SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
FEAST OF ALL SAINTS
(November 1st) 2015
For me, to hear Revelation 21 is stand at my own funeral. All we would need is to hear the triumphant strains of “And Can it Be?” and perhaps the clichéd but profound affirmations of “Amazing Grace” and I would know that was where I was. In fact I wonder often if the dead are present at their own funerals; not necessarily that we are “looking down from up there,” though that’s a good a metaphor as any, but that when it comes to be our turn we are being there, being aware, as C. S. Lewis put it (and as I quote ad infinitum!), that “at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read.” Let me tell you, if I have to put up with endless strings of repetitive and inaudible speeches I will personally break out of my coffin and kick some butt!
Well, no I won’t. We don’t have that option. Death to our finite, miniscule perspective, is inevitably a firm and inescapable full stop. It is so much that that now, when as human beings we like to think we’ve got the universe under control, we no longer die. We pass away, pass over, but never die. We are passed or gone to the other side, chooffed off, left the room, but never dead. Humankind, said T. S. Eliot, cannot bear very much reality, and the reality we most bear is the reality that our lives and even loves are temporary, and in their temporal state hang by a thread.
I have mentioned in this place before the night when I was called out to pray for and bless still-born triplets. I have told in this building the story of the week I spent on a riverbank, sitting with a grieving family as they waited for the swollen waters to toss out contemptuously the body of their son and brother. I haven’t told, but now do, the time I stood with a family grieving the death of a son and brother who ultimately self-immolated because he had been the victim of years of shame and contempt and domestic violence. I have told the stories not to be a hero in my own narrative, but because that is what we are challenged to do as bearers of what Richard Gillard refers to as Christlight. We are called to do this – and especially those of us who wear our collars back to front are called to do this – not because we big note ourselves, but because deep in our DNA is the hope and even tenuous experience that God is bigger than the suicide of a shame-riddled husband or the death of triplets or the death of a bravado-fuelled teenager shooting a swollen weir when he should have been at school.
All around us last night children trick or treated in that horrible emulation of the worst of US hegemonic cultural imperialism, trick or treated because the feast of All Hallows’ Eve reimaged as ghoulishness and horror is more entertaining than the deep Christ-centred belief that can love can speak of a hope beyond the grave, even though death’s seemingly final embrace must be traversed first. The great Christian hope of resurrection, the great Easter hope of eternity, is too silly to embrace, but ghouls and sulky spiders are not, and can be triumphantly commercialised (as can Easter) by those great bastions of capitalism gone wrong, the lolly manufacturers.
However silly it may be we are left with the message of death and spiders and distorted pumpkins, or as poet priest R.S. Thomas put it, left in the place where a spider scuttles from the dry chalice:
the priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.
From R.S. Thomas, “Poste Restante”, in the collection Laboratories of the Spirit.
Is the community a place where death and ghoulishness have the final word, and indeed the church no more than a place where wizened prayers and dried up faith replace an “amen” of hope?
Our task is to say “no” in answer to that question. Our task is so to practice the presence of God, sometimes even believing six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen famously put it (or put something!), so to practice the presence of God that God’s “yes” breaks through the short-sightedness of our human perspective. Our task is to continue to embrace the hope of the new heavens and the new earth that dwells at the climax of John the seer’s apocalyptic vision. Our task is to embrace and practice its promise until it begins to subvert the clanging voice of rationality and to whisper its own still small voice of hope despite everything.
Our voice is challenged still to speak these words of hope when we are confronted with the tiny bodies of dead triplets laid out on a white sheet, or when the swollen dead body of a miscreant teenager is lifted from a river, or the bodies of unlucky, desperate refugees wash up on the beaches of the lucky countries of the world. Our challenge is to breathe hope – sometimes when we don’t even feel it ourselves, like the fumbling priest of Thomas’ poem, or Grahame Green’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory – to breathe hope so that a grieving family can pick up the pieces and cling to a sliver of belief that life still has meaning.
For me there are some tiny, irrational reasons to do so. Somehow the early Christians were so filled with the spiritual presence of the Risen Lord as they broke bread together that they were transformed to proclaim resurrection hope against all odds, sometimes costing them their lives (sometimes costing Christians their lives today, as well). I might call that a liturgical and scriptural reason, and it is one that breaks into my experience, too, from time to time.
I am persuaded too (because once I was an atheist) that if I were to believe in a God at all, then that God, as St Anselm put it, had to be greater than all conceivable things, greater than death and suffering and war and ecological collapse, greater than a Roman Cross, and greater than my own death. I have clung to that knowledge even when the chalice of faith has been bitterly dry, and spiders have run from the rituals of a Sunday gathering or the echoing corridors of a hollow church.
But finally I am persuaded too because there are times when the embrace of the living, death-conquering, risen Christ is, above all odds, firmer than the sneers of self-sufficiency and rationality that surround me in the discourse of media and even the daily discourse of byways and church corridors. Sometimes, probably just sometimes enough, amidst the turmoil of struggling to follow Christ, a voice commands that a heart-tomb’s massive door be rolled away and life be called forth from a dry chalice, and hope be born again, proclaimed with the words “unbind him, and let him go.”
I suspect Lazarus danced, that day.
The peace of Christ be always with you.