Sermon for Bereavement Service.
(Ecclesiastes 3, 1-8; Matthew 11, 28-30)
Some of you may know the story of Oscar Schindler, the Czech /German business man, who saved over 1000 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his factories. Most of us know about him through the Steven Spielberg film, ‘Schindler’s List’.
The part of that film which I find most moving comes at the end, when it suddenly turns from black and white into a colour film. It is the scene showing the survivors of Schindler’s List and their children, placing stones on Oscar Schindler’s grave, after he had been declared by the State of Israel one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations ‘ – the Jewish equivalent of a Christian saint.
In placing stones as a symbol of remembering a person or an experience, those Jews seemed to be following an instinct that goes back a long way in human history. We read in the Old Testament of the patriarchs like Jacob, setting up stones to mark the places where they encountered God, or where significant people were buried. The Celtic peoples, too, followed the same custom. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, you will find stones carved in the shape of crosses, marking sacred spots, and piles of stones, or cairns, often at the top of a hill, to mark the place where someone died climbing, or fell in battle.
Somehow the placing of stones seems to symbolise both the heaviness of remembering, and the necessity of letting go. So I want to suggest to you that today, you make in your mind a cairn, a mound of stones, in memory of the person you are here today to remember; and let each stone that you place represent some emotion that you may have experienced as you have mourned them in this last year or so. As you place each stone on your cairn, look at it, then ask God to share the weight of it with you and help you to let it go.
The first stone you lay down will undoubtedly be grief. If you lost your loved one fairly recently your stone of grief may be sharp, like this stone, and cause you pain as you handle it.
Other stones may represent feelings that give you pain as you pick them up and look at them. These are the stones of painful memories, guilt, regrets for things done or left undone, things said or left unsaid. Many, many of us also feel anger at the death of people we love, especially if the death was sudden, or premature, or the result of accident or violence.
You may feel that rather than placing this stone quietly down, you want to throw it at someone – at the person you feel responsible for the death, at the doctors, at relatives and visitors who say the wrong thing, or even at God.
Don’t worry if this is how you feel; if you need to let your anger out at someone, God is far better able to receive it than most humans. A comforting story I once read tells of a man who went to hospital to visit his sick daughter, carrying a gift of a chocolate cake. When he got to the ward, he was told by the nurse that his daughter had suffered a relapse and died. In anger he went down to the hospital chapel, where earlier he had knelt to pray for his daughter, and flung the chocolate cake at the crucifix.
Robert Llewelyn, who tells the story comments “May we not say that he who bore the nails found it not that difficult to absorb a chocolate cake. And it could be that in that little chapel there was poured out the resentment harboured secretly for so many years, and that God, who knows us so much better than we know ourselves, welcomed the outburst as breaking up hard and fallow ground, making it possible for the waters of healing to flow and the seeds of new life to germinate”.
These sharp and painful stones will probably be the first you set down, and will form the bottom layers of your cairn.
In the natural world, stones become smoother, like this one, worn down by water and contact with other stones. If it is longer since the person died, it is possible that your stone of grief may now be like this, not so sharp, worn down by the passage of time and the water of your tears. But you may still, from time to time, feel its heaviness in your heart.
Other smooth but heavy stones will represent a number of emotions you may have felt in your time of mourning; perhaps anxiety or panic, numbness or restlessness, depression or fear. You may have been weighed down with tiredness, the experience of sleepless nights, a sense of helplessness or apathy; you may feel the heavy weight of loneliness, and the constant reminders of your loss as you go through familiar routines, and have to change your habits.
We all experience bereavement differently, and some of you may now be past the time when these feelings weigh you down. Others of you will still be feeling them. But when you are able to let go of them and set them down, I hope you will find there will be other, lighter stones to place on top of them.
Hopefully, among them will be bright and shining stones, like jewels which reflect light back to you. These stones represent the gifts given to you and skills taught by the one who is gone, and happy memories of experiences shared. These will be the stones which crown your cairn, and when they are placed there, you may be able to revisit your cairn, and see only them; and seeing them there, you may feel that you can leave your cairn, and turn from mourning into new life.
In our reading from Ecclesiastes, the preacher tells us that there is a time to collect stones, a time to build, a time to mourn; but that a time comes also to throw away stones, to laugh, to dance, to live again. Only you will know when that time is, when your cairn of mourning is complete.
You will need to choose in your imagination, where you build your cairn. For myself, I know that my cairn would need a firm foundation lest it collapse, and the stones hurt me again. So I would always begin my cairn in a place where I find Jesus – because as the Scripture tells us, Christ is the one sure foundation stone on which we can rely.
Christ says “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy stones, and I will give you rest “. Christ invites us to lay our heavy weights on his shoulders, and he will bear them with us; Christ invites us to build on him as we would on a firm rock; and he assures us that what we so build will never collapse around us. All these images tell us that God in Christ is not outside our grief and pain, but there in the middle of it, bearing the weight of it alongside us.
In a saying recorded in a gospel that is not part of our Bible, Jesus says “Lift up a stone, and you will find me”. As you lift the stones to build your cairn of remembrance, may you find there the Christ who gives us hope that death is not the end; who gives us faith that life is eternal; who gives us joy in the assurance that love lives on, and even death cannot erase it; and casting all your cares on Christ, may you find peace.