Sermon for All Souls

I did some preaching again yesterday, at a Choral Evensong for All Souls. The readings were Lamentations 3:17-26, 31-33 and 1 Peter 1:3-9, and this is roughly what I said:

All Saints this morning was a chance to celebrate all those who have illuminated the Christian faith for us. In contrast, this evening’s commemoration of All Souls is an opportunity for a quieter reflection, remembering those who have died.

Lament and grief can be uneasy in our culture. The “stiff upper lip” attitude of just getting on with life is always there…. and life does go on. Sometimes trying to get back to “normal”, whatever that is, after experiencing painful loss can be comforting, but sometimes it can compound a sense of isolation as we tell ourselves and others that yes, of course, we’re fine really. It may be true, or it may be very far from reality. Every grief is different.

We do need space in which we can grieve, places and communities where it is safe to give voice to our distress. We need the opportunity to lament and be honest about pain, even if sometimes we would rather avoid it.

The five chapters of the book of Lamentations are formal Hebrew poetry, probably written by the prophet Jeremiah, in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in around 587 BC. We get a small sample of the general tone at the beginning of our reading: “my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is.” Strong stuff for the destruction of a city, but Jerusalem was more than just a city: it had the Temple, it was seen as the City of God. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness” doesn’t refer only to a physical home, though the people were made utterly destitute and leaders and authorities were sent into exile. It also refers to a spiritual bereavement: nobody had thought it possible for Jerusalem to fall. It was taken as evidence of God’s might and favour for Israel. So, its destruction was seen as a punishment by God. An entire way of life was gone. No wonder people lamented!

Yet in the midst of this total defeat, the poet-and-prophet has hope: in God’s mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. The central three verses of the book of Lamentations tell us that God does not abandon us for ever, that God will have compassion, that God does not willingly afflict people. We are left to work out for ourselves how that can be possible, how the Lord who allegedly loves us so dearly can take away so much. The book doesn’t end with resolution, but with a list of bitter complaints followed by a challenge: “Restore us to yourself!…unless you are angry with us beyond measure.” But even being willing to make such a demand requires the hope of an answer. Lament here is evidence of faith, not a failure of faith.

Given this need for lament, the second reading can seem almost too cheerful. The first letter of Peter, written to Christians exiled from Rome to various places in what is now Turkey, has a different audience and context. We don’t know the exact circumstances of these Christians, but it’s likely that they were subject to casual, unpredictable discrimination, being social outcasts and not really fitting in either in the communities they came from, or where they lived when the letter was written. It is clear that the letter is written to people who are in some kind of distress. Peter wastes no time in offering comfort, blessing God and saying: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

This isn’t the desperate-but-sure, abstract hope Jeremiah clings to in Lamentations, insisting God will be merciful despite apparent evidence to the contrary. This is St Peter, the Rock, who walked and worked with Jesus, who denied him three times and wept. This is Peter who knew Jesus personally, saw him crucified, and ate fish with him on the beach after the resurrection. Peter writes to these Christians that in Christ’s resurrection lies their hope: not that they will never have any trials, troubles, pain or discomfort, but that in salvation through Christ, those trials do not have the last word. This is not a denial of whatever distress the exiled Christians are facing, but a transformation of it, just as the resurrection of Jesus transformed his death from the starkest loss imaginable to the ultimate hope.

This, says Peter, is the inheritance of the Christians he is writing to, and it cannot be destroyed or corrupted or contaminated. They inherit this living hope even though they have never met Jesus in person, never walked with him, or heard him speak or saw him heal anyone, never hauled straining nets onto a beach to eat fish with him. Why? Because they love him and believe in him.

The rest of the letter instructs these Christians about the earthly consequences of that love and belief: they are to live as God’s people, with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, to treat one another with love. They are to do this while waiting for the revelation of the last things, which they believed would be soon, possibly within their lifetime.

And this is our inheritance, too: not a promise that life will be easy, or that we will never be in pain or suffer loss or grief, but rather this: death does not have the last word. As evidence of this promise we have the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

In all honesty I don’t always find it easy to rejoice in that promise. When in the depths of despair, Christ’s resurrection can seem as abstract and far away as the insistence on God’s mercy in the book of Lamentations. It’s been a long time now since anyone I am close to has died, but I remember the feelings of intense sadness and abandonment. I’ve certainly had times when sorrow has threatened to overwhelm me, and rejoicing was simply not on the cards.

Yet somehow I do believe in the resurrection — not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that I will, and you will, and so too those we love who have already died. I don’t know much about the details, but I believe it. This is partly because at times when I have struggled with sadness, I have been supported by a community of people of faith, acting out St Peter’s advice, trying to live with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, taking seriously the instruction to love one another. Rather than being somewhere that we need to put on a smiley face or keep a stiff upper lip – as if God mustn’t find out how cross we are – a church can and should provide that kind of support and care in situations of mourning and sorrow. When we allow space for lament, our lives can demonstrate the hope we share.

May we all show forth in our lives the living hope we have inherited in Jesus Christ; and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.