Sermon: Alive before God
Preached on 11th November 2007
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
A few years ago my wife and I had to go through the personal effects of someone who had died. Her books, pictures, furniture, letters, diaries brought back memories. But it was her clothing that brought home the fact of death in a way that I was not prepared for: not just their shape, style and colour, but their scent – so personal, so intimate, so real – as if our dead friend was still there, or had walked out of the room only moments before.
A few years ago I visited the Cathedral treasury at Sens where there is a stunning display of Thomas à Becket’s vestments. Amice, stole, maniple, chasuble and sanctuary slippers – they are all still there after more than 850 years, in marvellous condition, as if he had just stepped out of them and the sanctuary guild had laid them out. Three years after his death in 1170, Thomas was canonised and his vestments became objects of veneration – for his shocking murder was the best chronicled event in medieval history. The instinct to preserve and venerate the saint’s clothing accords with what we know from our own experience, that memory and love are kindled powerfully by the clothes of people who are separated from us, or who have died. Otherwise why cut up one of Pope John Paul’s cassocks into 100 thousand pieces and offer them for sale to the faithful?
Perhaps Thomas Becket was the hot-headed traditionalist who unwisely took on a reforming monarch; or he was a martyr for the rights of the church against the claims of the crown. But he went to his death with utter conviction. When his murderers arrived he said: ‘I commit myself and my cause to the Judge of all men. Your swords are less ready to strike than is my spirit for martyrdom.’ After the blows were struck, his bloodied robes were torn open, and people saw what he had been wearing underneath for many years – the tightest of hair shirts riddled with vermin. The constant irritation and pain must have been indescribable - a daily martyrdom. Thomas always enjoyed a good spectacle and no doubt loved his richly embroidered vestments. But he knew that it is was the clothing he had chosen to wear underneath that mattered more. The truth was larger than people thought. ‘Man looks on outward things’, said Samuel, ‘but the Lord looks on the heart’.
In today’s gospel, Jesus has some striking words about the dead. The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection of the dead (so they were ‘sad, you see’) try to wrong-foot Jesus by putting to him an argument philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum. If one woman married seven brothers one after the other under the law of levirate marriage, whose wife would she be in the age to come? The answer is obvious and absurd, so, they argue, the premise (which is the resurrection) must be wrong to begin with. Yet the logic of God is more logical than men. In the divine scheme of things, the resurrection is a transforming event. The life of the world to come is qualitatively different from what we know here and now: ‘like the angels in heaven’ Jesus puts it. The defining story of the Old Testament where God reveals his sacred name clinches the point, says Jesus. At the burning bush, Moses speaks about the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’
Jesus is saying that to view the dead as, well, dead, is a fundamental category mistake. We need to see them as God does, in the light of resurrection. ‘For to him all of them are alive’. Are there any words more comforting on the day when the dead are so much in our minds? ‘In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace, and their hope is full of immortality’. So if those we loved and honoured are forever alive and present to God, then they can and should be to us too. This is why Christian tradition not only remembers the departed but prays for them, because it is our way of continuing to care, continuing to recognise the bonds of love that death can never break. It’s why we dare to count on their prayers and their continuing companionship. We could say that death is God’s way of gathering up the fragments of human life so that nothing is lost. Where he has been in the midst of human loves and relationships, there he will always be. All in the end is harvest.
Here is hope to sustain us as the dark days come and with them, uncertainty as to what life holds in store for us and this fragile world of ours. I go back to the words of Jesus and find in them an anchor when another link in the chain of human life is broken through death, or when I am silenced by the sheer waste of life in wars and other tragedies of our time. ‘Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’ We come to this eucharist to celebrate the risen Christ here among us. And because of the word he speaks to us today, we do not come here alone, but in the company of all who are enrolled in heaven, who rejoice with us, if on another shore and in a greater light. In bread and wine, we are one with that innumerable company we do not see, but who are our companions in faith, who travel with us towards the perfect vision of God. To him, they truly ‘grow not old’; ‘age shall not weary nor the years condemn’. So we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and meanwhile, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.
Remembrance Sunday 2007