Sermon at the Commemoration and Thanksgiving for the Departed
in St Michael’s church, 4th November 2018
Readings: Isaiah 61.1-3, Revelation 7.9-17
One of the delights and worries of living in a Vicarage is that you’re never quite sure what the next knock at the door is going to bring. Some calls are mundane or tricky, most are pleasant, and a few are highly rewarding. However, there are two categories of visitor who never ring my bell and for which I am most grateful. I never get doorstep evangelists, probably because I am already beyond redemption. And, I never get anyone visiting on the evening of October 31st, I assume because the prospect of traversing the graveyard on Halloween is just a little bit hokey for all but the hardiest trick-or-treater.
There is a real irony here. We know that Halloween is a load of nonsense, a sales trick for purveyors of pumpkins, and an opportunity for supermarkets to offload an ever-increasing array of orange and black plastic. On the other hand, that deep-seated visceral fear of things that go bump in the night and which keeps the public away from a beautiful and peaceful place like St Michael’s churchyard exposes a fundamental failure of many to deal with the reality of death.
Our world is more distant from death than any generations that have gone before. In part this is because many people are living longer. And in part this is because we’ve taken death out of the home and into hospitals. Much care has been professionalised beyond what families can provide. Don’t get me wrong – modern medicine is a wonderful, wonderful thing – but it has had side-effect of compartmentalising death, locking it away. The poet John Betjeman once asked of his own death,
Say in what Cottage Hospital whose pale green walls resound
With the tap upon polished parquet of inflexible nurses’ feet
Shall I myself by lying when they range the screens around?
‘When they range the screens around’ – society has screened off death so that we can continue our everyday lives, hiding from realities with which we all need to deal. And the result of this mass self-denial is that many are ill-equipped to face with death when it inevitably breaks through the defences which have kept it at bay. Too often the response is to laugh it off through the infantilisation of Halloween, or to flee from it behind the metaphorical sofa as one would a horror movie or ghost story.
We are gathered here tonight because we are stronger than either of these caricatures. Each of us has been deeply affected by the life and loss of loved ones. And this is a good time of year to call such loved ones to mind; it is the time when Christians around the world keep All Saints Day. The nonsense of All Hallows’ Eve, ‘Halloween’ is a parasitic fringe to the real event which is All Hallows’ Day, All Saints’ Day, November 1st, a genuine celebration and remembrance of all those who have gone before us.
We are not here to wallow but because we recognise that death is big and real, and sad, and has robbed us. We are not here to wallow, because we acknowledge bereavement as a journey – we talk about the grieving process don’t we? We can and do move on and to help us in that we have come here to draw support from one another.
In addition to mutual support we also have the hope and encouragement of tonight’s readings. Firstly, we heard the prophet Isaiah look to a time when God will bring comfort to those who mourn. It is a reminder that death is not the end and that his love promises life beyond this life. A glimpse of that life is afforded by tonight’s second text, a magnificent passage from the book Revelation. We heard a glorious vision of saints and angels rejoicing together around God’s throne.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne [that’s Jesus] will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Services like this call us to get our response to death right. And when we get this right, churches and churchyards cease to be places to avoid and become wells of positivity: of hope, promise and life – and not just for November but all around the year. With this in mind, I note the turning of the year towards the life of Christmas; just a few of the things we are offering are on the back of today’s service sheet. Also, touching on what I said about modern medicine, some of you may be interested in the special evening we are holding to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS. There will be a panel discussion led by five parishioners who work in the healthcare sector helping us reflect further on life and death, as each of the five talks through what they do and the importance of faith for their work in the healthcare sector. Do take an A5 notice sheet for details of this – 8pm in the Parish Centre here in the churchyard on Tuesday 20th November.
Services like ours tonight call us to get our response to death right. I don’t want visitors at Halloween. But I rejoice with those who gather in hope and expectation as at All Saints we remember our union in faith with the great names and unsung heroes who have gone before us into light.