Sermon: All Souls Day
Preached on 2nd November 2010
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of the Uprising in Warsaw which tells the devastating story of the city’s 1943 rebellion against the Nazis. It ended tragically with over 40,000 dead and, as punishment, Himmler set about the systematic destruction of the entire city blowing it up, building by building – if you’ve seen the film ‘The Pianist’ you’ll have an idea of what happened. A pre-war population of over 1 million was reduced to 1000 surviving in bombed basements. We watched a five minute film taken from aircraft that flew over the city after the war. Without commentary, we saw in 3D the total devastation – rubble and empty space as far as the eye could see – and I found myself repeating the opening words of the book Lamentations, ‘How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.’
Why tell you this? We heard a reading from later in the book of Lamentations. As Christians we sing the hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ which is based on one verse we heard, as we do about the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases. Those are glorious truths that we can affirm. But my Warsaw experience reminds me that in the bible those words have a very difficult context because that profound love and trust is expressed by the author of Lamentations as he or she surveys the total destruction of Jerusalem by an enemy army, just as I surveyed Warsaw destroyed by a tyrant.
No wonder the passage we heard begins, ‘My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”’ How does that understandable despair lead to the trust that follows? The distraught, defeated citizen of Jerusalem turns things over in his mind and balances what he sees with his eyes with what he knows deep in his heart. It is heart-breaking work: ‘The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope, The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ He actively reminds himself and then wrestles with what he has known in the past – the rest of the book of Lamentations is an extended struggle to make sense of the destruction of the city in the light of trust in God. It makes disturbing reading as it describes in graphic detail the suffering of the people left in the ruins. In circumstances like that it is so much easier to rule out any trust in the goodness of God, and many people take that easy option: ‘I can’t believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world.’ But faithful Jews and Christians inhabit a tradition which insists God is presence in the midst of suffering and so we have to reckon with the paradox that the bible is not afraid to describe cruelty inflicted by one human on another in the same breath as trust in God’s love.
On this All Souls Day we remember the faithful departed, the numerous ordinary people through the centuries who have lived and died trusting in God, faced life’s ups and downs with the same faith as the named saints but without the wider recognition. Each of us has names and faces in our memory, our own faithful departed for whose influence on our lives we thank God. Our presence here is testimony to their influence on us for good. But All Souls Day also confronts us with our mortality, the fact that each one of us will one day die. Death brings separation and thus sadness, and for some people here the memories are still raw and sharp with grief and tears, for others there is a long sadness which never quite goes but which time has softened and God’s grace has tempered with thanksgiving for all the good memories.
The faithful person who wrote in Lamentations can help us in understanding how we can honour the faithful departed by living as faithfully as they did, whatever our life circumstances. Because, although his or her circumstances were extreme, the principle of what sustained him then is the same as that which will sustain us. It was because he was faithful in ordinary life that he had the resources to face the trauma when the unthinkable happened. He was not superhuman, he was a person like us who suddenly needed to draw on resources he may not have known he had. . And so when disaster struck he began tentatively to examine present horror in the light of what he had believed in the past about God. It was not easy and lament was the appropriate response. But when he began to do this there was more dialogue with God rather than about God, and that dialogue with God is where our hope lies.
And that, I suggest, is an example for us. It is the willingness when our world goes wrong to face the present situation with a refusal to let our grief, despair or anger obliterate our trust in God. It means we have to do the hard and intentionalwork of calling to mind the steadfast love of the Lord in the midst of pounding thoughts that wear us down in our confusion. Only then we can come to the assurance, with the biblical author, that ‘The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.’
That doesn’t mean we deny our grief or confusion and it is not escapism or denial of reality. It is our birthright as Christians based on our trust in Jesus Christ who promised, as we also heard, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.’ It is in that context of this sure confidence in God through Jesus Christ that we remember how St Benedict instructed his monks to remind themselves daily that they are going to die (Rule, 4.47) which is wise advice because it keeps us living realistically, trusting in Jesus Christ who has conquered death.
On this All Souls Day, when we are faced with our own mortality, we set our remembrance of the faithfulness of those we have known who have died alongside our remembrance of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who suffered and died, and on the cross cried out in dereliction and confusion, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ That was the ultimate faithfulness in the face of horror and death. And the reason we are here tonight is that God raised him from the dead giving us cause for hope since Jesus also said in the gospel reading, ‘This is the will of the Father that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’
And in that sure and confident hope, we are invited to participate in the Eucharist, a foretaste and anticipation that one day when, as the Eucharistic Prayer will remind us, the Lord will gather into his kingdom all who share the one bread and one cup so that we, in the company of all the saints, all the faithful departed, may praise and glorify God for ever through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.
Lamentations 3:17-26,31-33; John 6:37-40