Vicar's Sermon - All Souls 2017
Kim and I were on holiday last week. We decided that we wanted to go to a part of the country we haven’t visited before so we took ourselves off to Norfolk. We found a cottage to stay in for the week and we did what we normally do on holiday: we read books, drank coffee in little coffee shops, hunted out bookshops and called in at old churches to nose around. We had a good time.
Something I like to do in churches and churchyards is to look at the memorials that are erected to remember loved ones. Here in Barney the memorials from inside the church were all gathered together into the porch back in the late 1860s when the church was reordered. They make interesting reading: stones remembering the Watson Family who used to live in the big house on Thorngate before moving to Spring Lodge opposite the catholic church down the road. There are stones remembering military men: one fought in the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, another died overseas serving with the navy. Tucked in the corner of the tower is a memorial to a child who (it says) ‘peeped into the world’ for just a few days, saw its troubles and sadness and left the world to be with God. Victorian memorials tend to give a run down of the persons’ character: their honesty, integrity, quality of mind. More recent memorials can be quite brief: a name and dates, little more.
In one church we visited there was a stone plaque commemorating a former churchwarden. ‘To live in the hearts of those we leave behind (It said) is not to die.’ All of you here understand that sentiment. Everyone in church tonight has come to remember. Each person gathered here tonight holds the memory of someone special dear to them, memories that are precious of a father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, a son or daughter, brother, sister, neighbour and friend. Most of us live lives that touch others. One of us could survive without the care of family, the support of community: our lives leave their mark on those around us. Children oftentimes uncannily look like their parents. The next generation picks up even the mannerisms and turns of phrase of the previous generation. We do live on in those we leave behind – for good…sometimes however we must recognise for ill.
Memory is a great gift. It enables us to cross the years in one bound. We can shift through time as we recall people and places no longer present to us.: memory leaps over the barrier of Death itself and makes real in the present the things of the past. To lose our memory is one of our greatest fears.
‘To live on in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die’ – It is true but it is not true enough for me. It’s not what Christians would call ‘a resurrection hope’.
A while ago I took a book out of the library about Abraham Lincoln. I’d watched the film ‘Lincoln; with Daniel Day lewis playing the part of the President and I noticed in the credits that the film had drawn heavily on a book called ‘The Team of Rivals’. Lincoln had not been expected to take the Republican nomination for president back in the 1850s, there were others more well known in the running but he came from no-where (a dreadfully poor upbringing in backwoods Kentucky) to become the greatest of all American presidents: the right man at the right time to lead the States through the period of the Civil War and to push through the emancipation of the slaves in the South. From all accounts Lincoln shared a belief that each one of us must ‘make our mark’. In a country that had come into existence asserting the equality of all even a poor boy from Kentucky could make something of himself. By making a name for yourself you could overcome death – your name would live down through the ages.
Well Lincoln’s name will live on for sure: but again, is it enough? For the thing is, most of us will not be remembered beyond one or two generations. And whilst remembering may take place in the mind of those wo are left behind it says nothing about what lies ahead of you or I when we come to the end of our days. So what is the Christian hope of resurrection? What hope is there for all of us whose span of life is so fleeting? What hope for those who have no-one to remember them? What hope for those whose lives have been simple and good but will never be written in the history books?
In one of the transepts of Norwich Cathedral a particular memorial took my eye. It was a white stone marble statue. Not quite life-size it was of a young woman, kneeling in prayer, the statue raised on a plinth. On the sides of the plinth it was hard to see who the memorial commemorated and I suspect it had been moved from its original position because its text was tight against the wall of the transept.
On the side of the plinth were words from Wordsworth hat first drew my eye
I knew a maid,
A young enthusiast:
Birds in the bower, and lambs in the green field,
Could they have known her, would have loved (her); methought
Her very presence such a sweetness breathed,
That flowers, and trees, and even the silent hills,
And everything she looked on, should have had
An intimation how she bore herself
Towards them and to all creatures. God delights
In such a being; for, her common thoughts
Are piety, her life is gratitude.
On the back of the plinth were these words: In Caister churchyard was laid to rest…all that could die of Violet, the lovely and beloved only child of Penry and Evelyn Arden Vaughan Morgan. Sweet Vi, who… at the age of 20 years passed from this life to the life eternal.
It was hard, reading these words not to feel the deep grief felt by those who mourned Violet a hundred years ago but also, stood in the corner of the Cathedral, to sense something of the faith of those who had laid her to rest.
In the end, our hope of resurrection lies in the fact (as Wordsworth put it) that God delights in us. This is hard for some of us to grasp or comprehend – how could God possibly love us, how can He (the creator of things seen and unseen) consider giving us a moment’s thought and yet everything that we see in the person of Jesus Christ points us to a belief that God is for us: he rejoices over each and every one of us. He could not stop loving us even if He were to try.
Resurrection rests not on our fading memories of our loved ones but on the purpose of God for each and every one of us which is that we know His love for ever and reflect it in our lives. Time may well rub away all memory of us from human recollection but it has no effect whatsoever on God’s view of us which is eternal. We lay to rest all that can die of our own lives but every one of us all those we love but see no longer, in our own way reflects the image of God in our lives: this will be raised on the last day, untarnished and glorious, to bring Him praise for ever. Each act of love, each word, each touch, each expression of sacrifice and hope and faithfulness we make and which we treasure in those dearest to us, every gift, every skill, every act of creativity or moment of insight or gift of intellect – all these things (and more) are of infinite value to God. Nothing (no one) is lost. God, who is Love, God who is Life itself remembers us and holds us all for eternity.
We grieve, yes. But grief is not the end for us. We hope too and our hope is sure because it rests secure in the love of God. That love has been shown to us all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our prayer for those we love is always the same: may they rest in peace and, in the love of God, rise in glory.