Commemorating the Faithful Departed: A Sermon for All Souls preached by Graham Low on 3 November 2019
No words of mine alone tonight can diminish the sadness that we all feel as we gather to remember the faithful departed, those people of faith who we believe have gone before us into the hands of God. So tonight we face the unavoidability, the inevitability, the pain of death, which always accompanies us. Tonight may also be a time for us to face up to letting go of loved ones in the near future. And this may also be a reminder that we may need to make some space to face our own mortality and to make preparations for the end of our earthly lives.
But first let us remember that we gather here tonight at the end of three days in which the church traditionally and prayerfully acknowledges three matters. Firstly, the darkness and the chaos, sometimes macabre, of the world is recognised on All Hallows Eve. Secondly, we give thanks for the witness and lives of the saints on All Saints Day. The saints are those who represent what a human life may become – a life set upon God, beauty, truth and goodness. And thirdly, today, All Souls Day, we are reminded of our belief that we mysteriously share life now with the lives of all who have gone before us, as it were beyond the horizon. So these three days are about being open to darkness, to death and to resurrection.
Tonight is a particular night for remembering with thanksgiving those we see no longer, those with whom we have shared friendship and love, as well as that vastly greater number known only to God. To remember something is to use the record of our experience, and to retrieve the information with a view to letting it guide our actions in the future. So tonight, as we remember a person or people, may we also think prayerfully about how the memory of that person or people may prompt us to change the way we are and the way we live our lives in the future.
As I have said, tonight we are remembering individual people and offering their lives to God for mercy. At the same time we are linked, as members of the church everywhere, with all who are awaiting eternal life with God, confident of God’s mercy and sure of the power of the resurrection.
All of us have been bereaved at some point in our lives. In some way or other we have all found that death is a hard and painful reality. Tonightis an opportunity for grief to surface and for us to commend those for whom we grieve, to be united with God. As we share together in doing this let us remember that our own pilgrimage of faith is not purely private. Our faith is shared with the mutual support, love and joy of all the people around us here in this church of St Mary’s tonight, as well as with all the people of God. We understand that in Christ all the faithful, both living and departed, are bound together in a communion of prayer.For all of this we thank God most deeply.
Peter’s visionary words in our first reading tonight point us towards a future inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. In spite of present sufferings, and testings, we are protected through faith bythe power of God for salvation on the last day. On that last day, Peter writes, we shall have an indescribable and glorious joy as we see and meet Jesus Christ, the King of Love.
The author of John’s Gospel tells us that as God the Father has raised Jesus from the dead at the resurrection, so he in turn gives life to whomsoever he wishes. He follows this by stating that any one of us in this world who hears Jesus’ word and believes in the one who sent him,has eternal life, and will pass beyond death to another life.Furthermore, we read that the dead will hear the voice of Jesus, and will live. For countless Christians down the ages, these have been words both of the deepest mystery and also the profoundest hope. They remain so for us.
In his poem Crossing the Bar Tennyson writes in anticipation of his own death as being like casting out into the sea at night, perhaps borne not only by tides but into a vast flood. He ends by saying that he hopes to see his Pilot, face to face when he crosses the bar. The image of Christ as a pilot is very powerful. The pilot of a ship has to know all about the shingle and sand that form the bar to entering a harbour. So it is with Christ who goes before us through death, who secures the path and who opens up the way, as the psalmist in Psalm 23 reminds us: Though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Tennyson once said of these lines: ‘the pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him’.
This poem reminds us of the journey of those we remember tonight. They have journeyed through life, they have passed into the night, and we believe and hope that they have arrived at the dawn of Easter. May they have awakened to see at last, face to face, the One who has journeyed with them through life, as their pilot, and who has finallyturned their night to day.
And now, may Christ who has opened the kingdom of heaven, bring us, with those we remember tonight, to reign with him in glory. Amen.