All Souls’ Day (Year B)
The Rev’d N.J.A. Humphrey
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
2 November 2015
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” So famously writes St. Paul in words many of us know from Handel’s Messiah. “For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.”
And yet, Paul doesn’t exactly fill us in on the details. All he knows is that we are to give thanks “to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But for those of us who mourn, it is often difficult to give thanks for that victory when we neither see nor feel the evidence of it.
All of us here tonight either mourn the loss of those dear to us, or stand in solidarity with those who mourn. Those of us burdened by acute grief want to know: what do I do with my grief? And those of us who stand in solidarity with you want to know: how can I best demonstrate my love and sympathy in your sense of loss?
For those of us in the midst of grief, I was reading the reflections this past week by a preacher who wrote, “People ask me, When will I get over it? The true answer is You will never get over it. What would it say about the life you had shared for years if you could somehow exorcise it and set it aside? You cannot get over it, but by your prayers, your tender recollections and your thanksgiving for the life you had together, you can turn your sorrow into something wholesome and strong.” He goes on to advise those of us who mourn, “Pray for the repose of the soul of the one who has died. Talk out loud to that person if you like. This is perfectly normal and a natural, loving thing to do – for remember both living and dead are still in the presence of the one God.”
Both the living and the dead are still in the presence of the one God. We often forget this, but it’s true. For, as he writes, “Without God’s continuous presence, we here on earth would have no being. And whatever the form taken by those who have gone before us, they too enjoy that form only because of God’s everlasting love for them.”
On the other side of things, we who mourn may have negative feelings, particularly if we have “unfinished business” with those who precede us in death. Sometimes we feel guilty because we didn’t do more, or never said we were sorry. Nothing haunts a person like the death of an estranged family member or former friend. But in the words of this evening’s Canon of the Mass, when we die, “life is changed, not ended.” Because the Church proclaims that the living and the dead both continue in the presence of the God without whom existence is impossible, the good news is that it is never too late to say you’re sorry. Likewise, it is never too late to accept that as those who were estranged from us draw nearer to the presence of God, God will draw them to that place of forgiveness towards which we ourselves, by grace, are being drawn. We are forgiven by them just as fully as God in Christ has already forgiven us. Of course, it is sometimes difficult to embrace this truth, which is why the Church provides the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession.
And for those cases in which the deceased person has wronged us, and we find it impossible to forgive, the Church provides other means of grace to help us heal from our wounds, assuring us that one cannot force oneself to forgive someone unless and until one is ready to do so. For cases such as this, the doctrine of purgatory is a salutary one, as it posits the reality of a state of existence for the dead whereby the wrongs for which they have yet to take responsibility can be atoned by Christ in a way that is both just and merciful. Purgatory is also a hope-filled doctrine for us who have not yet died, as it assures us that when this mortal life is ended, our ability to grow in grace and love is not suddenly cut off. Life is changed, not ended.
For those of us who stand in solidarity with those who mourn, our task is to realize that it is our capacity to be available more than our ability to have all the answers that is most valuable to people in their time of need. “Behold, I tell you a mystery.” St. Paul himself recognized the limits of his knowledge, seen “through a glass, darkly,” as he writes elsewhere. When those near to us are grieving, it is not our duty to provide answers, but to mediate God’s loving presence. “The living and the dead are still in the presence of the one God,” and the presence of the living in the lives of those who mourn the dead communicates God’s presence in a way that words cannot. This is why it is so important to remember those who mourn not just in the weeks after their loss, but in the months and years to come. And when another person’s grief threatens to overwhelm you, as it sometimes does, when faced with unanswerable questions, an honest “I don’t know” is better than any platitudes you can dredge up in that moment of awkwardness. “I don’t know, but I am here for you.” “I don’t know, but I am with you in prayer and support and love…and lasagna, too, if need be.”
What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians he writes to us who stand in solidarity with those who mourn: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” We are not expected to have the answers, just to be “steadfast.”
Of course, the hope is that at the end, we will all come to a place of thanksgiving for those we love but see no more, when the smiles come more readily than the tears at the thought of our loved ones. For it is when we come to that place of thanksgiving that we can join St. Paul in proclaiming, “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
 http://www.st-michaels.org.uk/Sermons%202008/Sermon%20All%20Souls.pdf This sermon is presumably by The Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen, who was Rector of St. Michael’s, Cornhill in the City of London, UK in 2008.