Sermon St Mary’s Marlborough 5th November 2017
All Souls: A service of prayers and readings to remember those who have died
Psalm 121 & John 20.11-18
For many of us this afternoon it was not easy to come here. Even though the decision to come to the service may have been straightforward, still, I suspect that many of us will have felt some hesitation when we set off. Because what we have in common this afternoon is that we are here to remember those who have died. And although we may feel that there is a lot to give thanks for, we are also faced with feelings of sadness and loss as we remember those who were, but are not longer with us.
For some of us our loss will have been very immediate or very sudden. For others, it may have been something we anticipated, and in some cases, we may have felt some relief as well, as it meant an end to a suffering and pain that were almost unbearable to watch.
Regardless our circumstances, though, we will all have felt at some point a sense of bewilderment: a sense of not knowing what is happening, and a sense of not knowing what we are feeling. Bewilderment, because we don’t know what to do or what to say, and indeed, because we cannot name the pain we feel. And in many cases, the only person who almost fully understood us, is precisely the person we miss.
It is of those feelings of bewilderment and helplessness that our readings speak as well. ‘From where will my help come’ says the author of Psalm 121. And Mary, when she cannot find Jesus’ body, says, her eyes full of tears ‘tell me where you have laid him’. I do not know, but please, tell me. Please, tell me where I can find whom I have lost, tell me, so that I can see him and ease my pain.
Where will our help come from? In our pain and confusion, it is very hard to see clearly. Indeed, it is very hard to see when our eyes are full of tears, and we may not be able to recognise what is right in front of us. We lift up our eyes to the hills, and ask once more, from where will our help come? And more often than not, that help is not as far away as we may feel it is, but we need some help in seeing it. Just as Mary did not recognise Jesus, but thought he was the gardener, so often we only get to know people in those moments that our own eyes are full of tears.
Not that long ago, I was speaking to someone who after hearing that a friend of hers had died, immediately got in the car, drove two-and-a-half hours to go and see his widow, to give her a hug, and to drive back again. They hadn’t seen each other for years, but she knew, this is what she had to do.
So also we can think of people who were there for us, when we needed them most. Whether it was a card with precisely the words we needed to hear; a cooked meal or a bunch of flowers when we needed it most, also in our pain and bewilderment were there people who were suddenly there. People we only then really recognised for who they were. No longer strangers, but friends. Maybe just for that moment, but nonetheless, when we needed them most, that is where our help came from.
It is those encounters that help and strengthen us, but as we know, we cannot hold on to them. Although they are glimpses of light in our darkness, they don’t mean that all our pain is suddenly gone. That would be an illusion.
Jesus says to Mary “Do not hold on to me, but go to my brothers”. And that is what Mary does, she goes to the disciples, who were also mourning, and announced to them “I have seen the Lord”.
It is not so much that encounters I have just described help us get over our pain and our grief, but they help us to see that we too have to go from where we are. We cannot live in the past, and so our memories are not just about looking back to what was, but also looking forward to what will be. And that can be hard. What does the first Christmas without a loved one look like? A first anniversary? The first time visiting that place where you always used to walk together?
But we too cannot hold on to what was, but is no longer. Although it is hard, we cannot continue to focus on what is not there, but we need to learn to live again. And that is by no means saying that we cannot and should not remember what was, but that by doing so, we also try to see what can and will be.
And yes, we can do this believing that our help comes from a God who created heaven and earth. A God who created us out of love, and who looks after us. A God who despite that is near to us, so near that we can even see him through our tears. We can see him in the person standing in front of us.
So next time we weep, let us try to see, in the hope and faith that the Lord will keep us, and those who have died, in our going and our coming in, from this time forth and evermore. Amen.