Church of England · Felixstowe · LGBTI · Prayer · Sermon

The Souls of the Righteous – Remembering grief

The Souls of the Righteous

Sermon for Sunday 4 November 2018 – All Saints Sunday

St John the Baptist Felixstowe

Text: ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’. (Wisdom 3v1)


God give you peace my sisters and brothers

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

Lovely words, but I would much rather that ‘the souls of the righteous’ where here, now, within the reach of my own embrace.

Sometimes. Although we all know it’s inevitability, death hits home harder than usual. And when it does the promises of Scripture seem distant, weak, and do not always provide weal for our woe.

Over the last month I have been at three personal funerals, a close friend, a schoolteacher, (both rich in years) and an 18-year-old cousin. I am drained by grief.

I don’t want to be reassured that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. I want to have a pint with John Juby. I want to listen again to some words of wisdom and comfort from my old housemaster Derek Vingoe. I want to be able to encourage my cousin Jayden to enjoy his time at Oxford University. I want to hold their hands in my hands.

What use is it to me if they are close to God and I am left empty-handed?

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

Perhaps I am being a little ungenerous? The writer of Wisdom was doing something newAncestors behind youin our relationship with the departed and with God. Before these words the Jewish concept of the after-life was not that the departed went to heaven but they were remembered in the chronicles of the children of God.

This is the reason why many passages of the Old Testament consist of long lists of names of ancestors and forebears. The reading of their names brought them to ‘life’ as their family found out who they are through whom they had been. Even God does this by proclaiming to be God of ‘Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’. A God who calls out names to bring people to life. We do the same in our communion service when we follow the command of Jesus and ‘do this in memory of him’ reminding us that by saying his name and retelling his deeds, he is present with us

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

Over the years the Hebrew people, who began with tablets of stone to record their doings, moved from being wandering Arameans to settlers in the Land of Promise and their spoken rememberings became their written word. The vibrant words of the Prophets were no longer proclaimed in the streets of Jerusalem but recorded on scrolls of papyrus and in doing so, something was lost.

So, beginning with Jeremiah they proclaimed a God whose love was greater than our campfire tales, our stone-carved promises, and our written and easily forgotten prophecies. The writers of the Wisdom Literature in the Bible proclaimed a God who knows each of us and cares for each of us, even when we forget. A God who holds us long after the campfire has burnt out, the papyrus perished and the ravages of the years have worn the stone etchings away.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

FSJ War Memorial DedicationIt seems that little has changed. In this year, when we commemorate 100 years since the ending of ‘the war to end all wars’, we too have moved from words carved on stone, to lists at the back of the church. We tend a grief that hurts us to hold – yet we don’t want to let go of it for fear that we are unfaithful or unloving.

But even though we want to remember we are a forgetting people. It seems to be part of the stuff of who we are. My beloved Lesley-Anne has her birthday every year on All Souls Day, it never, unsurprisingly, varies. Every year I plan what I will give her as a gift, how I will hand it to her first thing in the morning and I always have everything ready ahead of time. Most years, I forget to greet her with ‘Happy Birthday’ first thing in the morning!

We need God to hold our loved ones because we cannot always so do. It hurts too much or we do not want to for fear of fear and grief consuming us. We are frail. We fail. We forget. We think ourselves beyond the need tend to our grief. Remembering too much means we are accused of ‘not moving on’ and of refusing to ‘get over it’. It’s not only the departed who need to be held by God but we ourselves also!

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

I have learnt these past few weeks that life is very liminal, very in-between and temporary. We think we are doing ok and then life (often in the form of a death) intervenes.

We are a temporary people. As I compose each year the list of names of those to be remembered at our Service of Hope and Remembrance I think of those whom I have cloud of witnessknown, whose names are easily remembered by me. I think of those whose names we remember on behalf of others, where a person is named to help heal the grief of another. And then I think of the time when my own name will appear on the ‘list at the back of the church’.

I suppose for a few years the words ‘Andrew Dotchin (priest)’ will be said with fondness, and then after that a few more years with duty, and then perhaps even longer simply because of the word ‘priest’ and not because of my own name at all. And then a future vicar will, hopefully with tenderness and a prayer, remove my name from the list and I will no longer be remembered…

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

We worship a God who both remembers and forgets. Our faithlessness and sinfulness are forgotten and washed away by the blood of the one we remember Sunday by Sunday and we, regardless of whether our name is on a stone monument or a church list, are carried safely in the hand of God to become part of the ‘Great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12v1) to become cheerleaders to those who have not yet made it all the way home.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.

Yes, I would love to have one more pint with John Juby. I would really appreciate some more gentle words of wisdom from Derek Vingoe. I wish I had got to know my cousin Jayden better. I would love to be able to hold their hands and hug them. But, as Job said in his despair and grief, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’ and that they and I ‘at the last shall see God alive’ (Job 19v25-26)

They are safe. We are safe. As safe as our poet patron reminds us again and again;

Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee[i]

Safe in the knowledge that whatever happens all of us are remembered, and being held in memory and so live forever.

The last words spoken to Jesus before He died was by a man who, having failed at living, asked to be remembered in his dying. Jesus did not hesitate, ‘today, you will be with me’

Jesus remember John and Derek and Jayden. Jesus remember Nell from Grange Road who died last week and our loving gentle fellow worshipper Joan who died on Friday. Jesus remember those whom we remember. Jesus remember us, and even, please Jesus, remember me for indeed ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’.

[i] Felixstowe: The last of her Order by John Betjeman

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