‘Since you went away’: Grief and Loss

IMG_2538Throughout Lent, these sermons will be following themes drawn from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, which was released in cinemas around Christmas last year. It is not necessary to have seen the film and the DVD release date is now later than originally thought when this plan was put together. So we’re not able to show it as hoped. Each of the themes is a stand alone, so it is not vital to catch each one if for any reason that is not possible. During the week there is an opportunity to come together to talk about these in a Lent group. The venues have had to change because of the Parliamentary Recall Petition using St Luke’s, but I think we now have them settled. The leaflet has been updated if you would like a reminder. Today we begin with the first of these themes: ‘grief and loss’.

The film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ takes us back to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the family home of the Banks family. Michael and Jane Banks, the children in the first film, have grown up. Michael married and has three children: Annabel, John and Georgie. Jane lives elsewhere but calls by to check all is well. It quickly becomes clear that Michael’s wife, Kate, has recently died and so Cherry Tree Lane is not a fun place to be. There is deep sadness. Everyone misses Kate. Added to this, Michael is not coping well and has got behind on the repayments on a loan he took out with the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank – where his father used to work. Remember that incident in the first film with the tuppence and the ensuing panicked run on the bank?

Michael is up in the attic looking through boxes stuffed with memories and personal items. He comes across Kate’s jewelry box. He holds it as if a sacred box, one which forges a momentary link across a great divide he can’t span, the divide of death. He sings about how they’ve not spoken in awhile, things are in disarray, the magic has vanished since she went away. Winter is gone, but not free from the room, the cherry blossom is gone too. The deep question he then poses, with a heart-rending sigh, is “where did you go”?

It is a moment of the long pain and aching of grief, the ‘long silence’ as Henry Scott Holland calls it in his long sermon on death, the silence that tells us that death is not nothing at all. It brings the pain of loss and grief, of yearning and aching, of an emptiness when the love has been so deep and strong, and nothing can fill it. Where did you go?

Some years ago I conducted the funeral of a young man who died in tragic circumstances. His father found him hanging in his bedroom. When it came to putting an inscription on the gravestone, their first request included words about wanting to go up to heaven and bring him home. The yearning was so strong, they wanted him back and who can blame them. But wanting to bring him home are not words of Christian hope, so not ones for the gravestone, though I understood fully how heart-felt they were. A gravestone in a Christian churchyard is not just a memorial but also offers a witness of hope to others who chance upon it. A different sentiment is needed.

Where are they? What happens when someone dies? Where does the person we knew go to? These are questions asked so often and there aren’t any easy, neat answers that really cut it when the grief is raw. Actually, those who ask are not really looking for a deep philosophical answer, full of rich theology. This is a cry of the heart in anguish and grief. It is a question, though, that takes us to the heart of our Lenten reflections; death and hope are key themes for Lent. This is a season that begins with a reminder of mortality with the marking of the ash on Ash Wednesday and the words ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. We are dust, made of the atoms and fabric of creation. That tingles with the life of God, but it is fragile, vulnerable and temporal: it comes to an end, and all of us must and will face this.

When we wonder what happens at death there are two competing views. One draws on Greek thought and one on Hebrew thinking, and they are different. The Greek tradition, which has similarities with Viking myths of Valhalla, is the language of passing, of continuity and souls leaving the body to go on a journey, with or without the paying of ferrymen. This is a view which thinks of us as being immortal and eternal. The life we have is permanent, even if the flesh is not. The Bible puts over a very different understanding, though you will hear the other view very frequently in churches and see it on gravestones all over the place. If you look hard you may well find it in memorials and gravestones in the church. But it is not actually what Christianity affirms because at its root it sells us short. There are passages in the Bible that can sound like this, but actually they are saying something very different and crucially more hopeful.

The great New Testament writer St Paul was not actually interested in eternal souls. He was more bothered about how heaven and earth had met in Jesus Christ and with this a new Kingdom had been brought about. This created a new way of being and so we touch the eternal in living in tune with this kingdom, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. In his great passage on death in 1 Corinthians 15, just a couple a chapters on from his great hymn to love, so popular at weddings (1 Corinthians 13), Paul uses the image of a seed. When you look at a seed and then look at the flower or plant it becomes, the difference is enormous. It is beyond imagining. He uses this as a symbol of transformation. God loves us too much to leave us as we are. We are changed, as Charles Wesley put it in his hymn, ‘from glory into glory’. The body and life we have after being dead is completely different. Resurrection is a new life after the state of being dead, not just after or beyond death. So a new realm and a new way of being is on offer, which goes into a very different state, one which leaves us with questions and puzzlement now. This is redemption. We are not left as we are and I, for one, know that is needed.

Jesus tells one of the criminals crucified with him that today he will be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43) and his disciples that he will prepare a place for them in one of the rooms in his father’s mansion (John 14:1-3). This is no mere walking through a door into another room. The general trajectory is one of transformation, new life, not continuing life. The hope held out to us is something that is far better than we can imagine. We imagine what we know, what we have, what is good and what is loving. We want more of that, much more. Just another day… and another… and another… The hope offered to us is that the God who brings life out of nothing, out of the strange cosmic soup which flings atoms and elements across space, which brings them together so that there can be a spark causing life to generate, this God keeps hold of that life and values it in a way that draws it into his very heart, for it is from there that it came. God is our source and goal, beginning and end.

So the short answer to Michael Banks’ question, “where did you go?”, is into the heart of God from whence you came. New life, resurrected life, is a transformed existence, because there are things about us that would be better not carried into eternity. And who knows if we meet others again, are in any state to do so, or even if this important to us? It can be a comforting thought in the emptiness to think we do, but actually that’s not the point. The point is that the life we have comes from God, belongs to God, is best lived for and in God, and so ultimately can only exist and be held in God. In that, in Christ, we are gathered and united with all people, for the hope is shared, and whatever that means in reality will be just fine.

“Where did you go?” Where we all belong, in the heart and life of God. That is the hope of life, of death and of new life in Christ.

Sermon for Lent 1, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th March 2019

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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