Sermon at the Solemn Requiem Mass at S Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, on All Souls’ Day, 2016.
Among the great thinkers and teachers of the 20th Century was the Swiss philosopher and theologian Karl Barth. During an interview in his old age, a journalist asked him what was the most important truth he had learned in all his years of study and lecturing and writing. He answered that he couldn’t express it better than in the words of an old hymn: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” – That was the one over-riding conviction after decades of learning and studying and wide experience of life. (Illustration used by William J Bausch).
Recurring in the Mass this evening are St Paul’s words declaring this same truth, as he says there is nothing in death or life, in the world as it is, or the world as it shall be, nothing in all creation, that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yet however strongly we may hold this conviction, it doesn’t spare us from the hard things of life. And among the most bitter experiences is that of bereavement – often coming as the culmination of watching a long illness.
I am sure we have all known what it is to lose someone close to us through death. Many in the congregation today have been through that difficult journey in recent times.
We also know what it means to sit down to write a letter to a friend who has just been bereaved, and to find ourselves searching for the right words to say.
Obviously we are sad that they are grieving – we feel their sorrow. We want them to know they are not facing this alone. And yet we struggle to understand how we can help to share such a personally-felt pain with all its ramifications for their life. We want, above all, to avoid glib platitudes and we wonder if we are saying the things we would like to hear in such circumstances.
We are conscious of the need to be supportive, to speak of hope, and to give comfort and reassurance, yet without sounding preachy – but time and again, I for one, have a sense of inadequacy as I seal the envelope or press the ‘send’ button. It is not easy to commit to writing what would be far better conveyed by an embrace or lingering handshake or simply through the silent meeting of eyes.
When we lose someone close to us, life is changed. We cannot pretend otherwise. And we need to grieve.
We all deal with our grief differently. Sometimes we seem to deal with it well and sometimes badly. Each time we lose a family member or good friend, we discover that we are always beginners in grief, because we have never faced the death of that particular person before with its unique implications for our life. And often our emotions are jumbled up – there can be a mixture of tears and laughter, of sorrow and thankfulness, of anger and relief, of acceptance and resentment, as well as a sense of disappointment and loneliness and emptiness.
Questions about our own mortality and the meaning of life may also begin to surface in our minds. And into this melee it is not unusual to find regrets emerging. At times, in such an emotionally confusing climate, these regrets can quickly grow out of proportion and some may find themselves overwhelmed by a totally unjustified guilt.
In these circumstances it is often good to imagine what we would say to those left behind, if we were the one to have died. I suspect that none of us would wish anyone we love to go through their life carrying a burden of guilt which had been caused, in some way, through their relationship with us. Yes, we would hope they would always treasure our memory. Above all, though, we would want them to get on with their own very special experience of life, and live it to the full without having to cope with some lingering impediment from our dying.
When we are faced with bereavement, we need to recognise that everything has not been taken from us.
Bereavement is about adjusting to a new reality – the reality that the way we relate to someone we love has been significantly changed.
Death does not sever the relationship – it requires that we allow our relationship with the one who has died to take on new dimensions. We now meet them differently. The familiar contact we have had – the only way we have related to them – is no longer possible. But their place in our lives is not diminished or terminated because they have died. This has been beautifully expressed in a book entitled, ‘Peace of Mind’ (by Joshua Liebman quoted in ‘Good Grief’ by Granger E. Westberg), where the author says: “The melody that the loved one played upon the piano of your life will never be played quite that way again, but we must not close the keyboard and allow the instrument to gather dust.” – If our anguish at their dying makes us shut them out, we do ourselves a great disservice. Bereavement should lead us to the discovery, as we resume the normal activities of our lives, that the spirit of the person who has died is still inextricably interwoven with our own.
But none of this, of course, means that we don’t continue to struggle when we are bereaved. We find it difficult to understand why the process of death is part of God’s creative plan. It remains a great mystery even as we accept that “there is nothing in death or life … that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
Yet, as Karl Barth discerned so clearly, our true hope lies in Jesus – He is the one who has overcome death and removed its power to threaten and debilitate our lives…He is the one whose presence is with us through this life and in all that awaits us beyond…He is the one in whom the living and the dead are united. That is why, even as we grieve, we can say, “Alleluia” – “God be praised” – and this will soon resound in the Church when the Choir sings the Contakion of the Departed.