All Souls’ Service 2017


All Souls’ Service of Remembrance 2017

Job 19:23-29 – Revelation 21:1-7

Do you remember, before we had computers and speech recognition software, we had pens? We still do, of course. The art of pen-making is fine one, and good pens can fetch high prices. Most people would accept that a computer could cost a thousand pounds, but would think that spending that kind of money on a pen would be extravagant, even profligate. Yet the pen is one of the most valuable inventions of humankind; it is one of the most powerful tools we have; everyone should know how to use one, and to be denied the right to do so is an injustice many tyrants have discovered. A pen is an instrument of freedom, of self-expression, a purveyor of truth and a spinner of lies, and one strike of its sharp nib can bring death and destruction to individuals and communities. The pen, as the playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton put it in his historical play Cardinal Richelieu in 1839, is mightier than the sword.

Of course, the pen itself has no moral value whatsoever, any more than a computer or knife does: it is what it is used for that matters. History has taught us that the potential of a pen for good or evil is very great, and so a pen is one of the most potent artefacts one can possess. Whether it is a cheap biro, or a diamond-encrusted hand-made designer fountain pen we hold in our hand, doing so connects us to almost all of history. The armistices of 1918 and 1945 were signed with a pen, as were the death warrants of Mary Queen of Scots, King Charles I and Louis XIV; as were the Tudor Act of Succession, the Treaty of Versailles and the formal withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Martin Luther penned his ninety-five theses 500 years ago this week, and the first Magna Carta was handwritten and then sealed in 1215 (the Magna Carta was not actually ‘signed’ as such by King John, by the way, rather he placed his seal upon it). Any visitor to the British Library in London can visit the room in which are displayed these and others of the most significant documents in history, almost all of which are handwritten.

Among the items on show include the original manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, in the composer’s handwriting. In it you would find an aria written for solo soprano entitled ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. It is almost as famous as the preceding ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, and its text is from the book of Job and is the one that is usually read at the burial of ashes, here at St Mary Magdalene’s and elsewhere. And we heard it read again just a few minutes ago. It is a pertinent passage from the Bible because it speaks of one’s name being inscribed in a book and of a stone being engraved with an iron pen. And it is poignant because an engraved stone marks the grave, recording the name of the deceased, and the dates between which they breathed the air of planet earth. It is perhaps no coincidence that the word engrave, contains the word grave.

It is an iron pen that Job desires for the engraving of his name, and while a gravestone can now be cut with a laser using a design on a computer, the underlying desire and plea are the same: “Oh that my words we written down”. Job is not generally associated with hope. His story is about how God allows Satan to taunt and torment him, heaping upon him numerous sufferings and trials, yet through it all, he will not relent and curse God. This passage comes as part of Job’s response to his so-called ‘friends’ who goad him to give up on God, but he will not. Nor does he ever do so, despite the hideous sores and discomforts that are heaped upon him. Rather he declares that he knows his redeemer lives, and that at the last day, even after his body has decayed, Job will see him face to face. For he believes in justice, in the reward of heaven and the consolation of eternal hope.

Job is an example to us all. His desire for an iron pen to write with lead in the stone is the complete opposite of writing in the sand. With Job we know, like the Psalmist that: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103:13-16). This Psalm forms the basis of the hymn we began with – ‘Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven.’ There is a central verse which our hymn book sadly omits, which reminds us of every burial:

With words from Psalm 103 is goes:

Frail as summer’s flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
Our God lives unchanging on,
Praise Him, Praise Him, Hallelujah
Praise the High Eternal One!

These are words often read at the graveside or crematorium, and you may recognise them. Yet rather than write our words in the sandy dust, we might, like Job, yearn for an iron pen, so that even though the bodies of our loved ones are gone, the words they have spoken, the words they have written, and the deeds they have done, will be remembered from one generation to another. That isn’t only done with a pen on stone, but with the love they have engraved on our hearts.

So too with salvation, which, while it can be attested to in pen and ink, is also not to be found in the words on the page, but in what is written in the heart. For the redeemer to whom Job looks in hope, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Word incarnate. Christ who is the Word, is written on the page of time for evermore. It is he in whom we put our trust, he who has no gravestone, he whose passing through death into resurrection life writes the story of our future hope and our names in the book of life. For he is our redeemer whom we shall see on the last day.

Until then, may all the faithful departed rest in peace, to rise in glory. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 29/10/17