A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

The time for the lighting of candles has come. Time to remember our loved ones who have died. What do we bring as we walk toward the bowls that will be home for a little time for the lights that will flicker there? Love, certainly, grief, gratitude, memory? And we bring the stories, stories that we have shared …Stories of ones we have known all our lives perhaps, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. Stories of ones we have known so closely, husbands, wives, kindred friends … those who nurtured our faith. …Stories of children, those stories that we struggle so terribly to place in trust in God’s dear hands.

As we light our candles, we remember, perhaps, conversations, kind gentle conversations, conversations as tables were laid and dishes washed, times we told and retold those most treasured stories, …do we shudder still at the times we spoke harshly or in irritation, for they did annoy us at times, they did, …yet, do we miss even that? We remember, perhaps, the quiet times, the walks in our favourite places, in the bushland, by the seashore, the times we looked for wildflowers or particular shells, or watched the children play. Were we those children, did the ones for whom we light our candles watch us play?

As we light our candles, perhaps, we remember the meals. How they cooked our favourite meal for birthdays or when visitors came or just to bring joy when tears had been shed. We might remember that every Sunday – or every Friday – we had the same meal and the sameness of it held us almost in their arms, secure and loved, knowing each week it would come, we would all be there.

As we light our candles, we come, perhaps, with the words of scripture ringing in our minds.

We heard this evening our choir sing Psalm 27:

One thing have I desired of the Lord, which I will require 
 even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit his temple.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle 
 yea, in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me, and set me up upon a rock of stone.
And now shall he lift up mine head …

This is the place to light our candles, in the house of the Lord. As the psalmist says, we come here to see God’s beauty, in a cathedral God’s beauty in wood and flower, glass and stone, in word and sacrament, in the presence of one another. We come here to “hide” in times of trouble – and what does this hiding look like? Is it about escaping a time of trouble such as the grief we feel for those we love who have died – is it about escaping … I don’t think so. I think what the psalmist says when he speaks of our hiding in God is about, firstly, our resting for a little time in God’s love and, then, about telling God our truth. Prayer, I think, is about telling God the truth. The truth of who we are, how we are, this moment, in this place. The truth about who we are, how we are, as individuals and families and communities and nations. Prayer is telling God the truth.

And here, in our ‘house of the Lord’, we bring God our truth about our dear souls, our truth about those we love who have died, our truth about the blessings and struggles of loving them, living close to them, being with them as they lived and being with them as they died. Our candles mean all these things – to us and to God.

And as the funeral service says, we are also reminded about our own death, the truth that one day we, too, will die, and we might ponder the fact that those who love us might be here, in years to come, lighting candles in memory of us.

On Friday, three of us gathered in the memorial garden to inter the ashes of a lady for whom the cathedral meant a great deal. Shirley suffered from crippling rheumatism and had not been to the cathedral for over ten years but she was rung each month by Alison from the pastoral care team and, as she was dying, Alison and I and her family prayed with her and Frank anointed her. It is such an earthy service and one could find it very bleak – that these few ashes are all that are left. Ashes to ashes, don’t we say, dust to dust, as we pour the ashes into the ground in the shadow of the memorial cross in the garden. But we remembered that God created the dust, and God gave the dust life, and God gathers the lives so loved into God’s life when we die. And, as we interred Shirley’s ashes, we read the words that we heard as our second reading tonight.

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
(1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

It is very true that this is indeed a mystery. As one scholar[1] said, though, when words of poetry or hope are said they cannot be unsaid, and when St Paul writes these words, God gives us, though the words, a glimpse of a truth, a mysterious truth, that death does not have the final say, that God’s love will make newness even here, bring life even here.

And so we come to light our candles, in the shadow of the Pascal Candle, sign of Jesus’ overcoming of death, sign of Jesus’ spirit with us. We bring our love and our memories and hope and we offer them to God.

As we leave this place, we might remember what the psalmist says, that we will be set upon a rock of stone, we will, even in grief, be made strong and safe, and God will lift up our heads, and help us walk away reminded by the flickering light of the candles that our dear souls are held in the great love of God.

[1] Walter Brueggemann