All Souls: The moments when we shiver in grief

All Souls Service

Lamentations 3:17-26; 31-33
John 5:29-25

In Church of England tradition, we come together over these few days at the end of October/beginning of November for a short season of remembrance. The Church has marked All Saints and All Souls for hundreds of years. It stems from the belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and those living on earth. It is often said in my family that the dead sit at the dinner table long after they are gone.

This service offers us space and time to give thanks to God for the life and love that was shared, for the memories we carry and to ask for God’s help if we have unfinished business with those who have died. Not all our remembering will be of the good, sweet times as none of us are perfect and neither were they!

I am going to start with a quote from Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha:

“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it.
It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord.
The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver.
But it opens a little less each time, and a little less;
and one day we wonder what has become of it.”

Memoirs is the beautifully haunting story of a young Japanese girl named Chiyo whose life was a catalogue of loss, grief and bereavements. She is now an old woman and is telling her story to a writer who will publish it. Chiyo’s story is not only a story of death but of the many non-death losses we encounter in life. The loss of relationship, loss of trust, she loses her name, her status, her freedom. As she looks back on her life, she makes this comment about grief as a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver.

This speaks of the random nature of grief. It just happens, we have no control over it. Isn’t this true? We hear the opening bars of a much-loved song, a favourite program on the telly, driving by a special place, or seeing an item that would be the perfect gift for our person. Whatever our trigger is, it can bring that feeling of uncontrolled grief, the coldness and all we can do is shiver.

The writer of the Lamentations reading certainly is shivering; ‘my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is’. The person writing this book is lamenting the fall of Jerusalem around 587 BC and the horrors experienced by the Jewish people. Jerusalem was once the chosen city of God but has now fallen from grace because of bad behaviour. The enemies have taken over and the people who lived in Jerusalem have been exiled. The loss for the people is immense.

The reading we have here is about the author’s own suffering; he believes that God has deliberately marked him out and is now not listening to his prayer. His peace is gone. Yet at his lowest point he remembers God’s steadfast love, hesed. Hesed is the love and mercy God has towards his people; it is a long-term and loyal love. It is love that never ends. It is new every morning.

The writer has experienced this love, not just with his head and his heart but in his very soul, in the marrow of his bones. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ he says. The Lord is enough for him.

The bereavement that we are facing is not the whole story. It might be a very big part of the story right now, might feel like it has taken over the whole story for a long time. It might feel like you won’t ever stop shivering.

The only alternative to avoiding grief is to avoid love. If I want to avoid the grief I feel over my person who has died means I would have had to forfeit the love and the relationship that we shared.

I appreciate that many relationships are complicated. We should not pretend they are not. Some feelings about the person who has died might be mixed or ambiguous; maybe there is guilt or shame if you felt you didn’t do enough for them or felt relief when death finally came. We must be very careful in how we interpret relationships; especially ones that are not ours even if they are in the same family.

There can also be great temptation when someone dies to want to paint a rosier picture of them, their life and relationships than actually ever existed. We lie! We do it for all sorts of reasons; some even noble ones.

We might almost be able to fool ourselves but we cannot fool God. He knows what was said, unsaid and done and not done. He also knows the motivations behind our words and actions. He knows and loves them, and He knows and loves you. He knows the situation and is the only one who truly knows both sides.

That is because God has authority over everything. In John’s Gospel reading, Jesus is telling the disciples precisely this. Everyone (even him) and everything (even death) is under God’s control. He can raise the dead. This is not just the physically dead; but John is suggesting that those people who are spiritually dead. The people who Jesus healed got their lives back and came alive again.

This authority is not based in control or power or a malicious need to be authoritarian. It is the authority of love. God’s love is so great for his Son and for us. The idea is that God the loving father is showing Jesus the beloved Son all that he does and even greater things.

Those who believed in Jesus would be treated by God in the same way that Jesus was. Jesus died and rose again and so will we. The Bible does not give us very much information on what happens when we die. To die in a few places means ‘to fall asleep’.

Paul’s vision in 1 Thessalonians, which is based on what he has been taught, is that one day when Jesus comes back, those who have fallen asleep/died will be woken up. The dead in Christ will rise first and if we happen to still be alive when that happens will be caught up together. We will be together with God forever. This is the great Christian hope: that once this life is over we will be reunited together with God to spend eternity.

This is good news – death is not the end of the story. Grief is not the whole of the story either. We live in the in-between time where everything might seem withheld, you might be shivering in your grief, you make your own way through. Even in that, knowing that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, there is good news for the soul that seeks him. A new dawn will arrive.

Trinity 20: What does belong to God?

Trinity 20

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

How are you with handling tricky situations? We can all find ourselves in them; hopefully not too often. Some people are quick on their feet and can get themselves out without much fuss. They have an ability to say or do the right thing just at the right time. Many of us probably fudge our way through, praying the situation will end quickly. If you are like me, you will think of a brilliant rebuttal after the situation is over and then wish you had said whatever it is when you had the opportunity.

It is one thing to watch a politician squirm on breakfast television as they get pressed for an answer and something else to be on the receiving end of a trick question. This is where Jesus finds himself in the Gospel reading this morning.

Last week’s Gospel reading was a parable of Jesus; the wedding banquet for the king’s son, where none of the invited guests attended. This week’s reading is a real-life situation. Matthew sets these parables and events in the final week of Jesus’ life as chapter 21 has the palm-waving, triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. These are some of Jesus’ final messages; understanding this helps us to experience the urgency in the tone. This story also appears in the Gospels of Luke and Mark as well. When accounts and parables appear three times and even four – you know that these are significant!

On its face, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is about taxation. A very exciting topic! It is also a divisive topic as there are likely many different opinions on the subject in the church this morning as there would have been 2000 years ago. The Pharisees and Herodians were looking for ways to expedite Jesus’ arrest and devise their clever question to him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ History tells us that this was a trick question.
The Jews of the day were deeply unhappy at paying taxes to Rome; it was a hot topic. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered people from the other end of the world had marched into your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having stolen your land! (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, volume 2).

This question puts Jesus in a lose-lose situation; He knows that this question comes not from curiosity but from malice. In his very typical Jesus way, he responds to a challenge with an even greater challenge. Jesus takes a Roman coin, bearing the image of the emperor, and answers, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ This is not the answer that was expected.

Jesus is not saying there are two distinct realms, the religious and the secular, and that both require equal loyalty. Jesus is saying that the hated coin already belongs to the emperor, his face is stamped on it; so give the emperor what is his. There is a much harder and more complicated question to answer: What belongs to God? Everything.

From the very beginning we were created in God’s image. Go back to Genesis. As we were created by God, his image is stamped in us, we are God’s image bearers. Like the coin with the emperor’s face that belongs to him, we belong to God. We are far more valuable than an old Roman coin. This also means that we owe God everything, our whole and entire selves. It is a fairy tale to think that we can divide up the sacred and the secular. We cannot separate them when everything already belongs to God.

God knows how much tax you pay, he knows down to the last pence what is in the bank or under the mattress. More frighteningly, God knows how and on what you spend your money; along with your attitude towards it. This is not a Stewardship sermon, I promise! However, you will hear me say this more than once but the most honest document you have is your bank statement and/or credit card bill. Think about that for a moment.

These statements are recorded proof of how you spend your time and your money. If you really want to know someone, ask to see their bank statement! This is also true for a church. If I want to know what the priorities of this church are, the bank statements are very helpful.

What does it mean to give to God what belongs to God in these challenging times? How can we be God’s image bearers while families and communities are struggling, while war wages in the Middle East and Ukraine, poverty is on the rise and all the other things that are troubling us? If everything does belong to God, then our spiritual, Christian lives and our secular (political, work, social) lives must agree.

How we behave at work, must be the same as we behave at church. How we love our neighbours, as difficult as they can be, must be the same as how we treat ourselves. Whatever we render to Caesar must always take second place to what we render to God.

What is God asking of us? The words of the Shema from Common Worship sums it up rather well: Our Lord Jesus Christ said; The first commandment is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (modern day Thessaloniki in northern Greece) he expressed his relief that the church had survived some recent attacks. Paul is trying to encourage and reassure the church family to continue to stand firm in their Christian faith.

Paul lists all the things that he is thankful for; their faith, all the labour done in love, steadfastness of hope in Jesus. The Thessalonians have faced some hard times, as had Paul and Jesus. Paul is clear that there is more to the story, Jesus is trying to convey that in his parables and teaching in the last days of his life.

When the questions are tricky and the future seems bleak and the weight of the world is bearing down we can find our refuge in Jesus. He is everything. Love God. The emperors and their reigns in this world are temporary; we are to give the emperor what belongs to him. So yes, pay your taxes. Remember that God’s reign is eternal and encompasses everything. Give to God what is God’s. Give God everything. He gave everything for us.

Trinity 19: First Sunday in New Parish! Important Invitations


Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Good Morning! It is wonderful to finally be with you! Thank you to everyone who has made me feel very welcome since I moved to Charlwood and especially at my licensing service on Tuesday. Many of you will know that I am also the Lead Chaplain of Gatwick and that started this past week too. The plates are already spinning!

Part of moving and starting something new usually involves invitations. My airport email has received a steady stream of invitations to various events and meetings. I have also been extending invitations to the Church Wardens and some key volunteers to meet with me. I did notice that party invitations have been lacking – but that too will be rectified.

When we invite someone to an event, we expect a response. Preferably yes and yet ‘no I cannot attend’ is an acceptable answer. To receive no response is generally unacceptable and often seen as rude. It is often more painful to have our invitation ignored or dismissed than an honest ‘no I cannot’.

Some invitations are more serious than others and have farther reaching consequences. I received a letter this week from the Diocese of Southwark inviting me to participate in a couple of events in the first year of my incumbency. There was a lovely description of one event; I would meet new colleagues and get some core skills training on a residential course at the lovely Diocesan retreat centre. They even have two potential dates to attend, whichever suited me better.

The invitation ended with the following: The Bishop of Southwark has a firm expectation that all new incumbents will attend this programme. This is an invitation with expectation and consequences.

Our Gospel reading this morning is one of those parables of Jesus that is not so easy to understand and certainly less easy to preach about! That does not mean that we can avoid or ignore the bits that we find difficult. The parables of Jesus are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This one certainly does. Parables are also meant to show us who God is and who God is not.

Many people would read this parable as God playing the role of the king. Jesus is the king’s son whose wedding it is and the Jewish people are the guests that are invited but do not show up and then get killed for it. The people who are rounded up at the last moment, the unwashed good and bad, are us Gentiles. This understanding, while neat and tidy, flattens this story and avoids looking at what it is really about.

The other problem with this flat reading is what it says about God. Is he really a tyrannical king who kicks out the guests when they turn down his invitation to be killed in the streets while the city burns? I think not! If we believe that God is our loving Father who ultimately wants what is best for us, the idea that He is like this king is wrong.

Where does that leave us?

Jesus is comparing the invitation to the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and the invited guests did not come. Maybe we have invited family or friends over for a meal or a party and they did not turn up. Maybe they forgot, or there was a falling out or they got a better offer.

Both of these invitations have consequences; for good and for bad. This is what we do not like. I volunteered as the Police Chaplain for Thames Valley in Slough for the past 5 years. It was a fascinating role! Ultimately the police are dealing with the fallout from the consequences of people’s actions; generally the wrong ones. People resist arrest, do some crazy things not to get caught; all in a bid to avoid the consequences of their actions.

If you invite someone over and they don’t turn up; there are consequences. You have wasted your time cleaning and cooking; you have spent money on food and drink that might go to waste. Likely your feelings will be hurt at the lack of consideration and respect shown. While annoying, these consequences are not life threatening, salvation and eternal life is not at stake.

The consequences to the refusal of the invitation into the kingdom of heaven are far more severe. There is a sense of anger and urgency in Matthew’s story (maybe this is what makes this parable hard to understand). Part of the anger is generated at the beginning of the scene.

The King is throwing a party for his Son, it will be glorious and spectacular, a big celebration, people would beg, borrow and steal to get an invitation. Yet the invited guests do not seem to care about their current and future King. What should have been party time turns into a war zone. This rejection of him is both personal and corporate; they not only reject him but their share in the future nation he represents. The murderous response to the king’s slaves shows the depth and nature of human hostility towards God.

The second point of anger comes out of the sense of urgency in that the banquet is ready to start. The food is on the table and the drinks are poured. There are some cultural considerations here: invitations would have already been sent and accepted. Prior to email invites, calendars and clocks, second invitations to a feast were usual. They took a long time to prepare so it was helpful to be notified again.

The customary second invitation, this time with a specific message, is sent and on this occasion the people would not come. The people will never again get invited to a royal wedding. The invitation has been rejected. Not only do the people not come, they do not care.

The King, however, does not give up. He throws open the invitation to all. It is unconditioned, but it is not unconditional. Consequences remain. Just as the wedding guests must dress in an appropriate way for the feast; repentance and faith are needed to enter the kingdom of God.

In telling this parable, Jesus is warning his disciples against a naïve underestimation of the power of sin. Some people will experience ‘the outer darkness’ for failing to accept the invitation. Throughout the parables in Matthew 21 & 22, Jesus wants his audience that they are in real danger of passing up their chance to share in the kingdom of God. Jesus and the kingdom of God go together and cannot be separated.

If you reject the Son, you reject the Father, the King. Many of those listening to Jesus, like the invited guests, did not want to believe this.

Do you believe this? How are the churches of St Nicholas and Emmanuel handling the invitation to join in the kingdom of God? Are we extending the invitation to both the good and the bad? I ask this both as individuals and worshipping communities. Will we accept it? Will we put on the right clothes and attend?

St Augustine reflected on this passage, ‘the garment that is required is in the heart; not on the body.’

We should consider the words of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians when extending invitations: let your gentleness be known to everyone, do not worry about anything, pray and ask God with thanksgiving.

As I begin my ministry here and at Gatwick, I want everyone to know that they are invited, are welcome. Not only to church but into the kingdom of God. No one is beyond God’s reach or falls so short of Jesus’ love – despite what they may have been told or believe about themselves. I do not want anyone to be thrown into the outer darkness, neither should you.

Let us not be deceived. The invitation is there, we are all on the guest list. We need to be dressed and ready. Ready to be changed into the people God made us to be, ready to celebrate and share in the Good News. The banquet is set and ready. Are we?