Victoria and Abdul

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

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Sometimes a service is so complete in its scripture readings, its hymnody and anthems that a sermon is, well, unnecessary.[1] I think that way about this service, especially in light of my ‘Welcome’ inside the service leaflet. If you’ve read it, I’m minded then to ask ‘what more is there to say?’

But if I were to say more, to preach a sermon, I’d begin with this familiar sentiment: “There’s no place like home.” Those words of Dorothy in the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ aren’t just a screenplay platitude from the home-sick years of the Second World War.[2] They express one of the deepest human wants: to have not just ‘bed and board’, nor even a house, but a home. ‘There’s no place like home’—that’s where I’d start if I were to add anything to today’s service.

I’d then want to reflect a bit not just on what ‘home’ means to each of us, but what it feels like for each of us. For ‘home’ has a unique meaning and feeling for every one of us. ‘Home’ is particular to each person, as particular as were, and are, our families; as particular as our growing-up there, our experiences there, our remembrance of holidays and special occasions with those who shared ‘home’ with us. ‘Home’ signals a basket of feelings: the joyous celebrations, the excitements and successes, the hurts and embarrassments, the shames, disappointments, grieves, of life as each of us in our own circumstances, have lived those. Home has, to steal Jesus’ phrase, ‘many mansions’, and most of life’s most influential experiences have a place there, even if it’s just a tiny, obscure corner.

In lots of ways, then, ‘there’s no place like home’.

If I were to say still more, I’d want us to be reminded that one of the sharpest grieves is that we must leave home. We leave home when we first venture into the world, as on a child’s first day of school. We leave home in another way when we feel that we’ve grown out of our parents and the protective shadow of their wings. We leave home then to set-up house and home for ourselves somewhere else, so that over time the sentiment ‘there’s no place like home’ means something new and different, something we ourselves have had a direct part in making.

If I were to say more still, I’d also remind listeners that home, going, getting home is a persistent theme of the greatest epics and stories of human literature. Why, even the Bible is like that. The mythic story of humankind begins in the garden of Paradise. The long story that then unfolds is about following the way to the end of the human journey, what the last book of the Bible calls the ‘New Jerusalem’ (Revelation 19 ff.).

From there I’d want to underline a tension in our Christian life, which is simply this: that however important it is for us both naturally and religiously to have a place called home here and now,[3] where we’re known and loved, and feel safe and supported, such an earthly home can never be enough for us, it isn’t the final destination. While the Bible’s great story prizes home and homeland in this life, the experience and witness of Jesus and his saints compels us to recognize that this world is not enough. I’d recall St Paul’s point to the Philippians: ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (3.21). So you might say we carry two passports, one for this world, and one for the next.

My sermon, were I to preach one, might then discuss the tension in the holiness we celebrate in the saints: how they’ve had to negotiate the often conflicting duties of this world and the other, the city of man and the city of God, and how they've had, in fact, to give up much of what this life offers. But I’d want to focus on the saints’ hope of the home beyond and better than all the homes of this life; the one, I mean, that Jesus has gone ahead to prepare for us, the heavenly home where each of us has a place (John 14.2). I’d want to encourage love and veneration for the saints because their hope for that heavenly home, that ‘land of rest’, persisted in them through thick and thin.

So, my sermon would urge us to cherish what the readings and hymns ascribe to the heavenly home that awaits all the saints, that awaits us, if we remain true to our Lord now and when we pass through the veil. I’d want us to feel and savour the strength and encouragement our readings, our song, indeed the witness of the saints themselves, give us as we work through life here and now. I'd want us to be reminded of what our faith teaches us to hope for: I mean a heavenly home full of fellowship; a home of rest, of repose, of peace; a place where the cut-‘n’-thrust of negotiating and striving is over; an experience of completion with no gap, no discouraging delay, between wish and fulfilment; an experience of unspeakable joy and of endless praise.

‘There’s no place like home’...our Father’s house. That’s what the saints teach us.

Several weeks ago I saw the film ‘Victoria & Abdul’. Dame Judi Dench plays the agéd, life-weary Queen Victoria who finds interest and inspiration in her last years from her young Indian Muslim servant, Abdul Karim.[4] As she lay dying in Osborne House shortly after Christmas she expresses her fear about death. “But you are going to a happier place”, Abdul insists. A smile of hopeful satisfaction breaks on the queen’s face as she completes his thought in her own words: “...the eternal banquet hall”.

There’s no place like home.

                  O Christ, do thou my soul prepare

                  For that bright home of love;

                  That I may see thee and adore,

                  With all thy saints above.[5]

 

Amen.

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Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

All Saints’ Sunday, November 5th 2017

 

[1] Richard Hooker argued thus centuries ago: ‘...the external administration of his [God’s] word is as well by reading barely the Scripture, as by explaining the same when sermons thereon be made’ (Laws, V, xxi.5 [Keble ed. III, p. 88].

[2] The film appeared in 1939, adapted from Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

[3] The basis of St Benedict’s notion of stabilitas loci, ‘stability of place’, or, as we might say, ‘staying put’.

[4] With Ali Fasal as Abdul, her Munshi; released in 2017 and based on the book by Shrabani Basu.

[5] Common Praise, no. 481,