Sermon preached by
Mrs Mary Stubbs, Pastoral Worker
North Bedford Church Partnership
1 November 1998
The sermon begins with a reading of Luke Chapter 24:13-35
Earlier this year I visited a 19th century Methodist Chapel. Its walls were lined with memorial tablets, and I was struck by the words on one of them. It read—Love's last gift is remembrance. It seems to me that is an appropriate thought for today. We have come together as a group of people, probably unknown to each other, with I guess two things in common. We personally know about the sorrow and grief of bereavement and we remember with love family and friends who have died. We can and do enjoy some happy memories that make us smile, and yet—at unexpected moments something familiar catches us out and the pain and the tears return. Whether our bereavement is recent or some time ago we are having to make adjustments, to adapt, to live differently than before. We try to find ways of helping ourselves cope. Then, maybe, we can support others whose experience we can understand up to a point, but can never fully share. Our circumstances, responses and feelings are peculiar to us as individuals.
A year or two ago the BBC programme the Bookworm held a poll to discover the nation's favourite poem. I have recently been dipping into the published anthology of the top hundred—The mood of many poems is wistful and nostalgic, covering a range of human emotions. Several deal with death and loss including their bewildering after effects, which I am sure you will recognise—shock and pain, sorrow, anger, depression, regret, acceptance, letting go and moving on. Outside the competition, there were far more requests for a particular poem about death than votes cast for the rest. It became the winner by proxy. Probably some of you have heard it.
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Whatever one may think of the poem's sentiments, its popularity illustrates the need felt by many thousands of people to make sense of and come to terms with loss and pain and their search for something helpful. They do not want to feel themselves deserted, and in their anguish they find their comfort in words written by a stranger. People with imagination, skills with words and music, flashes of illumination, express for us feelings and thoughts that we cannot articulate easily, things of the heart, mind and soul that we say are "too deep for words", particularly when we are trying to deal with what is universal for all of us—death and bereavement.
When we feel lost and alone, we can find understanding and help in books and favourite songs and music. In the same way, we are supported by prayers not necessarily our own. I remember when my father was terminally ill, he was distressed that he seemed unable to pray . A wise friend gently reminded him that it was now time to accept others praying on his behalf. It is a source of consolation and strength to realise that regularly, at least Sunday by Sunday, prayers are said for those in need, for those who mourn and in remembrance of those who have died. We and they are not forgotten. We need also the warmth of contact with other human beings that can unfreeze our loneliness as they listen to us and we know we are heard. We want to be able to talk about our relatives and friends and share our memories, but often we are shy and embarrassed with each other, and don't know how to say what we mean.
In the Gospel story of two friends travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Jesus illustrates how we can offer comfort to each other. Jesus meets his two friends mourning his death—and what does he do ? He cares for them by travelling alongside them, entering into their perplexity and grief; just being with them; He invites them to tell him what concerns them and to share their feelings; He shows his willingness to listen. He helps them bring together and examine their confused thoughts and emotions. He does not rush into telling them what to do. He enables them to discover the resources they already have from their experience and their faith. He is a loving presence on the road and at their meal. As in due course we move forward, Jesus shows us ways in which we can turn from being supported to being ourselves a means of compassion and kindness to others in their sorrow.
The last thing I want to say is this—I believe that the love we have for each other comes from God. His transforming love flows to us and through us from generation to generation and into the eternal life that he promises to those who love him, who accept his mercy and forgiveness and live by his grace. If we have faith in him, we lift our hearts beyond the restlessness and forlornness of the poem I read earlier. Christian faith enables us to live in trust and hope. As Paul said in his second letter to the Corinthians—we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven.
And Jesus said to his disciples—Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. We believe that our loved ones are in that "place", safe and secure, in perfect peace, in the company of the saints down the ages, whom we honour today. Death is the bridge that carries love from this life to the next, the gateway if you like, and when we pass through we will be one family, joyful in God's loving presence for ever. Until then our trust in God's love, for all people in all times, will give us courage and hope and to him be all glory and praise. Amen