Yesterday I had the privilege to officiate at the funeral of PC Keith Palmer, a service which was held in Southwark Cathedral. Surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues tribute was paid to a man, doing his duty but in an exemplary way. The readings in the service, which was not broadcast to protect the privacy of his family, were John 15. 12–17 and the poem ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden. This is the sermon that I preached.
In the shadow of one of the world’s best known clocks, in the shadow of a tower from which the chimes announce the passing of the hours and the days and the years, bells which herald news and mark new beginnings, Keith died, doing his duty and it was as if in that moment the clocks stopped.
In moments as terrible as that it’s as though time stops as we try to catch up mentally with what’s just happened. It’s impossible to take in the full horror in a moment, the events of less than two minutes, two movements of those hands in which the injured lay and people were dying.
Keith’s death has affected all of us, in different ways and to different degrees. But for you, his family, that stopped moment in time took away your husband, your daddy. It took away a son, a brother, it took away a colleague and a friend and the friendly face of a friendly policemen at those gates with whom someone had just had a photo taken. A moment, the passing of the hands on the clock stole life and stole so much that we’d valued and thought was safe and secure, so much that’s at the heart of who we are as a nation.
The poet W H Auden describes so well the feeling of grief, of loss, ‘Stop all the clocks’. We don’t want time to move on, how can it when time has taken from us what we love. Grief is an agony deep in the heart of us, deep where love lies, that love we thought ‘would last forever’, that timeless love, killed in time.
Auden ends his poem with a cry of despair
‘nothing now can ever come to any good’
But we can’t allow that to be true, even though every instinct we have, the pain we bear, tells us that that is how it is, now that the clock moves on, we cannot allow it to be true that ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’.
Jesus is speaking to his friends. Time for them is moving on and they’re approaching the events that we’re remembering this week, the week when Christians remember the death of Jesus, the day we call Good Friday. In an Upper Room away from the crowds he washed their feet, the Master became the servant, to teach them how to love and then into their shock and amazement he gives them a new commandment
‘love one another as I have loved you.’
He then says something extraordinary.
‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’
Keith was doing his duty, doing what he always did. Then what happened happened. My instinct would’ve been to run away to save myself, to distance myself from the danger. Keith’s instinct was to run towards his assailant and in that act to lay down his life, for his friends, but for more than that, for much more than that.
Keith laid down his life for each one of us here, and each one of you who’ve lined the streets and filled the bridges of this city today, who kept vigil last night, who gathered in the Abbey last week, who laid flowers on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square, who’ve posted messages on social media, all who cried in front of their TVs, who listened in disbelief to their radios – we are those friends, known and unknown. He died for the politicians who represent us, he died for the democracy he was protecting, he died for the freedom we treasure. In a split second he made a decision, not to flee but to confront, and it cost him everything – and none of us will be the same again.
There is no greater love than this.
This week we’ll remember Jesus being led to the place of crucifixion, a seemingly broken man. But our Anglo-Saxon forbears thought of him, pictured him, differently. A poem was written a thousand years ago, as if the cross itself were telling its story and in it the cross says
‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me. There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord, bow or break, when I saw the corners of the earth tremble.’
Not a reluctant victim but a warrior saviour, ready to lay down his life for his friends, a heroic act like a person, like Keith, doing his duty in the split second when he could have saved himself.
‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ says Auden and it must have seemed the same to Mary the mother of Jesus and his friends standing by the cross, watching, as time stopped and the corners of the earth trembled. ‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ is something you may have thought, or may be feeling.
Auden has the answer though, except he skips over it in his grief
‘I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’
He wasn’t wrong, love does last forever. Your love for Keith will last forever and the act of supreme love that Keith performed in that split second before the clocks stopped, will last forever and it will bear fruit, fruit, as Jesus said to his friends, ‘fruit that will last’.
The Christian message and the message of Easter is timeless because it’s about eternity, the forever of God in which love and life and truth and hope and goodness and peace are always victorious. They tried to kill it all as they nailed him to the cross, there are those who wish to kill what we treasure and they think they can with random acts of terror and violence, here on our streets and in Paris, Nice, Munich, Stockholm, yesterday in Egypt and in so many places, but they can’t. Because love is stronger than hate and peace is mightier than war and life is the conqueror of death. That’s why we are Christians, because Jesus rose from the dead so that we might rise as well. The fruit of Easter is eternal life, beyond time, the forever love that we’re never wrong about.
And though we may not see it now, that supreme act of love that, in a split second, led Keith to act as he did, for each of us here, will bear fruit, fruit that will last. For evil to succeed all it takes is for a good man to do nothing. This good man did something, gave everything. Evil will not succeed – it has already been defeated.