When the programme finished, I was about to hoist myself from the chair and bid this happy trio a warm adieu when the door opened and Mrs Smith came in with a tray of tea things and a plate of biscuits of the sort that I believe are called teatime variety, and everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying, `Ooh, lovely.’ To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.
That was the American author Bill Bryson talking about his first encounter with the TV lounge of a 1970’s B&B in his book Notes From a Small Island.
It is funny how a nation can honestly believe that a cup of tea and a nice biscuit can overcome all that life throws at us from the broken heart to the ebola virus.
I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room has had their fair share of cups of tea in the recent past. Those cups have been offered for loads of reasons. Perhaps it’s because it is a welcome distraction. Perhaps, because tea is usually offered to us by someone who can’t think of a better way of comforting us in our grief. Perhaps it is another opportunity to put us in contact with another person.
I think there is something deeper. I think a cup of tea and a biscuit reminds us that we are still alive, that life goes on, that we have needs and despite the pain we feel, we know we have to carry on even when it is hard to do so.
In John 6, Jesus talks about himself in the same way as a nice cup of tea and a biscuit when he says “I am the bread of life”. He is the one who sustains us in the best of times and the worst. He nourishes us and gives us the strength to endure the ups and downs of life. He feeds a life worth living and worth remembering. He declares that death is not and will not be the last word.
He talks in this way to give hope. Hope that the pain and despair are temporary in the big scheme of things. It is hope that comes in the midst of our immediate pain and discomfort. We may not believe right now that we will feel better, that colour will ever return and that’s why we need hope. Jesus promises that he is the bread of life, not just the bread of comfort.
And life is what we are here to remember; lives that meant something to us. Lives that, I hope, we are truly grateful for having in our own lives. The funerals that make an impact on me are the ones where when I do the visit there is lots of laughter and storytelling. Yes those people are sad, but they don’t want the sadness to obscure the life they are thankful for. They want to celebrate that the life they are mourning is still a part of their lives and always will be. Thankfulness comes from living and it is often the first victim of our grief. But Jesus reminds us that life is about life.
I once visited a widow who was beside herself with grief. Her husband had died abruptly and she was angry. Why him? There are so many bad people in the world, why him? I sat and listened, unsure what to say. When she was finished being angry I realised that I was expected to give some kind of answer. I went for thankfulness. I said to her, “I know you are angry, but that anger will consume whatever good things you want to remember your husband for. So instead of dwelling on what seems unfair, dwell on what you are thankful for and see where that takes you.”
I felt quite blessed when she came up to me in the street a few weeks later and said, “I’m still trying to be thankful!”
The bread of life is our foundation for life and remembering. Jesus, that bread of life, that welcome refreshment in the midst of hard things, helps us to remember and to smile and to look forward with hope. And in that hope , we are encouraged to live lives whose stories are worth telling and whose loss is worth weeping over. In the darkness of grief we have the light of hope, we only need to recognise and grasp it.
(given at St Michael’s Macclesfield on October 5 2014)