A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on November 4, 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Song of Songs 8
Death is the biggest taboo in our culture, because death is the stripping away of everything that matters. The loss of breath, of our body, of relationship, of consciousness, of memory, of hope, of identity, of capacity, of strength, of life, of love. To die alone and outdoors is all of these things, but with some added pain. It’s additionally the loss of dignity, and the loss of all human connection.
Death poses the most disturbing question of all. And that is this. Is life, is this energy and activity and awareness and thought – is all this the most real thing? Or is there something, deep down, beneath it all, that is truer, more permanent, more eternal than life – something called… nothing? It’s the most troubling question, because if nothing is more real than this something, then everything around us is no more than a kind of long-term illusion, a perpetual mirage – which is here today, and perhaps tomorrow, but gone the next day, never to return. It does your head in. It makes you wonder if the reason people keep busy is to avoid ever thinking something like that.
And it’s this question that’s at the heart of the Christian faith. And the strange thing is, tucked away in a relatively obscure book in an unfindable section of the Old Testament, lies the answer. Here in Song of Songs are the five words that sum up Christianity. ‘Love is strong as death.’ Or, some say, ‘Love is stronger than death.’ When all things are said and done, and death has done everything it can do, there’s still love – fragile, maybe, battered, certainly, but abiding, nonetheless. Life is more than nothing. Notice how, just before those words, we read, ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’ The central moment in the Christian faith was when a man more or less had those words tattooed on his arm and went to die in such a way that his arm was exposed to the world. And he died homeless. And practically no one was there, besides people mocking him.
And what his death proclaims is what we’re gathered here to affirm. Which is that, however bleak death can be, however isolated, sad, forsaken and neglected a death can be, however much a death like that can seem to obliterate life and relationship and hope and everything, at the end of time, love is stronger than death. It’s just five words. Love is stronger than death. I’m guessing it’s the motivation of most of those who support people experiencing homelessness. It’s the conviction underlying this service. It’s a mission statement for life. It’s what we’re saying by taking a name and cherishing it for the next year. It’s not something to shout. It’s something to whisper. It’s a way to live.