Vicar’s All Souls’ tide sermon 2023 Isaiah 61.1-3 / 1 Peter 1.3-9

The other week my neighbour in the Old Vicarage had some work done on some of the trees that border our two properties. One tree (a leylandii) came down altogether. I was glad. A whole row of leylandii had been planted by friends who lived in the Old Vicarage 20 years ago and they had done what leylandii do: they had grown…tall. Indeed, the other summer we woke up to find that one of them had fallen, snapped in half on our boundary wall and just scraped down the side of the house: our daughter ‘thought she had heard something in the night…but it didn’t really wake her.’ So, a second tree that had a distinct ‘lean’ to it came down: the blue tits, nut hatches and coal tits have one less place to hide out from the sparrow hawk but at least we can sleep easy, knowing that a tree won’t come crashing through the bedroom ceiling.
That’s the leylandii. But we also have sycamores. Sycamores determined to send their ‘helicopter’ seeds around every nook and cranny in the garden and attempting to grow in our gutters and downspouts. You can tell, perhaps, that I’m not a great fan of sycamore trees but even I was disappointed to learn that the tree in ‘sycamore gap’ had been felled. The police are still trying to find out who it was that took a chainsaw to the iconic tree on Hadrian’s wall. The tree has been removed…to become ‘we know not what’. Photos of the tree have been shared millions of times on social media and the TV and print news devoted any amount of time to covering the story and the impact of the tree’s loss both here in the Northeast but also around the world. That tree’s story will, no doubt, be one of the biggest stories of the year. Why? What was it about this tree that prompted such interest? The other day someone suggested that it had offered the nation a rare moment of unity: everyone had an opinion, almost everyone shared the sense of disbelief that someone could commit such an act of vandalism. There is, in truth, much that unites us as a people but in recent years we seem to have become more adept at focussing on the things that divide and separate us than that which unites. Shock, disbelief, anger…and grief: a deep sadness felt at the loss of a particular tree, drew us together.
Once a year, this service draws together those who mourn. You have come to this service to mourn someone of infinite more value than the tree at Sycamore Gap! For some folk their grief will be recent and raw. For others, this service offers the opportunity to remember with love friends or family that may well have died many years ago: it’s a chance to acknowledge that we learn to live with grief, we don’t ‘get over it.’
What do we find here? Or, more importantly, ‘what does the Lord God offer to those of us who mourn?’
Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah ended with these words. ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display His glory.’ More ‘tree talk’, but who is Isaiah speaking of? These words were written for and about people who were broken hearted, people who felt that everything had been stripped away from them and who had been brought low. This prophecy was first heard by people who had seen members of the family killed in warfare, their homes destroyed, their livelihoods taken from them and who had been carried off into slavery to another land. Their experience was of national trauma and loss. It would be understandable for these people to feel that there was nothing left for them, that God had abandoned them and there was no future, no hope.
Isaiah however said ‘Take heart. The God whom we worship has a particular care for you. The ministry or work of His anointed servant is ‘to bind up the broken hearted’ to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort and sustain all who mourn offering ‘a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning’. There is a future. There is hope.
In the New Testament, Jesus took these words to Himself (they shaped his ministry) and again and again in the gospel story we see him raising up those who are struggling, embracing those who felt excluded and offering hope to those who heard him. What Jesus is doing is to make visible and real this ancient belief that God is with us.
The other week I gave a talk at Barnard Castle School. I had been asked to talk about one of the school’s values: Compassion. In preparing something to say I came across something I’d never heard or read before. It was this: There is a moment in the Old Testament, after the people of Israel (led by Moses) have escaped out of Egypt where God describes His character (what he is like). Top of the list of these attributes of God is ‘compassion’ – sometimes translated as being merciful or gracious. Compassion is at the heart of who God is: isn’t that incredible? Compassion is ‘what He does’. He cannot but feel for us- it is His nature. He suffers with us and alongside us. But there is more than this: for the word for compassion in Hebrew comes from the same root as the word for ‘womb’. This compassion that he feels and offers us is ‘womb-ish’. It enfolds us and protects us, it nurtures us and sustains us. It involves God sharing His life with us.
My prayer, this night, is that you will know and feel in this place something of that Divine Compassion. That as we mourn those we have loved we will know ourselves being held by God, that we will leave this place sustained by His love and renewed by His presence. So may we go from this place ‘raised up’ by Him, trusting in the ‘living hope’ offered us by Jesus who trusted that God was with Him even through death and promises to lead us all into our Father’s presence.

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