Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2020
8th Nov 2020
Remembrance Sunday Sermon 2020
“…and so we will be with the Lord for ever”. 1 Thessalonians 4.12
Remembrance Sunday occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and suffering and loss with the promise of the life that yet awaits us. It is in this vein that St Paul promises, no matter how challenging are the demands of the present time, that “we will be with the Lord for ever”. He echoes the phrase that Jesus uses so often of the life that has been transformed by God’s indwelling presence. He calls it ‘eternal life’. And this ‘eternal life’ is to be found in the present time.
Now is eternal life
If risen with Christ we stand
In him to life reborn
And holden in his hand
No more we fear death’s ancient dread
If Christ arisen from the dead.
GW Briggs (1875-1959) NEH Hymn 114.
Like many other sons and daughters of Second World War veterans, I could never, as an inquisitive child, get my father to speak about his war experiences. I only later learnt that, on demobilisation, as it was called, the combatants were firmly told not to share them. And so my father collected his de-mob suit and a small payment and as the old war song went “packed up his troubles in his own kit bag”. I have felt since that the medals he won were medals for a war experience which was very difficult to assimilate. But he had made what was the necessary sacrifice of his young manhood on behalf of his country and had been tested to the uttermost. I have honoured him in my own heart and mind for all that could never be expressed, but for much I hazard a guess, that was very significant.
The Christian Faith is predicated on sacrifice - the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond in the giving of oneself for the sake of the other without recourse to obvious personal reward. The many war memorials across the world with the seemingly endless rows of names, with each name a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one life given. Each one counts; each one was significant; each one gathered up and made present to us in the falling of the red petals. Each one will always matter, for each one gave their life for the greater good.
In our own time the offering of our lives as a sacrifice for the good of the other and the good of the whole society and even for the good of the world, still holds true. As we begin another period of Covid ‘lockdown’ we are being challenged to respond to this emergency with love and imagination. The Christian churches are determined that this period should not take us back to the lockdown of March to August. We are determined that our churches should remain open for prayer. The leaders of our church have inaugurated this month of November as one of prayer, and you will see topics for prayer on our news sheet and signposting to the relevant websites. The Archbishop of York has called the doing of prayer a “letting God into the room of our consciousness’. When we are at prayer we make ourselves open to God’s inhabitation and the transformation of our minds. When we establish a pattern of prayer, however simple, we invite spiritual resilience. Prayer will be the bedrock upon which acts of Christian generosity both on behalf of ourselves and others. At a time of grave crisis, prayer is the place of deep wisdom, described in our first reading this morning.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care.
The proper demand, when we are under the pressure of events, is to move away from our own anxiety and into a place of strong peace which is God. That is not to say we run away from the place of testing and trial nor is it to say that we belittle the trials and tests that are demanded of us. But it is to embrace another way, another route through which we may be spiritually renewed in joy and in hope. The practical compliment to the recourse to prayer is the life of self-sacrificial giving for the sake of the other; for the greater good. The prevalence of anxiety and the threat of despair are counteracted by the trust in our humanity and the capacity we all have to attain to eternal life in the present.
Sometimes large amounts of sacrifice have had be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. This day reminds us that the self-sacrifice of the many in the past may lead us to an understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in the present and in this and every age. Christ has shown us the Way and in Him our hope remains, in the words of the Wisdom writer, ‘rich in immortality’. As Dylan Thomas poem ‘And Death Shall have No Dominion’ promises:
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ - Dylan Thomas
Written between the wars in 1933, Thomas's poem takes on a broad theme of remembrance and the hope that resides in the human spirit.
Commemoration of All Souls 2020
2nd Nov 2020
All Souls Sermon 2020
“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. Pope Benedict XVI.
At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before: On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, which we celebrated yesterday. As the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and forms an inseparable apart of the general commemorating and remembering of the dead which we do at this time. Its purpose is to keep in mind of what we know as already. That there is a fine veil that separates life from death. Similarly, there is a fine veil that separates us from those who have gone before us, and especially those whose lives we came in the past to know and to love. They are a part of us and their influence upon us is with us there for us in the present and for all time. They remain in our hearts.
Life is of God’s making and it is sacred. This is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in our busy world more than ever and in ways words cannot express. Silence holds the tension that exists between the living and the dead. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones, including our own. At this All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his great poem ‘The Wasteland’ TS Eliot, recovering from a nervous breakdown, described a crowd of commuters crossing over Westminster Bridge in the year 1921:
He observed them; a people recovering from The Great War; most of them suffering the deaths of their menfolk: sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins. And the feeling is one of immense sorrow and loss. And this is a sorrow that Eliot describes as a kind of emotional and actual ‘undoing’. “I had not thought that death had undone so many” he says. Death and the brevity of life and the loss of a loved ones still comes as a kind of raw pain; an undoing. Another poet, Dylan Thomas writes a poem which is an elegy for his dead father and bids us ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
It expresses a passionate anger that must form a part of the sense of impotent rage at a life gone from his midst, and the terrible loss of it. This too, forms a part of the human experience of death. But the Christian message is the one which, in the light of Christ’s death and Resurrection, is always one of hope. Death does not have the last word.
This Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November, is, as Emeritus Pope Benedict once said, “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”. However faint are our powers of recollection and however frail a hold we have on the life of the world to come, we nevertheless feel the strong influences of love and thanksgiving for those who have gone before us. We pray tonight continue on our life’s journey in faith and hope, so we may be maintained and sustained by the One who made us and loves each one of us as Christian souls. He is The One who came to show us the way through death and into life eternal, even Jesus Christ our Lord our alpha and omega; our beginning and our true end. Amen.
Sermon for All Saints 2020
1st Nov 2020
A Sermon for All Saints 2020
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who was rarely prayed to on account of his unfortunate name. But because of this he became known as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded both with possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that ‘the parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. Then there was St Benedict, who wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behavior are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many thousands of lives for which this place has been a house of God, a sanctuary, and a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong sense of this place as a holy place, a place of truth. The presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as the influence for our own healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!