Saturday, November 4, 2017

Working Through Grief: A Sermon for All Souls Day

“I look for the LORD, my soul doth wait for him, in his word is my trust.”  Ps. 130:5

My father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 54.  I was 27, working my first real job, married for a month, and completely unprepared for navigating the rest of my life without my father’s guidance and support. 

It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever experienced.  I know that doesn’t say very much compared to what many of you have endured.  But for me, it meant deep personal sadness at the loss of a man I deeply admired and who brought so much joy into my life.  It meant concern at the even more intense grief that my mother, my grandparents and my brother were experiencing.  And the experience left me feeling adrift, more hesitant and uncertain about the future, with a kind of fear in my heart I had never really known before.

I was deeply grateful that I knew I could pray for my father, with words that the church had placed in my mouth, when it was so difficult to know just what to say to God about it all.  My father died on a Sunday afternoon, and he was buried on a Wednesday.  The next Sunday morning I went to his grave, and I took with me a little volume, The Priest’s Book of Private Devotions, marked for the page for the Vespers for the Dead. 

The Vespers for the Dead are psalms and a canticle and a few collects, a version of the church’s ordinary service of Evening Prayer with the material selected with prayer for the dead in mind.  The set of Psalms build up to climax with Psalm 130, the de Profundis, a plea for God’s mercy for those who call from the depths of sorrow, and the depths of the grave.  The service dates back to at least the seventh century, and it’s used by Anglicans and Roman Catholics and other Christians too, I expect.  The liturgy is simple and solemn, profoundly rooted in God’s promises of protection, blessing and peace for those who belong to Him.  It takes about ten minutes to read out loud. 

I read the Vespers for the Dead that Sunday morning, and then every Sunday morning after it for a whole year.  I saw the flowers on dad’s grave wither and the mounded dirt settle into the ground.  I wiped the snow from his footstone and then smiled to see grass rising up in the spring.  I had Sunday duties in the school chapel where I worked, so I’d have to leave before sunup sometimes.  The pages in my prayer book are stained from the rain and the book opens right to it without prompting.  When I go back to dad’s grave, I still say the Vespers.  I don’t really need the book anymore, though. 

The words I said at my father’s grave through that long year were the same each time, but the feelings I brought to them were different.  Maybe I had experienced one of those milestones of the first year without my father, or someone had spoken of him to me.  Maybe I had seen some reminder of his love and was filled with gratitude for what a blessing he had been.  Maybe my faith had been encouraged and my hope stirred by a sermon or a hymn, and I was rejoicing that he was in God’s hands.  The Psalms have all that in them, and more, and being able to offer this back to God, and to trust that these prayers could play a role in my father’s journey into deeper union with God beyond death was immensely helpful to me.

People say that you need to work through your grief.  There’s wisdom in that.  You must learn to love the person you have lost in a different way.  You redirect your emotions and find ways of renegotiating old habits and relationships. 

There were different parts of that “working through for me.”  I talked to friends and my confessor about how I was dealing with my father’s death, and shared memories with family members about the times we had with him. I read the consoling letters people had sent at the time of his death and a book or two about the grief process and Christian hope.  But the “working through” that helped the most was driving up the hill to that cemetery just outside my home down, opening my prayer book and saying those Psalms, in words mingled with my pain and sorrow, as well as my gratitude and hope.   That’s how I found peace. 

The practice of praying for the dead can be of great value to those of us who are left behind, but we trust that it also is a blessing to those who have gone on, “through the grave and gate of death”[1] to a fuller life with God.  The Prayer Book’s catechism explains the practice this way: “We pray for [the dead], because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”[2]  It’s a careful and restrained statement.  It leaves the results of our prayers in God’s hands, trusting that He will use the offerings of our love as will be best for those who belong now even more fully to him. 

There are, of course, more technical and calculated descriptions of how things are transacted in the world to come.  But our church has found it wise to allow the veil between this life and the next to be reverently drawn.

But our prayers do testify to a solid belief that the dead are “in the hand of God” as our first lesson says.  They also proclaim that through Him our fellowship with them remains unbroken.  We pray for them because we believe that “with the Lord is plenteous redemption,” and that Christ, as he has promised will grant eternal life to those who trust in Him. 

There is one extended discussion of prayer for the dead in the Bible, in the obscure book of Second Maccabees.  It’s a controversial passage because most Protestants don’t accept it as canonical Scripture, but I think it’s very valuable because it demonstrates this point, that prayer for the dead is rooted in faith in God’s promises about the dead.

Judas Maccabeus was the commander of the Israelite army during their fight for freedom against the Hellenistic kings.  A large company of his men had fallen in battle at a place called Adullam.  And after their death, he arranged to have sacrifices made on their behalf at the temple in Jerusalem.  He and his soldiers prayed for them, not to honor their deeds, but to ask for God’s forgiveness and help. 

Above all, he prayed for them because He believed that God would keep his promises and grant redemption to His people.  II Maccabees 12:44-46 says this, “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

Is that not what we do today? We stand before God to pray for these men and women we love, but have with us no longer.  We trust His promises that they will rise again.  We know they are not perfect, but we trust that God has prepared a splendid reward for them with all who love Him.  We ask His mercy for them, and for us, to live more fully in hope in these days that lie ahead.

[1] Burial of the Dead, Book of Common Prayer (1979), 480.
[2] An Outline of the Faith, Book of Common Prayer (1979), 862.

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