The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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10.30am Holy Communion      31st October 2021
All Saints Day Sermon 2021
Handley Stevens

We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  These words from the Creed express the faith of the Church in a vision of new life, constantly refreshed by the Spirit of God at work in us and among us here on earth, until at last, beyond death, we enter into the full inheritance of the saints in glory. This is the profoundly optimistic hope and faith of the Christian community into which this morning Claudia and Cameron will be baptised.
I have never met anyone who has died and come back to life, as Lazarus did, but Peter Johnstone, a former colleague of mine in the Bach Choir, experienced something very similar last year.  In March 2020, the Choir had just embarked on a concert tour in the USA when COVID broke out, the tour was cancelled and they all had to return home. Travelling together in crowded conditions, several members contracted the COVID virus, and Peter spent nearly five months in hospital, more than half of that time in an intensive care unit.  While he was very heavily sedated in order to be ventilated through a tracheotomy tube, the nurses recorded his dreams and delirious ramblings, as well as their own messages of support, in the ICU diaries which were kept to track his progress. When these were given to him after he had recovered, he was overwhelmed by the love which had reached out to him from nurses who – in his own words – ‘did not know him as a person, but only as a bundle of unpleasant symptoms.’  By their love and skill Peter was dragged back from the very jaws of death, and now his visions of a garden, half real and half imagined, together with some of the words from his ICU notebook, have been set to music by Richard Blackford.  Anne and I heard the moving first performance at a packed concert in the Festival Hall last week, with Peter in his accustomed place among the First Tenors.
This morning we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints, but to-day is also the first of the four Sundays before Advent, sometimes called the Kingdom Season, when our thoughts are directed to the Kingship of Christ, the culmination of all history in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.  Just at the moment, in the run up to next week’s COP-26 Conference in Glasgow, many of us are perhaps more sharply focussed on the preservation of this world.  As Christians we believe that this beautiful, bountiful, complex planet is the expression of God’s infinite and benevolent creative energy.  He willed this blessed speck of his vast universe into existence, and now He has put into our hands an increasing share of the awesome responsibility for its care.  Made in his image we have already done much with the curiosity which motivates science and the imagination which inspires the arts to discover and understand the mechanisms which affect the delicate atmospheric balance on which our climate depends.  
The process for monitoring and now seeking to mitigate the economic thoughtlessness – one might dare to say greed - which is now widely understood to be responsible for the progressive warming of the climate, dates back to the first Conference of the Parties (to give COP its full title) which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  Until recently it was tempting to question the link between a slight warming of the earth’s atmosphere, by as little as one degree or so over a couple of hundred years, and the increased intensity of the floods and droughts, storms and heatwaves which are now understood to be the consequence, but the weight of evidence for climate change due to human activity is now very strong, if governments around the world can be persuaded to acknowledge it, and to act upon it.
There is no clear pathway from the downwards spiral into uncontrolled climate change - if that is where we are heading – to the visionary uplands of a new heaven and a new earth, of which we read in the Book of Revelation.  There are even hints of a divinely ordained plan for some sort of cosmic crisis, from which a new heaven and a new earth would eventually arise, much as the world we inhabit to-day seems to have arisen many thousands of years ago from the demise of a world dominated by dinosaurs.  But I would question any such interpretation.
There is after all one cosmic event which for the Christian trumps everything else, and that is God’s decision to send his own Son into the world to redeem the world – to counter decisively that sinfulness which is blind to the consequences of our self-centred Me-First greed.  It cost Him his life, and it looked like a terrible failure when he hung upon the cross.  But the undying love which led him to accept death at the hands of those he had himself created proved to be the key which opened the door to his own resurrection and ours.  John’s account of the raising of Lazarus bears witness to the love which moved Jesus first to tears of grief (John 11. 35-36) and then to the most astonishing miracle he ever performed – the raising of Lazarus from the grave after he had been dead for four days.  
Jesus’ heart-felt grief and generous love, and the miraculous action which followed, show just how much God loves us, and how willing He is to act, when we approach him in a spirit of confident, trusting prayer, as Mary did.  I believe the power of love was also at work among the teams of nurses who brought Peter back from the very brink of death.  And it is probably no coincidence that his recovery was associated with visions of a garden, the biblical symbol of mankind at peace with God, in Genesis as it is in Revelation.  That is why I cling to the faith that with our prayers and whatever collective action may flow from the prayers of the whole church of God at this time, COP-26 can yet be used to drag the world back from the brink of disastrous climate change.  I am sure that is what He would wish, rather than the appalling prospect of a warming earth with all the trauma and misery that would entail, especially in those parts of the world that are already at risk from rising waters or all-consuming heat. 
Our task now is to pray earnestly and faithfully that all those now assembling in Glasgow, and especially our own leaders chairing the conference, will shoulder their full responsibility to make an honest assessment of what needs to be done, and to act with generosity and determination in putting their conclusions into effect in a timely fashion. 
Jesus said: Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?  (John 11.40).  Lord, give us that faith, now and always.  

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