I'm never much good at Remembrance Sunday. Born in 1960, WW2 seemed very close as for my parents it was their first adult reality...My father had served in the Royal Navy, my mother in the WRNS, and neither of them had any romantic illusions about the ways of war. Remembrance Sunday was sad and dark, for all the ranks of old comrades who turned out at church wearing their medals. It frightened me then, and it still does in some ways, as we get swept up in a process of remembering that can never breathe life into dry bones.
This year a series of glitsches and communications failures compounded the problem for me, so it is only to ensure that I don't spend all night sitting editing that I'm posting this here. I'll preach it, if my courage holds, at Remembrance services in both churches. I don't think it's much good, but I know it's all I have in me to say tonight...
I think it's in Perelandra that C.S. Lewis has his protagonist, Ransome, begin an act of courage thus
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - here goes!"
I think that may well be my approach tomorrow morning.
IN July the media was full of comments, thoughts and reflections on the death of the last British soldier who served in the First World War…Harry Patch.
He had reached a remarkable age – 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day but what he represented was something still more remarkable.
He was, if you like, one of our living war memorials…someone whose own life experience summed up the truth that we still struggle to learn, that though heroism is wonderful, though desperate situations often call forth amazing acts of sacrifice and generosity, in the end it’s hard to find anything positive to say about war.
Here Harry speaks for himself – voicing an opinion to which he’d surely earned the right. He delivers without hesitation the lesson of the trenches
You used to look between the fire and apertures and all you could see was a couple of stray dogs out there, fighting over a biscuit that they’d found. They were fighting for their lives. And the thought came to me – well, there they are, two animals out there fighting over dog biscuit, the same as we get to live.
I said, ‘We are two civilised nations - British and German - and what were we doing? We were in a lousy, dirty trench fighting for our lives? For what
It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War – Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it.
The night we caught it, we were in the front line and we were going back. We had to cross what was the old No Man’s Land. It was crossing there that a rocket burst amongst us. It killed my three mates, it wounded me.
September 22nd, half-past ten at night. That’s when I lost them. That’s my Remembrance Day. Armistice Day, you remember the thousands of others who died. For what?
My own father, who saw action with the Royal Navy in Burma, took a similar approach. It wasn’t til after his death that I discovered that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross…I never knew because he fiercely resisted any attempts to persuade him to talk about “his” war. If pressed he would say that the reason he and his friends fought was so that my generation and those that came after would not HAVE to remember. He wanted us to be free of the shadows that had darkened his childhood, adolescence and then his twenties as well…
But the news today tells a sadly familiar story of young men dying violently in a conflict they did not initiate.
This doesn’t in any way reduce the importance of what we are about today.
It has been truly said that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them and we need to stop and think, with humble gratitude, of all those who gave their lives and those who are still giving their lives today, because they believe that there are things worth fighting for.
So, though I don’t like to do so, I think I’d disagree with my father.
I believe that remembering matters, because we can’t afford to miss the lessons of the past. But I think we’ll learn more from them if we look at them in the light of the gospel reading that we’ve just heard
It doesn’t make comfortable reading, but that’s not unusual with Jesus.
He tends to stand back from our human predicaments and speak of another way, and when we’re up to our necks in the current situation, that’s not easy to deal with.
If he’d preached these words standing in No Man’s Land, in the Flanders mud…If he’d offered them to the troops in Helmund province earlier this week…I can’t think it would have ended well. They might even have crucified him.
But for all that, we need to hear him, even if he seems to make no sense.
He says, after all, that people are blessed (that means happy) in the most unlikely situations
Blessed when they mourn…Happy in their grief…
How about that as a contradiction in terms – and not something I would ever dare say to a war widow, as she confronts the pain of her loss
Blessed again when they are persecuted for the sake of what is right.
But it can be so hard to define right in this sort of situation…when it seems to be more a case of “least wrong”
Blessed as the victims of lies and slander, of bullying and persecution…in war, we are told, the truth is often the first victim because it matters that stories are told in the most politically helpful way.
Blessed as the unsung heroes who do all in their power to bring about peace….but who might find themselves ostracised as conscientious objectors, or mocked for promoting compromise at a time when the popular approach is to literally stick to your guns.
Actually experience suggests that these people might not feel very blessed at all…but perhaps that’s the point. Jesus is celebrating the fact that those who dare to step outside our everyday expectations, to look at life in a radically different way are already living with one foot in heaven, and stand as signs of hope to us.
After all, the greatest victory that has ever been won in the world was that moment of complete abandonment that looked very like defeat when Jesus was executed as a political prisoner, a troublemaker who needed to be silenced.
That’s the way to ultimate peace and happiness…but it is not, as Jesus makes clear, a way that the world will easily understand.
So we need to carry on remembering..To wear our scarlet poppies with pride and gratitude but perhaps, also, to consider the message of the white poppy that speaks of peace.
For today pride and pain walk hand in hand. We would not be human if we did not, like Harry Patch, remember with pain. We would be sadly ungrateful we did not remember with pride.
But as we gather, we need another ingredient too…and it’s one that we can recognise in our gospel reading – for here, in that string of blessings, Jesus offers us hope
Those who live according to the unpopular principles that he preaches are already living with one foot in heaven, even as they make their way through life on earth.
So we began with a living war memorial but let’s end with living sign posts..
Sign posts created in the lives of those whom Jesus calls blessed.
Living sign posts to show us a different way, and so offer us hope that one day we will be free of the shadows of war, as we strive to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.