All Souls 2016 ~ Genesis 7 - Romans 8:18-39
Just under 2 weeks ago I watched a programme all about loneliness. Perhaps you saw it too. It was late on a Monday night, and it followed a documentary about the Aberfan disaster. You’ll no doubt have followed the half-century commemorations of that in the news in recent days - Carl Jenkins wrote a wonderful cantata and Prince Charles visited the town. Last week, it seems, just as fifty years previously, we were all Welsh. We had solidarity of spirit, of memory and of grief with that small mining community whose youth were destroyed. ‘Never ask for whom the bell tolls’, said the former Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, ‘for it tolls for thee’. And what he meant, of course, in a poem that might make us twitch a bit this year, is that no-one is an island - no-one is completely independent - when tragedy strikes any of us, it strikes us all. It’s something worth remembering as we watch the nightly news from Syria too.
The famous poem goes like this:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
So, as we gather here, in the shadow of the anniversary of Aberfan, and with Donne’s words ringing in our ears - like the bell tolling even, we might console ourselves that we are not alone - that there are many of us in the same boat - not so much adrift at sea, but rather joined to the greater continent of Europe, which Donne uses as a metaphor for the whole of humanity. So there was an irony - or perhaps it was deliberate - in the BBC scheduling a programme about loneliness after a challenging documentary about the injustices served on the grieving people of Aberfan. Because, of course, the people who are most lonely, are those who grieve.
Others are lonely too, mind - and it was striking to see who: students, divorcees, people who have lost their jobs - but in all of this there was loss. Loss causes loneliness, of various kinds. I’m sure you know what I’m saying.
Some of the people in the programme spoke of how they have kept busy, joined clubs, made new friends, and of course enjoyed the support and company of sons, daughters, grandchildren and family. But it’s never the same. No-one can give you back what you’ve lost - or who you’ve lost. So the loneliness is just there - it just is. It is not that the bell tolls for thee, but rather, it the bell tolls for me.
The documentary left it at that, really. There was no note of hope, or glimmer of light, or sense of journey for anyone. It was simply a factual presentation involving people who were willing to talk is out being lonely. One man said he had agreed to be interviewed because it meant he would have some company from the TV crew. But there was no hope or solution offered.
Simultaneously, you might not be surprised to hear, there was no spiritual dimension to any of the stories told. No-one was a church, or mosque or synagogue-goer. No-one spoke of fellowship with others, or the solace of faith. Which made me wonder whether this was a deliberate omission or an inadvertent oversight. Or a symptom of the complete and utter marginalisation of faith today.
And yet, at this All Souls’ time, thousands of people gather in churches, just like us, to remember loved ones, to give thanks, to look around to see who is in the same boat as them and to inch forward on that slow journey away from utter loneliness. This service is a kind of ark, in which we gather to navigate the sea of loneliness and loss, and we do it, not two by two, but one by one. But we are one by one together. And as we sail forward slowly, we are sailing towards them, in that other realm where reunion in love is far more than a possibility. It is more than a possibility, it is a reality born from hope. A sure and certain hope - the same sure and certain hope into which we commended our loved ones at their funerals. The sure and certain hope of resurrection life in our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rise again for us. Thus is our Christian hope, for us and for our loved ones, and it points us forward, away from the loneliness of loss, to the hope of future love.
They say you can’t take anything with you when you go - well, that’s true - but nevertheless you can take love with you when you go. And that love is there, waiting, just around the corner. This is why Henry Scott Holland, in that so often quoted letter to his wife, was able to write:
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.
Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Most people stop reading there. But Henry Scott Holland, did not finish there. No indeed, he had a few more lines to add, without which his poem lacks comfort or hope – hardly makes sense, in fact. In the letter to his wife, written in order to ease her inevitable loneliness, he carries on in these words:
Nothing is past; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before only better, infinitely happier and forever we will all be one together with Christ.
‘We will be one together with Christ’, he says. This us what this famous passage means. In death, as in life, no-one is an island, and in resurrection life, no-one is lonely.
So, if you are lonely sometimes - and of course you are - inject a bit of hope. Think of the nave of this church where you come to light a candle - nave, means ship - the ark, in which we gather one by one. And think of this ship as bearing you on a journey of hope - hope for now, and hope ahead. And be comforted in your loss and solitude, because we are all here for each other, not only today, but every week. And every time we meet, under this roof of our ark, our Lord Jesus is in the midst of us. And also when we go from here - he us always ready to hear us when we pray, whether that be in grief, loneliness or despair, or even in hope, comfort or joy.
So may you be blessed with the deep joy of hope, and the comfort of faith, today and every day.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 30/10/16