This is a copy of my sermon given at our Annual Memorial Service on All Saints Day, Sunday 1 November 2020. The reading is from Romans 8:31-39.
You don’t need me to tell you that our world has faced unprecedented levels of disruption these past several months. At times, it feels like we’re living on the film set of an apocalyptic movie. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of our fragility in the midst of an ever-changing, and challenging, world.
It’s been especially difficult to say our goodbyes to loved ones with COVID 19 restrictions in place, not only in hospitals but in churches and crematoriums too. Some of you will know Margaret and I both experienced significant bereavements during lockdown and we really do know something of how difficult it’s been for so many of you.
I certainly don’t underestimate the courage it has taken to come here this afternoon, to gather with others who have experienced the pain of loss and to remember and honour our loved ones in this service.
The month of November is a month for remembering. Did you know that: 3 November is National Sandwich Day? On Thursday we will remember, remember, the 5th of November – gunpowder, treason, and plot! 7 November is National Hug A Bear Day and 14 November is National Pickle Day? Who knew these things? Many of us are wearing poppies, a symbol to remember the lives of those who died in two world wars. Of course, Remembrance Sunday will be commemorated very differently than in previous years.
This past week Radio 2 has been looking at grief and loss to Q “try and normalise the conversations around bereavement.” In what they call ‘Grief Conversations’ we’ve heard from people who have used their grief in positive ways. I think this is the first time they’ve done something like this, and I wonder if it was deliberate in the week leading to All Saints Day.
The Church has celebrated All Saints Day on 1 November since around 998 AD and it celebrates the belief that those who die in the Christian faith have nothing to fear from death as they continue their relationship with our Heavenly Father beyond the grave.
Somewhere down the years the festivities evolved so that in medieval times ‘All Hallows Eve’ (Halloween) became the main festival when children began dressing up and dancing – it was known as ‘A Danse Macabre’ – and this celebrated victory over the powers of evil and death that Jesus won through his own death on the cross.
The Apostle Paul does something similar in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 when he uses this chant:
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul uses words to taunt death – viewing it as an enemy that has been vanquished – and uses the same kind of mocking tone that football fans use when their team beats their local rivals, such as Sunderland vs Newcastle, Liverpool vs Manchester United or even Billericay Town vs Canvey Island!
In a similar way, those early Hallows Eve festivities were mocking the forces of darkness for having no power over those who put their trust in Jesus. This was echoed in the song we heard earlier from Psalm 23:
And though I walk the darkest path, I will not fear the evil one. For You are with me, and Your rod and staff are the comfort I need to know.
The Christian faith has a strong tradition of remembering. As Jesus approached his own death, we’re told how he shared a simple meal with his friends and urged them to remember him every time they broke bread or drank wine together. He knew that he was going to die but he wanted his friends to know that he would never leave them. So today is a day to remember those whom we have loved and lost.
But it isn’t always easy to remember, when remembering brings back the pain of our loss. It isn’t easy to remember when the relationship we shared had its difficulties or when we feel that there were things we wanted to do or say but didn’t get the chance. Sometimes remembering is the last thing we want to do or are able to do.
I know that for many of us there will be times of day or simple acts that remind us of the person we have lost – it may be as we close the curtains at night, boil the kettle to make a cup of tea, hear a piece of music, the faint smell of perfume or aftershave or an item of clothing. It could be anything.
Sometimes the act of remembering will trip us up as we seem to forget what has happened, at other times the act of remembering is our greatest comfort and strength. The writer Sheridan Voysey writes:
I’m starting to think, even though it hurts, that grief is the highest honour we can give to someone who loved us well.
The poet Ann Lewin has written a wonderfully poignant poem which I’ve included on your service sheet:
The place of remembering:
Whereas the work of grief is done,
Memory recovers its perspective.
Letting the dead one go,
With aching sense of loss,
Opens the way to finding again.
A rounded person, gifts and faults,
Delights and irritations;
Makes it possible to share again.
The jokes, the intimate glance,
Keep company unseen.
In this poem, Lewin writes how, as we work through our grief, our “memory recovers its perspective.” We don’t just remember them as a saint, but we start to remember the way they got on our nerves or the things that drove us mad – or at least the potential for that to happen.
As we begin to remember the things that made us laugh and the things that made us cross, the things that made us proud and the ways they could embarrass us, it’s as though the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are coming back together again.
When we lose someone dear to us, it’s as though a jigsaw puzzle has been thrown up into the air and all the pieces have been scattered far and wide. As we remember, the pieces start to come together – only the picture isn’t quite the same.
We have to look closely at what is emerging, but there, in the new picture, is the possibility that we can still love the one we have lost and that the life we did share with them has made a difference to the people we are now.
Lewin’s poem talks of how “letting the dead one go … opens the way to finding again …” It is a paradox and for some of us it may take many years to reach beyond the “aching sense of loss” but every time we remember we gather some of the fragments together and the new picture starts to get clearer.
What can sometimes be helpful in this situation is a renewed sense of hope and purpose for the future – which isn’t always easy to come by. But that’s exactly what God has provided for us in Jesus.
Even in times of weakness, despair, grief and disbelief, God gives hope and purpose to each of us here this afternoon. Jesus can turn our tears into laughter and our mourning into joy.
As we adapt to Tier 2, or is it Tier 3, guidelines – and with many uncertainties still ahead – those words of Paul taken from his letter to the Christian’s in Rome is a remarkable message of the power of love and the power of hope in difficult times. He asks what power is there, that can separate us from love and answers it by saying nothing!
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As I suggested earlier. it takes courage to remember. And I believe we can take courage from Paul’s words that absolutely nothing, not even our grief, can separate us from the love that we have shared with those we have lost – love is stronger than death and love is of God.
Memories don’t just connect us with the past, memories are also what connect us with the future, with hope and new life. As we remember, as the fragments start to come together and we see new possibilities emerging, may we become ever more aware of the bond of love that cannot be broken and, in time, may we become familiar with that place where we can “keep company unseen” even, perhaps, sharing again the intimate glance of a love that cannot be overcome on earth or in heaven. Amen.