Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney Parish on Sunday, 20th April 2008
“I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. ” John 14:2-3
My home county of Somerset was never the most prominent of places and our cricket team was never the most successful—a handful of trophies in more than a hundred and thirty years, and the first of those was not won until the club was 104 years old. I remember being at a cup match with a friend in the summer of 1980—Somerset almost won. As the players left the field, I sat staring into the space where they had been. “That’s it”, said Chris, my friend, “it’s over”.
It was over. In a few brief moments, a match that could have been won had been lost. I remember shrugging, breathing a sigh and standing up to turn for home. It was only a cricket match, but it seemed like a bitter personal blow. His words remain with me, “That’s it. It’s over”.
“That’s it. It’s over”, isn’t just a reaction to a cricket match. For many of us, it’s also a reaction to the end of life. It’s particularly the way that we as Protestants cope with things. We aren’t into emotion, we don’t like expansive expressions of sadness or grief. “Sorry for your trouble”, we say, and we move on – and that’s not a criticism, that’s what I do myself, that’s how I cope.
I used to love the English poet and writer Ted Hughes. Hughes wrote a collection of poems called Crow. There are lines in Crow that for me are often a way of coping with death.
Ted Hughes wrote,
Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
But who is stronger than Death?
Ted Hughes, in his gritty north of England way, accepts in Crow that death has been a strong power in his life, that it is been stronger than hope and love and life, but that he himself is still alive and that he is left to carry on. That sort of stoicism, that sort of grittiness is the way many of us cope with grief. “Chin up, lad. No good looking miserable. No good staring into space. Life must go on”.
We live in times and in a culture that doesn’t cope well with death, we even avoid using the word at times. Perhaps it’s because that we have become so attached to this life and this world that death becomes the frightening cancelling out of everything we think is important.
It is astonishing that people will go on television or take part in radio interviews and discuss the most intimate aspects of their private lives, but hardly anyone will ever talk about dying and grief. The one experience common to us all, and we won’t talk about it. Sometimes when you try to talk about your own grief or the grief of the other person their response will be like that of my friend at the cricket match, “That’s it. It’s over.”
Yet if we are Christians, our response must surely be more than being gritty and getting on with things? If we have friends who have lost someone after many years and who feel that the years have been a fleeting moment and who feel bereft, if we have friends who have lost someone they loved in tragic circumstances, then we have to have something to say to them. Sometimes Christians haven’t been much better than the world around in offering people any comfort or consolation. People have come to us looking for a spiritual answer to what they are feeling and we have offered a very worldly response—I have done it myself. Sometimes, for all the help that the church has been to people, we might have done better to have got them to read Ted Hughes, at least he had been through the experiences himself.
What does Jesus say to us? The opening sentences of the Gospel reading are the verses most frequently read at funeral services and through them Jesus speaks very clearly.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled”, says Jesus. Something which is much easier to say than to do. Jesus know what lies ahead for his friends: few of the people around him would ever see old age, most would be dead before they saw even middle age. Jesus knows that his friends are going to face pain and grief and loss, he knows that there will be times when they will feel utterly bereft, but they should not be troubled because life is not ending, it’s moving on. “If it were not so, I would have told you”, says Jesus.
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that our lives are going somewhere and that somewhere is where he has deliberately gone.
Jesus doesn’t say, “This is the end of the road”. He doesn’t say to his friends there in Jerusalem that they have had some good times but that it’s all over now. Jesus doesn’t say to us, “That’s it. It’s over”. He doesn’t say, “Chin up, best foot forward, life must go on”. Jesus offers infinitely more than a shrug of the shoulders and a heavy sigh and a long walk home.
There are no easy answers to the hard questions. There are no magic words that can make pain and grief go away. There is no way of avoiding the end that we all face. What we do have is hope. What we do have is a promise that there is a place for us and that we are on our way there. What we do have is the most important piece of good news in the history of the world—that this life is not the end.
“I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. “