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January 2017

For Sarah

Stephen Tucker

When someone dies as we put it 'before their time' - we have a variety of phrases we resort to, to try to explain what has happened and to reduce our grief a little. We suggest that it was somehow meant to be, that it was his or her time, that God knows what he is doing even if we can't understand. We console ourselves with the knowledge of the years that have been. So in Sarah's case we might suggest that the twenty years for which she survived the terrible accident she had when she was 20 were somehow a gift from God.

And yet underneath it all we can't avoid the sense that we are in the presence of something tragic.  And as Christians we may have  some difficulty with the idea of tragedy in our faith. This church has recently witnessed a production of King Lear, Shakespeare's bleakest, least hopeful, and darkest play. After the performance was over, and good as the performance was,  nevertheless, clapping seemed somehow the last thing one wanted to do. Tragedies like Lear force us to think about ourselves and how we experience  the suffering of the world we live in. If Shakespeare is being truthful about such a world, then can we as Christians also be truthful  to the world we live in - even if we do so in the context of a faith in something larger, something eternal? We can't allow that something larger to help us to avoid the suffering by trying to explain it. Tragic drama shows that we can talk about loss and grieve for it together, without looking for explanation or immediate consolation and there is something deeply Christian in that.   

After the catastrophic injury just before her 21st birthday - that was  the medical term for what had happened to her - Sarah found amongst the doctors and lawyers with whom she had to deal all sorts of stories about what had happened which claimed to know her better than she knew herself. Her story was being told all the time by other people and seemed to overlook her and the identity she was struggling to re-establish. The people round her were trying to find meaning too quickly for her. For anyone preaching about her life in these tragic circumstances that is a salutary warning. Over the last few years she was at last trying to write a book about her experiences and put them into a story which might be of help to others who had suffered in similar circumstances. She was, I think, still finding it difficult to write and yet she wanted to do so because she knew that for all the difficulty it is good to try to tell the experience of pain and suffering.   

So now is not the time to tell her story for her but to picture her in scenes that are still familiar to us individually: her calm efficiency in organising visiting clergy at large services in St Paul's; the sensitive dignity of the prayer she read at Lady Thatcher's funeral; her bursting onto stage in We Happy Few, with gay abandon, waving her cane and arms in wild windmill motion, and her reciting of the speech 'All the world's a stage'; her lighting a mass of candles before a meditative Eucharist in the side chapel; or celebrating the Eucharist by the Sea of Galilee on the parish pilgrimage she led; her setting up of the Women's Bible Study Group; her generosity with her time in pastoral listening; her smile which so lit up a normally serious face.                       
As she wrestled with what had happened to her after her accident she found much help in the psalm we heard just now - psalm 139. It was for her a psalm which gave her space not to understand but still to find herself in the presence of a God who knows completely and ultimately who she is. However hard it may be for us to find meaning in the unforeseen suffering, the psalm makes it clear that God's knowledge of us holds us with the tenderness of a parent, as though his knowing is with a smile breaking through seriousness.

In remembering Sarah in this way we are doing a very Christian thing. We are not trying to explain what has happened but seeking a way to mourn appropriately. We grieve, we remember and we find a way to speak that is not paralysed by sadness.

And we do this because - as Fr Jim put it in his last sermon here - underneath the fine robes of the risen Christ portrayed in that  window above the altar where Sarah celebrated the Eucharist - underneath those robes Christ's glorified body still bears the marks of his wounds. We, the living and the departed, are all part of the wounded body of Christ, we are all part of a fragile, costly, often tragically diminished body.  And yet as members of that body we are enabled to be honest, to be angry, to be confused and doubting; but also we are enabled to see our wounds in the wounds of the risen Christ and to hear his voice speaking of Peace and sending us out to serve him as Sarah also faithfully served him; may she rest in peace. Amen.

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