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Is death strong? – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Is death strong?

Date/time/service: Sunday 9th May 2022 – 6th Sunday of Easter

Passage of scripture: Song of Solomon 4.16-5.2; 8.6,7 & Revelation 14-end

I have come rather late to poetry. I always liked the idea of poetry but generally found it difficult to understand. One of my heroes, Spike Milligan, used to say that he preferred poetry to prose, ‘because it makes less mess’, so I have persevered. To be honest, I am better at reading books about poetry, books where someone is helping me understand it, than books simply full of poems by actual poets. The good thing is that this interest in poetry has helped me reflect a little deeper on some of the books in the bible where some poetic techniques are used.

Our first reading today came from the Song of Solomon. An unusual book in the bible, not only because it is essentially a book of poetry about romantic love between a man and a woman, but also because in all 8 chapters there is no mention of God at all! It is assumed that it made its way into the bible because people have interpreted it to be an allegory of the love between God and Israel, and now many read it as an allegory about the love of Christ for his Church, a theme which we also find in the writings of Paul.

The Song of Solomon is full of evocative imagery. In the second chapter there is a passage about one of the first encounters between the young couple in love and this is said, ‘now the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come’. Beautiful imagery to describe the feeling of hope, expectation and new life that comes when people fall in love.

If you were taking part in a creative writing exercise and your teacher asked you to complete these phrases ‘love is strong as …..’ and ‘passion as fierce as …..’ I wonder what words you would come up with? ‘love is strong as … iron …. an oak tree …. a giant ….’ ‘Passion as fierce as …. a lion ….. a bear ….. an erupting volcano …..’ If I had never read the Song of Solomon I don’t think I would ever come up with the suggestion of saying ‘love is strong as death’ and ‘passion fierce as the grave’. Because many of us are familiar with this quotation we tend to take it for granted, but these are very strange things to say indeed. Instinctively we would think that death comes when strength is lost due to old age or illness. If we think of a grave we usually think of bleak sadness and stillness. So why did the poet who wrote the Song of Solomon describe death as strong and the grave as fierce?

It is all to do with perspective and what poets and other artists are great at, is helping us to see things from different perspectives. When someone we love dies it can feel as though they have been wrenched away from us, it can feel that our relationship with them has ended and nothing can make that right. If we think about death from this perspective the description of it being strong begins to make more sense. If we think about Mary Magdalen weeping by the grave of Jesus and if we think of funerals we have attended we probably all have experiences of people weeping and sobbing uncontrollably by the graveside. I remember one funeral I took when a mourner, looking at the floral tribute, saw one sent by someone they didn’t like and throw it over the fence into the field next door to the graveyard. If we think from this perspective we can see that graves and fierce passion are indeed connected.

So, what does all this have to say to us?

For me, ‘love is strong as death’ is at the very heart of scripture and at the very heart of who Jesus is. St Paul says ‘love is strong as death’ in this way in Romans 8.38,39

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

And, more succinctly in 1 Corinthians 13.8

‘Love never ends’.

These words from scripture and the resurrection of Jesus tell us that love is strong as death, indeed, that love is stronger than death.

It is very easy for us to get a little carried away with this way of thinking and speaking and to start behaving as though death doesn’t matter. That it is a minor inconvenience in our journey to heaven. This leads people to only want services of thanksgiving instead of funerals and balloons instead of lilies. This is a mistake. Though I firmly believe that love is strong as death and that love never ends, death is still devastating. Death often feels heart-breaking and knowing or believing that it cannot break our hearts doesn’t stop it feeling as though they are broken. Death changes everything, except the love that binds us together with each other and with God, and that change is hard, very hard to live with and to live through, even if we know or believe that love is still there.

It is Ascension Day on Thursday so the great cycle of Lent, Holy Week and Easter comes to a close for another year. In the normal course of events Lent begins with us being told, as we are ashed on Ash Wednesday, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. In other words, you are going to die one day, sort things out. It is good to be reminded as the Easter season comes to a close that ‘love is strong as death’ and that ‘love never ends’ because this is the heart of the Easter message. The whole point of these great liturgical seasons is not to simply revisit the same familiar stories and themes each year, but each year to reflect on the same stories and by so doing to deepen our faith and to grow in wisdom each time we go around the cycle. This Lent, Holy Week and Easter has all happened in the midst of a pandemic which, amongst many other things has reminded us of our mortality. So may we move into Pentecost this year more able to talk about and to think about death, not in a morbid or frightening way, but in an honest and truly Christian way which enables us to prepare sensibly for death, grieve when it happens, and all in the context of knowing that, whatever happens, we are all held in God’s love which is stronger than death and never ends ….. after all, we are Easter People.

Let us pray

Almighty God, Jesus promised us life and life in all its fullness. Help us to see that to attain life in all its fullness we need to learn to live with vulnerability, ageing, decay and death. Inspire our thinking and our understanding about life and what truly makes us who we are. Give us courage to accept vulnerability when we need to, in the full knowledge that your love and your presence with us is constant and unconditional and that when minds and bodies wear out or cease to work we remain yours, held in love that never ends. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen

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