REMEMBERING OUR LOVED ONES – A Sermon for All Souls’ Sunday

Preached at the All Souls’ Services at Woodgreen and Fordingbridge on Sunday, November 6th, 2016

Canon Gary Philbrick

John 14:1-6,27

The author of the Old Testament Book of Wisdom wrote these famous words:

1The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
2In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster… but they are at peace’ [Wisdom 3:1-3].

We’re here to remember our loved ones who have died, to hold before God the fact that we miss them, to remember that nothing is lost in God’s care, and to try to trust in him for their safe-keeping.  These are not easy things to do, and all of those who have lost loved ones, whether recently or longer ago, are at differing stages of the journey, and in different states of distress.  It’s a brave thing to do to gather like this, and to acknowledge before God, and with each other, how we are feeling as we reflect on the memory of those who have died.

Some people will already know that I was in Viet Nam earlier this year for a family wedding and visiting friends – and my visit happened to coincide with Vietnamese New Year, Tet, the main holiday of the year, as it is also more famously in China.

In Viet Nam, the religious tradition is mainly Buddhist, but also Taoism and Confucianism, Cao Daism and Christianity were in evidence, even though most people define themselves as non-religious.  This does not stop them from visiting the Temples several times a year – places filled with colour, statues, incense, gifts and stillness.

What was even more striking, though, were the mini shrines, in homes, shops, restaurants and other public buildings – some of them were there all the time, and some especially put up for New Year.  Each home I went in to had a shrine somewhere in the main room, and there might be incense burning, in the form of joss sticks, there might be a small statue of the Buddha, or Confucius, or the god of longevity, or the god of happiness.  There were usually offerings of fruit, or biscuits, or flowers; and, significantly, there would be pictures, photographs, of the family, of those who had died – family shrines.

A large part of the traditions of New Year is to go round visiting all of the family, including making an offering at the shrines, to include all those members of the family who have died – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents were all being remembered.  The whole family, alive and dead, are part of the New Year celebrations.

And the same thing happened as part of the wedding Tea Ceremony at the bride’s house – the families were introduced to each other, but fruit and other things were placed at near the photographs of the ancestors as well.

It is a very moving part of the practice of Vietnamese culture, and, I thought, what a nice way to remember those who have died.

Each of us remembers our loved ones in different ways.  I like to have small everyday objects around the house, which I use – my mother’s tea pot stand and my grandmother’s tea pot, my father’s waistcoat, a friend’s wine glass, another friend’s toast rack; little things around the house which make me think of the person when I use them each day.

For others, family photographs are important, or visits to the grave of the loved ones.  For others flowers are a reminder, and for some, it is just having the memories of the person with us all the time which can either be painful or can be a comfort, depending on the stage of grief which we happen to be in at the time.

For many of us, the memories we have are happy ones – but for some the memories themselves are painful – difficult relationships, unhappy deaths, unresolved endings, and so on.

Somehow, though, as we remember those close to us who have died, we are bringing them all consciously into God’s presence, as we shall do when their names are read out in a few moments, or as we remember them in the silence, and offering to God our happy memories, our love for those who have died, and any pain or unresolved issues we might have – all of these are brought into the light of God’s love, and offered to him for healing.  And as a symbol of that love and healing, and of our hope for ourselves and for those who have died, we’ll all be invited to come forward to light a candle.

‘Jesus said to his disciples: 1‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many rooms’ [John 14:1-2].  God’s love is wider than we can imagine, and it encompasses all that he has made.  Somehow, in the end, in God’s love, all of us will be together, all those we have loved will be held in God’s love.

As the writer of the Old Testament Book of Wisdom puts it: ‘1The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died… but they are at peace’ [Wisdom 3:1-3].  Amen.


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