Death and new life – a sermon preached by Mark Ward at Hale on 18th March 2018
There’s no two ways about it, the gospel reading today isn’t full of joy although it does end with Jesus offering hope to those who follow him. Why isn’t it joyful, because it’s about death. It is said that there are three topics to keep away from avoiding conflict, discussions that talk about sex, politics or religion, but I’d also add another which we don’t like to talk about – death. It’s a paradox in many ways because it is the one thing that we will all end up doing at some point, so in many ways it is the most normal and natural thing, but the logic of that argument doesn’t take into account the things that make us human – relationships, love, trust, reliance on each other – all the stuff that comes from the heart. Whilst it is completely normal when it happens it hurts because all the stuff of relationship is lost and the greater the relationship, the more it hurts those left behind.
I make no secret that when my great friend Andrew died just over 3 years ago, I struggled for months. I ended up finding someone I could talk to about it because I could not come to terms with it. That made me feel guilty at the time – he was my friend, but he wasn’t my husband or my father, what right did I have to feel so lost? I came to realise with help that it isn’t the level of relationship that regulates grief; it’s the depth of it. Andrew and I clicked at a level where we had a deep trust of each other. He enabled me to sing in public, he was there as a sounding board if I needed one and I for him, and we both loved single malt whisky in equal measure but I suspect the latter wasn’t the root of our relationship. It turned out he wasn’t “just” a friend, he was everything a friend could be, and I was poleaxed by his loss. So whilst death is an everyday occurrence it is far from simple to deal with when it happens to someone you are close to.
I don’t know if it is the case or not, but if we spoke about death more, perhaps it would be less scary. But is it also the case that if we really told each other what our relationships mean we might feel more comforted when we lose someone. How often have you heard someone say “I wish I had told them that…”, or “I never got so say…” I have no idea if the British are more reserved than other nations, but we do seem to have a tendency not to express our feelings good or bad. We don’t whoop like the Americans, we don’t wail when in deep distress like many eastern and African people do. Just think about the last disaster you witnessed on the news in somewhere like Egypt, husband, wives, mothers, wailing in deep, deep anguish, but that isn’t our way is it. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry” we often hear when someone breaks down during a eulogy – why – why do we feel ashamed to show our grief?
So when the Greeks came visiting Jesus I suspect they were somewhat taken aback when he started to tell them he was about to snuff it. They had heard of his miracles and the amazing things he had done and suddenly he started to talk about his death. I wonder what their reaction was?
But he wasn’t just talking about his actual death I don’t think, nor just about anyone’s actual death. He was also talking about the loss of opportunity when we fail to grasp it. A plant grows, it produces fruit and seed and it dies – it has gone, yet if we plant the seed next year and it grows then the old plant lives on too, its death has brought life. How often do we cling on to something which is only just about alive because we are too frightened to let it go and replace it with something which will bring so much more.
Through my dealings within the deanery I am involved in working out how we re-use the ordained post that we release at Hyde which has been gifted to New Milton. It was clear that the post at Hyde whilst doing good, could never have the impact that it can have in New Milton. So we worked out how to look after Hyde, Harbridge and Ellingham differently, and in effect the post of vicar died.The plan is to start a new resource church in New Milton – a church plant and use the now dead vicar’s post as the person who will lead this new church, but we had to let one thing go to start another.
The reason we can start a resource church in Milton is because two other deaths already happened. St Swithun’s church in Bournemouth had closed, first as a CofE and then as a free church. It was empty but it was surrounded by many students and young people. Holy Trinity Brompton, the founders of Alpha took a leap of faith, took the building on and sent some of their people to start a renewed church and now in its fourth year it has over 600 mainly young people worshipping every Sunday. A short while later St Clement’s church in Bournemouth was also about to close. Its congregation of a few older people had decided they could no longer continue. St Swithun’s was asked if there was any way it could help and so they planted into St Clement’s which is still open and now has over 100 worshippers each Sunday. But there is a twist to this. St Clement’s still had that small faithful group of older people and the people from St Swithun’s knew their brand of worship wouldn’t suit those people, so as well as introducing all the new stuff, they honoured and kept the existing and they even increased the number of times the existing was available, so now that church which was at death’s door is flourishing and still giving life to those who had remained faithful to it. Whilst it didn’t die, it took the congregation to decide that their way of life might have to go if survival was to happen.
So what do we cling onto – a job we can do but we don’t enjoy, a relationship that isn’t all it should be, a house that costs us every penny we earn but which isn’t a home, material stuff so we can keep up with next door, but which doesn’t make us happy. And why, mainly because we are afraid of letting it die because we don’t know how that will make us feel and we fear change and we fear loss even though whatever it is might be causing us pain – “better the devil you know”. I don’t tell you this to make me look good, but when I left HSBC several people I knew who I thought were really fulfilled and who had big houses and nice cars, who I thought might judge me, came up to me and said “I wish I’d had the courage to do that because what I do really doesn’t fulfil me” and I was shocked.
So back to the reading – if Jesus hadn’t died, our slate wouldn’t have been wiped clean, we would still have the relationship of the Old Testament people with God, a vengeful God who visited retribution. But it’s not like that for us is it – we can mess up time after time after time and ask to be forgiven and we are, but what pain did Jesus have to endure for our sake? New life was given that day, Christians were born as we now are because Jesus put away the bad stuff and bargained for us a new relationship with God and as a result, as it says in the reading, “the ruler of this world”, what we might call the devil or evil, became less powerful. Yes evil still exists but we have the power in God to overcome it.
And personally – what should we let die so we can spring forth new life – what conversations should we have to make dealing with real death more bearable? What should we do as a church? It is said we are slowly dying, so what do we let go, and what do we dare to do instead. Do the maybe 500 or so of us that make up the worshippers in Avon Valley need 7 churches, no we don’t, but can we bear to part with any of them – for that is like a death. Buildings are very important, they witness to the world that we are here, they hold memories of changes in our lives, baptisms, weddings, funerals and much more, but at the end of the day WE are the church and it might be that we need to define ourselves differently in 2018 to 1818 or 1518 if we are to do God’s work in these places. I’m not suggesting it has to happen, but I do think it’s a conversation we should have, death and all its trappings are difficult to deal with, especially if we can’t bring ourselves to talk about them. But if we can what amazing things might happen as a result?