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All Saints, All Souls and a Taxi Driver

Ordinary Sunday 31: 4th November, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

This is a bitter-sweet time of the year for my family. It was my sister's birthday on Thursday. Clare would have been 47 this week, but she died in a climbing accident in 1997; the year Princess Diana died. It still makes me sad, but now after 15 years it seems somehow fitting that we give thanks for her birth on All Saints Day and then the next day pray for her soul on All Souls Day. On Friday a small group of parishioners and some visitors gathered here at St Peter's for the All Souls High Mass. Our Musical Director, Andrew, had gathered an impressive choir to sing a setting of the Mass by the French composer Grabriel Fauré (1845-1924). It was the most moving of All Souls masses that I have had the privilege of celebrating at. Although small in number, we were truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and it brought many of us to tears.

In your pewsheet you may have seen a Mary Oliver poem that I included in my Vicar's Musings this week. It is a beautiful reflection on grief and loss, fitting perhaps for this time in our church calendar. I'd like to read it to you if I may:

About Angels and About Trees

Where do angels
fly in the firmament,
and how many can dance
on the head of a pin?

Well, I don't care
about that pin dance,
what I know is that
they rest, sometimes,
in the tops of trees

and you can see them,
or almost see them,
or, anyway, think: what a
wonderful idea.

I have lost as you and
others have possibly lost a
beloved one,
and wonder, where are they now?

The trees, anyway, are
miraculously, full of
angels (ideas); even
empty they are a
good place to look, to put
the heart at rest — all those
leaves breathing the air, so

peaceful and diligent, and certainly
ready to be
the resting place of
strange, winged creatures
that we, in this world, have loved.

Death somehow brings life into a sharper focus. Our gospel reading today presents arguably the sharpest focus possible of both the Jewish and Christian faith. Jesus' time of death is approaching. Opposition to his ministry is growing. He is being repeatedly tested by the authorities who want to get rid of him. A scribe approaches him: "which commandment is the first of all?"

Jesus replies with the Shema, a text from Deuteronomy that Jews for centuries have placed in a Mezuzah — a container nailed to their doorpost — to remind them of each time they leave and enter the home what is really important in life: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

He then adds a second commandment, from Leviticus. In this book of the Law it sits next to a seemingly trivial rule about not planting two different types of seed next to each other or making garments from two types of material. It is a commandment that probably sums up what many of us would consider to be a cornerstone of Christian faith: "you shall love your neighbour as yourself." It is as simple and as hard as that.

I could say a great deal theologically about this Great Commandment, but a story I came across probably sums it up best:

The Taxi Ride (author unknown)

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I walked to the door and knocked.
'Just a minute', answered a frail, elderly voice.
I could hear something being slowly dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knick-knacks on the mantelpiece. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

'Would you carry my bag out to the car?' she said. I took the suitcase to the taxi, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
'It's nothing', I told her. 'I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated'.
'Oh, you're such a good boy', she said. When we got in the taxi, she gave me an address and then asked, 'Could you drive through downtown?'
'It's not the shortest way,' I answered.
'Oh, I don't mind,' she said. 'I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice'. I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice. 'The doctor says I don't have very long.' I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.
'What route would you like me to take?' I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as a secretary. We drove through the neighbourhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring out of the window, saying nothing. At the first hint of dusk, she suddenly said, 'I'm tired. Let's go now'.

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the boot and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
'How much do I owe you?' she asked, reaching into her purse.
'Nothing,' I said. 'You have to make a living,' she answered.
'There are other passengers,' I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. You gave an old woman a little moment of joy today,' she said. 'Thank you.' I squeezed her hand, and the orderlies pushed the wheelchair towards the entrance to the hospice. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.


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