Today we have come to remember those whom we love but no longer see, those we mourn, those whose memory brings tears or a deep longing for their presence amongst us. Those we cannot imagine learning to live without. Our focus is one of death and sorrow, but as Christian we also focus on life and hope which bring about the ultimate defeat of death.
Many years ago, I knew a man called Brian. Brian had been born with extremely bad eyesight, and when laser surgery was made available to the masses, Brian had his eyes treated. After his surgery he said the most remarkable thing was that he had never understood the concept of a horizon, but suddenly he could see the horizon, and it was so much further than he could have ever imagined. This evening I want to express death as a horizon. Brian’s horizon was expanded into something he had not known possible after his sight had been healed, because a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
The horizon looks further from up high, and so it is the case in a small churchyard in Dorset, perched high on a cliff above the sea. There you can read an inscription on a gravestone from Psalm 139, one of my favourites “If I spread out my wings towards the morning or dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me.” Never more was an inscription so apt as that one for a grave on the very brink of a cliff top! And yet, I imagine, it brings great comfort to all who read it for it tells of God’s leading and protecting presence, even right at the furthest edges – our horizons. This affirms that we are journeying not to the sunset but to the sunrise; that death is but a gate on the skyline.
The horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
But if that comforts us with the safe resting place of those we love being beyond our horizon, and with God, yet we are still left with the terrible pain of losing them. As the three of us read the many names out in a moment, rather than it being a long list to be ‘got through’ each and every name represents a grieving family, a moment when people heard the terrible news, tears and pain. We will treat these names with infinite care because we are holding your precious loved ones’ names as we read them. We’re told by St John that Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and I find that reassuring, because it’s very human. Death hurts. All of us here know that deep pain. There is no magic wand, potion or solution for that pain. We can only huddle together as God’s family, comfort each other, celebrate our memories, and trust that our beloved dead are safe. We will never forget them, but we need to learn to let them go, trusting in God’s ultimate promises that they will be safe.
And so we learn to give them back to God, the God who first gave them to us. Yet, just as God did not lose them in the giving of them to us, so we do not lose them by their return to God. Not as the world gives does God give, because what He gives, he doesn’t take away. As my friend Jane said the other day, the amazing thing about love is that you just keep making room for more of it. As children, grandchildren, godchildren are born, and friends made, our love just multiplies. This is just as it is with God, he creates us from love, for love, he gives us to others to be loved and to love, and then he gathers us back to himself; the very creator of love which is God.
So today we celebrate the lives of love that have brought us to this place, and we recognise that we need God in both death and life. The hymn Abide with me was written by Henry Lyte, a vicar from Brixham, Devon, who was nearing death from TB. His message was just this – nothing can separate us from God’s love, and there is never a circumstance when we do not need God’s presence. I pray that you feel God’s presence this evening, and in your whole life, I pray that you are reassured that life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is indeed only a horizon, and horizons are only the limit of our sight.
I pray that God would lift us all so that we could see further, that he would cleanse and heal our eyes, which are swollen with weeping, or which have grown dim with yearning.
Cleanse our eyes that we might see you more clearly Lord and draw us closer to you so that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with you. And while you are preparing a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where you are, we may be also, for evermore. Amen.