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Sunday 1 November 2020

Flawed Inspirations

Revelation 7: 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

By Philip Dyer-Perry

Parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Staines On Thames

Context: principal parish family Sunday Eucharist for the feast

Aim: to encourage worshippers to move beyond both uncritical adulation and aggressive rubbishing of past heroes, recognising that Christ chooses the flawed and that his grace triumphs through our frailty, which means that this is a feast in which all of us can find new hope

Today on All Saints’ Day, our minds naturally turn to those famous figures, those heroes of our faith, whose images we see in stained glass windows and as statues. Standing as they often do on pedestals; these great women and men are very much the pillars of our Church.

Yet, when it comes to heroes and pedestals, who could have predicted what kind of year we’d have since last All Saints’ Day? This has a been a year in which we’ve put some people on pedestals, and knocked others off them.

On the one hand, the Black Lives Matter protests have cast a critical spotlight on some of the figures who have been, at least until now, immortalised on public memorials. There’s been the notorious figures, such as Cecil Rhodes and the now toppled Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston, there’s been the more ambivalent characters like Winston Churchill, and the spotlight has even been shone on some of the saints such as St. Louis and someone called St. Junipero Serra.

On the other hand, we’ve put other people on pedestals, and perhaps those who, pre-Covid, we took very much for granted. One of the memorable features of the first couple of months of the pandemic here in the UK was the weekly ‘clap for carers’ – where we recognised the courage and dedication of medical and care staff – and by extension other key workers, such as bus drivers and supermarket staff. They have been our heroes in 2020, and it’s right that we have lifted them up.

But there is a challenge here – because taking people on and off pedestals is a dangerous game for two reasons. The first is that we can fail to acknowledge that human beings are both good and bad – and that includes the heroes who we make and un-make. The second is that we can suppose that putting people on and off pedestals is enough, that taking down statues will of itself be all it takes to solve chronic injustices, and that calling care staff ‘heroes’ lets us off the hook when it comes to properly funded social care. But it doesn’t – and today, on the Feast of All Saints, it’s important that we don’t make the same mistake when it comes to the saints.

Today we rightly celebrate the great heroes of our faith – and we rightly lift them up, so that everyone can look at them and learn from their example, and we also rightly ask them to intercede for us. But that is not enough – because the lives of the saints invite us to make our own personal response.

You see, the wonderful thing about the saints was not that they were perfect, because most of them weren’t. The wonderful thing about them is that they are like us – good and bad alike. It’s just that for them, although it might in some cases have been a close-run thing, it was God’s grace that triumphed in them, it was God’s power that won out in the end, it was those Gospel values of peace, gentleness, justice, and compassion that, not without difficulty, somehow shone through them.

In our first reading from the book of Apocalypse, the elder asked the question ‘Do you know who these people are dressed in white robes?’ Well, I know who those people are, and so do you. They are not just those famous saints who walked this path of faith before us, but also potentially each and every one of us. And so, the spotlight on All Saints Day falls back on us – on how we are to live the values of the beatitudes. For all their undoubted weaknesses, the saints somehow let God’s power shine through them. How is God calling you and me to do the same?

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