gold medal!” Such largesse is extraordinary and unheard of, but you find it difficult – no impossible – to feel happy for the other competitors. Their gain is your loss. The moment you have dreamed of for so long. All your hard work was for nothing. It’s simply not fair.

Even thought two thousand years have passed, this parable still hits a nerve. We, who live in quite a different time and place, still bristle with indignation – the injustice of it all! Of course this was Jesus’ intention. He wanted his listeners to sit up and take notice. The last will be paid as much as the first. God can do no less.

To understand this parable, we have to go back a few verses to the question asked by the rich young man: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16) This man mistakenly thinks that he can earn eternity, that if he only meets certain criteria he can be assured of eternal life. The disciples seem to have the same view. Peter says: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27)

In order to set the record straight, Jesus tells the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. He is hoping to shock us into seeing that it is not a matter of how much we have done compared to others that determines our place in the kingdom. What matters is that we have done something. Whether we have worked all day or only part of the day, the outcome is the same.

There is not a sliding scale. Heaven, (or whatever eternity is) not incremental or fractional – it is all or nothing. A person cannot inherit just a little bit of heaven. Having just a portion of eternity is simply a nonsense. We either inherit eternal life or we do not. And that is just the problem with our human sense of fairness. We want to think that somehow if we have lived a better life than someone else that our reward will be greater. The problem is that there is only one reward, and like the labourers, we either receive it or we do not no matter how much or how little we have ‘worked’.

It might offend our sense of justice that those against whom we measure ourselves will receive the same reward, but what if we think of the situation from the point of view of those whose goodness and holiness far and away exceeds ours? What if we compare ourselves not with those whom we consider to be less worthy, but with those whom we recognise are far more worthy than we will ever be – the Joan of Arcs, the Catherines of Sienna, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Francis’s of Assisi?

Going back to the parable, can you imagine arriving in heaven (thinking that you have lived a life worthy of such a reward) only discover that over to one side are a host of disgruntled saints wondering why on earth you deserve the same reward as them? Can you imagine Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Catherine of Sienna, Francis of Assisi and the myriads of saints and martyrs – instead of being pleased for you – complaining indignantly to God: “He/she has done nothing compared to us and yet you have made them equal to us.”

Suddenly the parable makes sense. There is no sliding scale. There is only eternity and God chooses to give it to whomever God will. If the parable make us indignant, if we bristle with the injustice of it all, then we like those who have worked all day demonstrate that we just don’t get it, we like those who have worked all day haven’t yet realised that God’s generosity works to our advantage.

God is unfair, because will almost certainly reward us (with the saints) with eternity. If God’s unfairness works to our advantage, how dare we begrudge God’s extending that generosity to others?

 

 

 

 

 

God doesn’t not lose faith with us

April 8, 2017

Lent 6 – Palm Sunday, 2017

Matthew 26:14-27:66

Marian Free

In the name of God, who overlooks our faults and who restores us again and again so that we can take our part in the story. Amen.

In the latest issue of Liturgy News David Kirchhoffer reflects on the nature of sainthood. He reminds us that sainthood is not a matter of one-size fits all and that there is no simple definition that incorporates the diversity among those whom his tradition elevates to the status of saint or martyr[1]. “They all have stories, “ he comments, “their own all-too-human stories. Among the saints there are emperors and paupers, young and old, ascetics and hedonists, masters and slaves, colonizers and colonized, reformers and conservatives, and certainly more than one who, by today’s standards, probably experienced some sort of psychological disorder.” David’s point is that rather than being “shown up” by the saints, we actually find ourselves in very good company. The people who are deemed to be most holy by the church are as human and as flawed as the rest of us. Rather than making us feel inadequate and unworthy, the lives of the saints remind us that they are not so very different from us and that our faltering efforts to be holy and faithful are in fact good enough.

If we are in any doubt as to God’s ability to overlook our deficiencies, we need look no further than this morning’s gospel, which among other things is a tale of the whole world’s being at cross purposes with God. It is not only the chief priests and elders and the Roman authorities who try to destroy Jesus and his mission. It is those in Jesus’ immediate circle – his disciples and friends – who hand him over to the authorities, misunderstand their role, sleep when Jesus most needs their support, desert him, deny him and leave him alone to face trial and death.

Of course, not all of the characters in this account are numbered among the saints, but twelve of the those in the drama are Jesus’ most intimate friends, those with whom he has shared the highs and lows of his mission, those whom he has authorized to preach and teach and heal and those whom he has prepared to continue on his work after he has gone. These are the men with whom Jesus has chosen to spend what may be his last night on earth, those with whom he will share the most significant evening on the Jewish calendar. Without exception each of the twelve will let Jesus down before the night is out and yet Jesus refuses to condemn them or to exclude even Judas from the company.

Judas, who, even before the preparations for the dinner had begun, had received thirty pieces of silver to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Judas who, when Jesus announces at the meal that one of the disciples will hand him over, reveals what it is that sets him apart from the other disciples[2]. Whereas the eleven address Jesus as “Lord”, Judas addresses Jesus only as“Rabbi” (teacher). Jesus knows that it is Judas who will hand him over to the authorities and yet when he says: “Take eat, this is my body”, he places the bread in Judas’ hands. When he says: “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” Judas is not excluded from the covenant or from the promise of forgiveness.

Jesus knows that despite Peter’s protestations to the contrary, Peter will deny him – not once but three times. Even so Peter too is given the bread and the wine – Jesus’ body and Jesus’ blood. Of the eleven who remain with Jesus after the meal, not one will find the strength to stay awake with Jesus even though Jesus has shared with them that he is “grieved unto death”. Still, on this, his last night on earth, Jesus will share with them his very self and he will do so lovingly, not reproachfully, with grace and not with disappointment. Jesus knows their limitations. Before it comes to pass he knows how each will respond to the events of the night but he does not abandon them as they will abandon him.

Of these twelve, men who made promises that they failed to keep, all but Judas are included among the saints. Far from being ideals of holiness, courage and piety they are revealed as men who have feet of clay, who put their own safety before their loyalty to Jesus and who flee at the first sign of danger. They have said that they would die with Jesus but they cannot even stay awake, let alone accompany him on the journey to the cross.

Betrayal, abandonment and even opposition are the tools that God uses to turn arrest, false accusations, torture and death into something extraordinary and marvelous – Jesus’ resurrection, the defeat of death. Even though by human standards the disciples have failed not only as disciples but also as friends, they are not censured, punished or rejected. After the resurrection, it is as if God had not even noticed their cowardice, their desire for self-preservation and their failure to keep their word. Instead of condemning them for their lack of loyalty and their abandonment of Jesus, God not only restores and elevates them and gives to them the task of taking up what Jesus has been forced to leave off – preaching the good news of the kingdom.

As God overlooked the flaws and inadequacies of the disciples so too God will overlook our weaknesses, our lack of self-confidence and our tentative efforts to serve.

Though we lose faith in God, God will never lose faith in us, but will raise us up time and time again so that we too will have our place in God’s on-going story.

 

[1] Liturgy News is a publication of the Roman Catholic of Brisbane.

[2] I am indebted to Judith Jones whose commentary on the gospel was challenging and insightful. http://www.workingpreacher.or

Imperfect though we are, we are part of God’s story

March 11, 2017

Lent 2 – 2017

John 3:1-17

Marian Free

In the name of God overlooks all our shortcomings and believes that we have the potential to develop and grow. Amen.

As I said at Rodney’s farewell, none of us will forget Christina the Astonishing – who rose from her coffin and ascended to the ceiling of the church because she couldn’t stand the stench of human sin. Our hagiographies (our stories of saints) are filled with examples of apparently ordinary people who do extraordinary things or who bravely endure unbearable suffering. Think of Joan of Arc who not only led the armies of France in the 100 year war against England, but who with great courage faced being burned at the stake for heresy. Or of Francis of Assisi who gave up comfort, wealth and security to live a life of poverty. Or of Catherine of Alexander whose torture on a cartwheel gave the name to a whirling firework.

In our own time we have the examples of Mother Teresa who gave up everything and who untiringly worked with and for the poor and abandoned on the streets of India. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who saw the evil of the Third Reich and chose to risk his life to confront it. May Hayman and other New Guinea martyrs who chose to stay with their communities in the face of the Japanese advance in WWII rather than return home. Or Janani Luwum who was murdered by Idi Amin simply because he was an Anglican Archbishop.

While some of us might aspire to reach such exalted heights or believe that if it came to it that we would be prepared to give ourselves, our lives for our faith, most of us I suspect do not think that we will come anywhere near the deeds and courage of these and many other holy men and women.

The good news is that we do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s on-going story. We will encounter a number of characters during Lent who will prove that to be true. Nicodemus who is too afraid to meet Jesus openly, the woman who has had five husbands, the parents of the blind man, and the sisters of Lazarus who thought that Jesus had left his visit too late. These flawed, timid, unbelieving people have made it into the story of Jesus, into our Holy Scriptures despite, or perhaps because they are not perfect.

In John’s gospel Nicodemus is the first flawed person whom we meet. He is a leader of the Pharisees – a member of that sect within Judaism that placed weight on the oral tradition when it came to the interpretation of the law. There is a great deal of ambiguity in the account of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, but a few things stand out. In John’s gospel, the Pharisees are depicted as the enemies of Jesus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night that is at a time when no one can see him. We can’t be sure if this is because he is curious, or afraid or whether he has come to challenge or outsmart Jesus on a point of law or to learn from him. What we do know is that Jesus doesn’t turn his back.

Another element to the story is the imagery of night and darkness both of which are important symbols for the author of John’s gospel. If we read to the end of the chapter this becomes blatantly clear. Jesus says: “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (3:21) In John’s gospel as elsewhere night symbolises “unbelief or the wrong kind of belief” and darkness (the opposite of light) represents the forces that oppose Jesus.

That Nicodemus comes at night suggests that he opposes Jesus or at the very least is an unbeliever. Apparently, he cannot see beyond the superficial, he is blinded by what he thinks he knows. He is stuck , he knows that there is something different about Jesus but his own training and expectations do not allow him to see what it is ,nor do they allow him to really comprehend what Jesus is saying.

This does not mean that Jesus rejects him or refuses to speak to him. Jesus sees not the timorous, unbelieving Nicodemus, but the potential for growth and understanding. The double meanings in Jesus’ conversation are intended to open Nicodemus’ eyes, to help him to see the distinction between the purely earthly and the spiritual. Like all of us, Nicodemus can choose to turn his life over to Jesus, to begin on a fresh page, to enter into a spiritual existence. Jesus does not judge or condemn Nicodemus, he does not refuse to engage in conversation and most importantly he does not dismiss or deride him, instead Jesus gives him the opportunity to see the world from another point of view.

Jesus does not reject or dismiss Nicodemus and we can be sure that he will not reject or dismiss us.

Last week we learned that love liberates us to be truly ourselves. Today we discover that we do not have to be perfect to be a part of God’s story. When we know that we do not have to be flawless we are set free to accept ourselves as we really are. If we accept who we really are, we can be authentic, stop pretending and recognise that we have nothing to hide. This in turn will enable us to let go of feelings of inadequacy or a lack of self-worth. We will discover that this in itself is healing and will create a more honest and open relationship with God that will deepen our faith and lead to our being born from above..

If these walls could speak

November 6, 2016

All Saints – 2016

The 150th Anniversary of All Saints, Marburg

Luke 6:20-31

Marian Free

In the name of God whom we are privileged to serve. Amen.

 

In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer

for the saints who before us have found their reward;

when the shadow of death fell upon them, we sorrowed,

but now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord.

 

In the morning of life, and at noon, and at even,

he called them away from our worship below;

but not till his love, at the font and the altar,

had girt them with grace for the way they should go.

 

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,

and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;

yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,

and still they were seeking the city of God.

 

Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found him,

whose journey is ended, whose perils are past:

they believed in the Light; and its glory is round them,

where the clouds of earth’s sorrow are lifted at last.

Words: William Henry Draper, 1894

Music: St. Catherine’s Court (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxV3fOrCwsQ)

 

I had never heard this hymn until Monday and then I was completely captivated by the third verse. “These stones that have echoed their praises are holy.” In this context we would sing “These timbers that have absorbed their praises are holy.” I am reminded of a story that the priest who was our post-ordination trainer told. The story related to his time as a Parish Priest in Canberra. Once a week on cold winter mornings, he would rise early and rug himself up to celebrate communion with a congregation of one. On one particularly cold morning, this priest finally plucked up the courage to ask whether the elderly woman (for that was who faithfully got herself out of bed each week) felt that it was time to abandon the practice. Didn’t she feel lonely he wondered. “Oh no”, she replied. “I am never alone. I am surrounded by all the saints who have worshipped here before me.”

On a day such as this, we are made acutely aware of the 150 years of saints who have gone before us and whose praises have over that time have sunk into the very fabric of this building and into the fabric of our faith lives, saints whose names have been synonymous with this church and this community. Saints who may not have met the standards of holiness demanded by Rome, but whose faithfulness and loyalty would never have been doubted. There have been saints who have made us laugh and others who have made us cringe and there have been saints who have put the fear of God into us and others whose high standards we were afraid that we could never meet.

One hundred and fifty years of saints worshipping at All Saints! What an amazing achievement. Apart from anything else it makes this worshipping community one of the longest-serving Anglican communities in Brisbane.

Imagine the stories these walls could tell – of suffering and despair of jubilation and laughter. For a century and a half, Anglicans in this community have supported each other through good times and bad, on joyous occasions and when grief seemed unbearable. Together they will have endured two world wars and two depressions. They will have watched as the young people made lives for themselves elsewhere and as the highway gouged out a path through the church grounds, making worship impossible for a considerable time. The saints of All Saints will have encouraged and supported a constant stream of clergy, leaving them richer for their experience in this place.

These walls have witnessed so many wonderful events and they hold the memories of all the saints who have ever worshipped here. If only they could speak we might learn much that would enrich and sustain our own faith journeys. We would learn how faith has sustained people in good times and in bad, how it helped them face adversity and reminded them to be grateful. If these walls could talk, they would share with us the faithfulness of members of this community that has kept this church and this hall beautifully maintained. If these walls could talk, we would be reminded that it is not just the deeply pious and obviously holy who are counted among the saints, but also the flawed and imperfect whose relationship with the risen Christ and whose confidence in the resurrection has earned them a place among the faithful.

The hymn with which we began carefully avoids extolling the “saints” or crediting them with extraordinary behaviour. It does not imply that there is some exalted standard that we have to reach in order to join their company. Instead the words remind us that what sets them apart is their understanding that they were strangers and pilgrims seeking the city of God.

That saints were a chosen few who stood out from the crowd was not the understanding of the earliest church. Paul, in addressing his congregations, refers to each one of them as “saints” (hagios or holy ones). We, with all those who have gone before us, are included among the saints – the vast majority of whom are people like you and I muddling their way through this life with the help of God, conscious that something greater and better awaits us at the end.

I suspect that few of us can claim the selflessness, courage and dedication of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Bishop Romero, but we are saints none the less. What distinguishes as saints is not that we are better than anyone else, or that we are more trusting or more worthy. What sets us apart is our awareness that we are pilgrims and strangers on earth and our knowledge that this life is not only temporary but that no matter how good it bears no resemblance to the life that is to come.

All the same, let us live our Christian journey, conscious that these walls that have witnessed so much, are likewise witness to our faith. Let us live in such a way that we will not be ashamed of the stories they will have to tell.

Practicing our faith more intentionally

October 31, 2015

All Saint’s Day – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us all to live with courage, faith and faithfulness. Amen.

One of the consequences of the Reformation was that the various churches that formed as a result either stopped or curtailed the worship or recognition of saints. The Anglican Church belongs in the latter category. Reformers on the Continent and in England felt that the Church of Rome had overlaid the practice of the faith with a vast number of things that could not be justified with reference to scripture. Some of these are listed in Article XXII that, (in what today would be considered inflammatory language), states: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond things vainly invented, and grounded up not warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

The worship of saints was considered a distraction from the worship of God who, through Jesus, was now directly accessible to every individual through prayer. There was no need for intermediaries, no matter how holy. Anglicans were still happy to recognise that there were among the faithful those who lives were so exemplary that they provided a model for others, but they seriously culled the number who were so acknowledged and since the Reformation have only formally added one person – King Charles I – to the list of saints recognised by Anglican Church.

That is not to say that Anglicans do not recognise that there are those among us whose lives of faith are so outstanding that we might wish to continue to remember them or to follow their examples. To that end a number of people have been acknowledged as “holy men and women” without the requirement of a lengthy process to determine whether or not they have been responsible for a pre-determined number of miracles. Within Anglicanism there is freedom for each Province to add to their yearly Calendar persons of particular significance for their part of the world. There is also within our tradition the possibility of adding to our liturgical year those whose faith-life is deemed to have universal significance – whether or not they belong to the Anglican tradition.

These include a number of twentieth century martyrs – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran), Oscar Romero (a Roman Catholic) and William Wilberforce (an Evangelical Christian). In Australia we pay tribute to many who have made a significant contribution to the life of faith and of the church in Australia. These include – Sister Emma[1], Eliza Darling[2], William Broughton,[3] and John Wollaston.[4][5]

One holy woman whose writings and spiritual direction were a significant part of the twentieth century is Evelyn Underhill. Though a layperson and a woman, Evelyn was much in demand as a Retreat Leader and Spiritual director. She was also a prolific writer, penning some 39 books, 350 reviews and countless letters during her career. Evelyn was unusual in many ways. She was not only an independent thinker, but also an independent woman. At a time when women did not work unless they had to, Evelyn earned money from her writings and had the freedom to leave her husband behind on those occasions when she required time to write or was called upon to lead Retreats and give Seminars.

Not only was Evelyn independent at a time when many women were not, she was also unconventional in her approach to organized religion. She was critical of the church once stating: “not only the Vicar and the Curate and the Mother’s Union Committee …. the Church is an ‘essential service’ like the Post Office, but there will always be some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter and you will always be tempted to exasperation by them”[6]. It appears that she had a great sense of fun that sometimes took by surprise those who were expecting a serious spiritual guide.

According to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Underhill’s book Mysticism that was published in 1911 remains a “classic in the field”. In it she reflects that one could find the central element of mysticism in the experience of the mystic, which, she thought was “an overwhelming consciousness of God and of his (sic) own soul: a consciousness which absorbs or eclipses all other centres of interest” (p 3)[7]. From this we can gather that Underhill was not interested in the theory of spirituality (as were other writers of the time), but in the practical nature of mysticism and in mysticism as experience. This may have been in part because the book was written to help her explain her own early experiences of the spiritual. In Mysticism, she argues that: (1) mysticism is practical, not theoretical, (2) it is an entirely spiritual activity, (3) the business and method of which is love. (4) Mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.

During the course of her life Underhill influenced a great many people through both through her writing (books and letters) and through personal contact. Through her life and the impact that she had on the faith lives of others, Underhill is a reminder that saints (holy people) are not always quiet, pious people who withdraw from the world to pray. She demonstrates that holiness does not require separation from the world, but can thrive just as well when it engages fully with the world. Importantly, Underhill is just one person who is evidence that saints do not belong to a past era but continue to be raised up in every generation.

Our Articles of Religion may tell us that “the invocation of saints .. is repugnant to scripture” but our tradition reminds us that among us are holy people whose faith and life can support and uphold our own, giving us reasons to explore our faith more deeply and to practice our faith more intentionally.

On this day, we remember all the saints – those known to all and those known only to a few. We give thanks for their lives and examples and endeavour to model our practice and our faithfulness on theirs.

[1] Superior of the Society of the Sacred Advent.

[2] Prison reform

[3] First Bishop of Australia.

[4] Priest and missionary.

[5] For more details put “Holy Persons and Holy Days in Australian Anglicanism” into your search engine or go to this link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_of_saints_(Anglican_Church_of_Australia)

[6] Quoted by Oberg, Delroy, in Evelyn Underhill and the Making of “Mysticism”: Celebrating the Centenary of the 1st Edition – March 2, 1911. Self Published by Delroy Oberg, 2015, 14.

[7] Mysticism can be downloaded as a pdf file from a number of sites including: http://christianmystics.com/Ebooks/The_Essentials_Mysticism/teom.pdf

Seeing each other as saints

November 3, 2014

All Saints Day – 2014

Matthew 5:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God who calls us and who sanctifies us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 A fellow priest told me a wonderful story. When my friend was a priest in Canberra (where winters are notoriously cold) he used to celebrate the Eucharist one morning a week at 6:30am. Over time, the congregation dwindled to just one elderly woman. On one particularly cold winter’s day, the priest suggested to this woman that perhaps the time had come to cease that particular celebration, as it seemed as if it would always be just herself in the congregation. Her response was: “But I am never alone, I am surrounded by the communion of Saints.”

That story comes back to me on many occasions when I enter an older church and think about the hundreds of faithful people who have filled that space with prayer, day after day, week after week until their prayers and their presence seems to have soaked into the very walls of the building. I remember the story when I look at the wonderful windows of St Augustine’s, which, to the north commemorate New Testament saints and to the south depict saints from the church in England prior to Augustine’s visit. There is a sense in which they are looking down at the worshipers and encouraging and supporting them in prayer.

Today when we celebrate All Saint’s Day, the introduction to the confession will use the words from the Book of Hebrews: “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”. It is an image that, for me at least, conjures up a vision of the heavenly host and is a reminder that in our practice of faith that we are never alone, but that in our worship and in our lives we are not alone, but encircled by all the faithful who have trod this path before us.

All Saint’s Day is an opportunity to remember all people of faith who are now in God’s nearer care and particularly those whom we have known and loved. The letters of Paul, written some 20-30 years after the death of Jesus, refer to all believers as saints and while the use of this term has been narrowed down to a few representative people, it still embraces each one of us.

What that means is that even though we might think that we live dull, uninspiring lives we are still numbered among the saints. A few things flow from this reflection. One is to consider whether or not we think differently about ourselves if we apply the term to ourselves. Does knowing that we are “saints” encourage us to be the best that we can be? Do we fell that we would like to rise to the challenge of being more saintly in the conventional sense? If we are saints, are there things about our lives that we would like to change, things that we would like to strive towards. Perhaps the opposite results – that knowing that we are saints makes us less likely to live up to the expression and more likely to be complacent?

If we are saints then all our sisters and brothers in Christ are also saints. This includes those who share our theology and those who do not, those who hurt us inadvertently or deliberately, those who get under our skin and so on. How does our attitude towards them change if we see them through the lens of sainthood? Would our communities of faith (locally and internationally) look different if this was how we viewed those, who like us, claim to be followers of Jesus?

Last but not least, this more open use of the word asks us to think differently about all the “ordinary” people of faith who have trod this earth before us. Today, instead of remembering those whose acts of courage, fortitude or self-denial have brought them to the attention of the wider community, let us remember with thanksgiving the men, women and children who have been faithful servants of God day-in-day out for all of their lives. People who have never stood out from the crowd but who have lived out their baptismal promises in times of ease and times of hardship – those who have been overlooked because their service takes place behind the scenes, in the home or in patiently and diligently carrying out boring or menial tasks and those who to our minds have done nothing at all. All are saints by virtue of God’s saving grace in Jesus.

In order to be saints we need to nothing more than believe. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the work of sanctification has been done for us: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (6:11).

Francis Green wrote a hymn that goes:

Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days!

A world without saints forgets how to praise.

Their faith in acquiring the habit of prayer,

their depth of adoring, Lord, help us to share.

Some march with events, to turn them God’s way;

some need to withdraw, the better to pray;

some carry the gospel through fire and through flood:

our world is their parish: their purpose is God.

Rejoice in those saints, unpraised and unknown,

who bear someone’s cross, or shoulder their own:

they shame our complaining, our comforts, our cares:

what patience in caring, what courage is theirs!

Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days!

A world without saints forgets how to praise.

in loving, in living, they prove it is true:

The way of self-giving, Lord, leads us to you. (Francis Green 1903-2000

Today, let us remember all the saints whose lives have influenced our own and rejoice that by the grace of God we are numbered among them.

Our inheritance is with the saints

November 2, 2013

All Saints – 2013

Luke 6:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

 I wonder if you are well prepared for your death? By that I mean a number of things: do you have a will, an advanced health directive? have you talked to your family about practical details like cremation or burial? have you planned your funeral? Hopefully your answer to at least some of those things is “yes”. It seems obvious enough that a certain amount of planning is useful and even necessary, but even though death is inevitable, there are some people who are superstitious about making plans for it. They seem to think that if they talk about or plan for their death that somehow they are inviting it to come before time. Their attitude seems to be that if they don’t think about it then it won’t happen.

It is hard to imagine a Christian being fettered by such fears. After all, Jesus resurrection has demonstrated that death is not something to be feared, but something to be faced with confidence, that death is not the end, but a new beginning. We may not know exactly what lies beyond the grave, but the various descriptions of life-hereafter, give us a glimpse of an existence in which there is joy and peace and abundance – forever!

Death holds no fear for us, because we are confident of the resurrection to eternal life. But there is more to it than that – dying to ourselves and living to God is central to the practice of our faith.  In order to be united to God, in order to realise the divine presence within us, we need to learn to let go of those things that bind us to this life and to embrace those things which belong to our heavenly existence. In this way, we already have one foot in the kingdom – death is simply the fulfillment of our Christian journey. At the same time, we will be so practiced at dying, so used to the new life that results that we will be ready for this one last death.

This style of existence does not come easily. Dying in order to live is counter-intuitive to all that we know and experience in this life. Everything that is human in us screams “no” to death! Nature itself is designed to be resilient, to reproduce, to resist obliteration. No wonder that we find it so hard to let go, to do anything that would reveal weakness or suggest failure. The irony is that all our struggling, all our efforts to prevent disaster, all our attempts to deny our vulnerability are, in the end, life-denying. We become so focused on ourselves, so anxious about avoiding pain and suffering, so determined to hold on to what we have that we lose the ability to be truly free and fully alive. As a result our world becomes smaller and more limited. We tie ourselves to this life thus losing sight of the life to come. Worse still, in our attempts to build for ourselves a world that is safe and secure, we simply succeed in locking God out of our lives. Instead of placing our trust in God, we are placing all our trust in ourselves – believing that our own efforts will keep us safe and happy.

The poor, the hungry, the grieving and the reviled have no such problems – they know and recognise their emptiness and their reliance on God. This is why Jesus calls them blessed not because it is good to be poor and hungry, but because those who have nothing are forced depend on God for everything, those who are empty are able to be filled by the presence of God, those who grieve look to God for solace, those who have nothing to bind them to this life are free to place all their hope in the life to come. On the other hand, those who in this life are rich, full and happy do not have the same pressure to recognise their need for God. Being satisfied with their situation in this life, they have no need to look forward to the life to come. Worse, they are tempted to hold on to and to protect what they have and this serves to separate them further from their future hope. In worldly terms they may appear to be blessed, but when it comes to the kingdom, their material blessings can become an impediment to a deep and fulfilling relationship with God.

In every age, there have been those who have learned to detach themselves from this world, who have focused not on worldly success and possessions but have developed those characteristics which will best equip them for the life to come. They have sought out solitude, embraced poverty and hardship, practiced self-denial, relied on God to meet their needs and when the occasion demanded it, have given their lives for their faith. It is people such as these whom we number among the saints.

If we want to count ourselves among the blessed, if we would like to be numbered among the saints, we do not necessarily have to set ourselves apart, embrace poverty and become ascetics. However, we do have to unlearn our need for independence, we have to stop our striving for worldly success, we have to learn to value the lessons and blessings that adversity and loss bestow upon us, we have to allow ourselves to fall and to fail so that God can help us up and we have to be willing to empty ourselves so that God can fill us.

Our journey through this life is a preparation for the life to come. It is an opportunity to develop and embrace those characteristics which will serve us for eternity. For that reason it is important to practice dying in order that we might live, to keep our focus on what is really important, to let go of those things that do not matter, to relinquish those things that we cannot take with us and to place all our trust in God, so that when God calls, we are not only ready, but willing to abandon this life so that we can enter with joy the life that has no end.

So let us learn to die that we might live and so live that when we die, we will do so in the full assurance that our inheritance is with the saints for ever.

Serving God is its own reward

October 5, 2013

Pentecost 20

Luke 17:5-10

Marian Free

In the name of God in whose service we give our all – expecting no reward, but the privilege of serving our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In March this year a number of people received awards for bravery or courage. Trevor Burns was awarded the Star of Courage for saving a dive operator from a shark attack. Not only did he pull the shark off the woman, but, as other members of the group made their way to the safety of the boat, Trevor stayed in the bloodied water to dive down to the sinking woman and pull her to the surface. Raymond Bruckner and Ernst Gomsi took a canoe into raging flood water to rescue two men who had been thrown out of their aluminum boat by the swift flowing water. In the process Gomsi himself was tossed into the water, but was able to be retrieved. The actions of these two men saved the lives of the others. Brett Morrissey smashed a door and then a window to enter a burning house to rescue a child. When he learned that a woman remained inside, he returned to bring her out as well. All four put their own lives at risk to save the life of a stranger. (For these and other stories go to: http://www.govhouse.qld.gov.au)

If asked, these and the many others who have received such awards would have said that they didn’t think about what they were doing or the danger to themselves, but that they were only doing what anyone else would have done in the same situation. Often such people are genuinely surprised to be receiving any recognition because they are convinced that they have done nothing out of the ordinary! Many, many people do extraordinary things in the course of their work or their everyday lives and think nothing of it. Aid workers and peacekeepers often put their own lives (and certainly their comfort) at risk serving people in refugee camps, war-torn or disaster ravaged countries and paramedics and emergency service workers are confronted with horrifying situations on a regular basis – often putting their own lives at risk for the sake of others.

Other people are heroic in ways that will never be publicly recognised. Think of the hundreds of parents who give all they have to care for a child with a disability, the children who ungrudgingly care for elderly parents, those who uncomplainingly live with a disability and those who cheerfully carry out mundane or dull tasks which are essential for the well-being of the wider community, but which are taken for granted and only noticed by their absence. All of these people would say that they are only doing what anyone else would do in their situation, or that they are only doing what is required of them. None of them would think that they were doing anything out of the ordinary.

Of course, the opposite is true. Some people take foolish risks in the hope that they will stand out from the crowd. There are some that find their responsibilities burdensome and unwelcome and there are many that grumble at the routine of their daily work or the lack of recognition they receive for what they do.

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses the question of whether, in our faith lives we do things for recognition or whether faith itself is reward enough. In the first century somewhere between thirty to forty percent of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Their conditions varied depending on whether or not they were working in the mines or running someone’s estate, or whether their owner was kind or vicious. However, even those in the best positions were never anything more than a slave. It would have been inconceivable for anyone to imagine the scenario Jesus puts before his audience: an owner suggesting a slave sit at the table after a hard day’s work. Such an offer would diminishes the master’s status and respect. It would be a reversal of roles that would  be inconceivable. The expectation of both master and slave would be that the slave would have to complete his or her tasks – including ensuring their owner had eaten – before considering their own needs.

Throughout history people have followed Jesus, not for any external reward or recognition, but simply for the privilege of being counted among the faithful. Saints have not spent lives in prayer and reflection so that they might be singled out from the crowd. They have done so because their lives would have held no meaning if they did not. Martyrs have not gone to their deaths thinking: this will make me more important than other Christians. They have simply have accepted death as one consequence of a life of faith. Missionaries and others have not carried out their work in the belief that one day they will be set apart as those who did more for the Gospel. They have responded to the call of God and shared with others a faith they believe to be life-changing. People like Mother Teresa have not given up lives of comfort to live among the poor because they thought that one day they would be elevated as super Christians. All these people have lived lives of faith for the rewards of knowing and being known by God and by Christ our Saviour.

We too, in good times and in bad, confidently and timidly, with greater or lesser prayerfulness or holiness, commit ourselves to faith in Jesus Christ, not because we expect God to single us out for praise, not because we are competing with each other for God’s attention, not because we want to stand out from the crowd, but because we have heard the call of Christ and have done no less than what we were compelled to do. Life in the service of our Redeemer is a reward in itself.


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