Sermon for Trinity 6 E&B Sunday 8 July 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Philip Bevan, Evensong, 6th Sunday after Trinity
My great grandfather was a quiet, poetical Welshman, a Rectors Warden for 30 years in the same small village Church. The family farm bred and trained pit ponies for the mines in South Wales. He met my great grandmother at the Autumn Horse Fair, and loved her all his life. In his late 80’s he spent the winters by the kitchen fire looking intently into the flames, he spent his summers sitting quietly under the boughs of a favourite apple tree in the orchard, his pince-nez glasses magically perched on the end of his nose, and the big old family Bible in Welsh on his knee. As a small boy I can remember going up to him and asking him what he did all day, just sitting there under the apple tree reading and staring. “Pippin, he said, I am making my soul”! And all these years later his words still resonate in my own life and soul.
Great grandfather was preparing himself to die – to go to God. When he did die, he was laid out in the farm parlour, in an open coffin, visited by many friends and neighbours. After the Requiem Mass and funeral, he was planted like a seed in the ground, his life was celebrated at the farm with a great ham tea, crusty bread, golden butter, with Welsh Cakes, homemade wine, and much gossip. Today sermons on death are not fashionable. We tidy death away, until it comes upon us, takes us unawares – and we are shocked and frightened. However, I put it to you, “How should we regard death? – as an enemy – as Dylan Thomas saw it – and in his famous line, “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, or as a friendly companion – or perhaps as both? Is our death to be seen as a tragedy, or as healing, or perhaps both?”
First then, let us look at both birth and death: Let me start with a quotation – from T.S. Elliot because the poets are often the best theologians. This is from his poem “The Dry Salvages” in The Four Quartets: “The time of death is every moment.”
My second quotation is from the Victorian author George McDonald. In his letters he says: “Death is only the outward form of birth.”
And finally, I have a phrase from the Liturgy of St. Basil – used by our Orthodox brothers and sisters, it says, concerning Christ:
“When He was about to go forth to His voluntary, awesome and life-creating death.”
I would like us to hold fast to that phrase “life-creating death.” Death is far closer than we can ever imagine. “The time of death is at every moment.” It is not just a distant event at the conclusion of our earthly existence. It is a present reality going on all the time around us and within us. All living is a kind of dying, but in this daily experience of dying, each death is followed by a new birth. Life and death are not opposites, mutually exclusive of each other, but they are intertwined. Our whole existence is a mixture of mortality and resurrection. As Paul says: “Dying – and behold we live.” The whole of our life is a constant Passover, a passing over through death into new life. We should never think of death alone, since the coming of Christ we should always think of death and resurrection.
Let us think for a moment about our growing up. Each time we passed from one stage of life into another, something dies in us so that something else can come alive. The transition – say, from being a child to becoming an adolescent – can often actually be quite painful and stormy. There is, and there has to be a death – the child in us has to die so that the growing adult may come alive. Perhaps there is another inner death when we pass from adolescence to being a mature adult.
The secret of a true and happy life is to accept each state as it comes. To die the death we are faced with at this moment, and to live the new life that is emerging. Not to cling to the past but to live with total integrity in the present. The seed must die to itself, in order that it may bring forth new and abundant life.
Now in all these cases out of dying there comes resurrection. Not loss but enrichment, not decaying but growth. That something dies, means that something becomes alive. May not the death that comes to each of us, also fit into that pattern? May not our bodily death also be the final stage in our growth? The last and greatest in the long series of deaths and resurrections that we have been experiencing ever since the day we were born. If the small deaths in life each lead beyond death to resurrection, may this not be true of the great death that awaits us all when we finally leave this world? May this not also be the greatest Passover? We should enlarge our vision, we should look beyond our own life stories to the Christ story. We should relate the death and resurrection pattern within our own life, to the death and resurrection of Jesus our Saviour. Our story only makes sense in the light of His story. Our small deaths and resurrections are joined across history through His definitive death and resurrection.