A sermon preached by Robert Titley
All Souls Day 2018
All Souls comes at the start of a month of remembering, and this November has a particular tinge, one hundred years on from the Armistice of 1918. What have these four years of remembering the First World War done for us? Have we truly honoured the memory of those who suffered? Has remembering made us better? Look at how we have conducted ourselves in the UK since 2014: are there signs that it has made us more civil in our public conversations? Has remembering war-war made us better at jaw-jaw?
Whatever your judgement on this, the very act of remembering is its own justification, and public commemoration can at least help us to get our private lives in a better perspective. The battles people have to fight are not all in armed conflicts, but remembering the terrors of war can help us get our personal struggles in proportion: life may be tough these days, but no-one’s actually trying to kill me. One or two things, however, may actually be harder now than then; and perhaps one of them is the particular thing that brings us here this All Souls night, the experience of losing someone you love.
A century ago the danger of death was in the air, and death itself was public and common. Now it’s occasional, hidden away, and if you are bereaved, others may encourage you to keep it like that. You meet a neighbour and you sense they don’t want to talk, at least not about the person you have lost. It’s as though they are holding up an invisible sign: ‘Thank you for not reminding me that death is part of life’. They prefer to see death (as a colleague put it yesterday) as an aberration.
One part of the BBC’s Armistice commemoration is a radio feature. The Dying Hours on Five Live’s breakfast show tells the stories of individual soldiers, sailors, flyers and others whose lives ended on the day peace began, 11 November 1918, and the stories of the lives their deaths would touch. In each case the programme makers take a personal, private encounter with death and lay it upon that public encounter that we call Remembrance. And we are doing something like that now.
The First letter of Peter tonight uses words – ‘imperishable, undefiled, unfading’ – that have a war memorial sound to them, like ‘Their name liveth for evermore’. The writer speaks to a whole community that is facing troubles of some kind and encourages them with the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. Tonight we use his public words to speak to the personal trials that are among us here and seek the same encouragement.
All Souls and Remembrance. Private loss and public remembering. It’s fitting to hold the two in mind because they touch each other. A life can be ended by so many things, by sword or by sickness, and whether one dies or many die, each is a life with a story, loved by others and missed by them. If thousands are not sharing your grief with theirs, then your grief is none the less. And death, whether in a ward or a theatre of war, can seem so unfair. It can lead you to ask the same question the war poet Wilfred Owen asked, at the sight of a dead comrade: ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?’ Whenever death claims someone it prompts the question: is that it? Whether long or short, is this all it amounts to, this mysterious, fleeting gift?
God has one answer to the question death poses. Go to a churchyard round here, and you may well see, dotted among the varied gravestones, the simple, dignified tablets of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, all done to the same design. In this mixture of death, suffered in war and in peace, there is one symbol most often seen on both kinds of grave: it’s the cross. We are before one here tonight. The cross is not an idol. It is a signal of remembrance, a reminder of a single death, carved shorthand for a particular story. And through it God says:
Take the story of the life of the person who brings you here. Lay it out in your mind, from the earliest point you know of them up to the moment they died. There – what do you feel about all that? Grateful to have known them? Of course. Relieved, perhaps, that at last the suffering came to an end. But does it seem fair to you that life should end like this? Fair on them? Fair on everyone they have left behind? Now – place that story on the story of this other life. Life was not fair to him either. But his is a story that does not end with death.
The Bible lays out the life story of Jesus – his birth, the things he said and did; how he died (horribly, unfairly) – then it tells of what God did next.
What God did next was to carry that story on: on beyond death, on beyond the pages of a holy book, carry it on as a story that is still being told and lived, for Christian faith tells us (and this must seem deeply odd to someone who doesn’t share that faith) that the young rabbi executed on a cross twenty centuries ago is alive and with us now, with us tonight in a quite particular way as we break bread together in another act of remembrance, sacramental shorthand for a story that does not end and that we take into ourselves as we eat the bread of life.
God invites us to lay on that one life story every other human story that matters to us – yours, mine, and those of the people who draw us here tonight. Jesus and his story is God’s promise to us that nothing, not even death, can come between God and God's friends; that death's victories are real, but temporary; that we shall smile again, because God embraces us in death as well as in life, because in the end nothing and no-one need be lost to those who love them; a promise that their names live for evermore because God continues to call them friends.
May that be true for you and for me. May it be true for those souls we shall name tonight before the God who raises the dead.