Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Sunday - a Tale of Two Soldiers

Probably the Sunday that is most challenging to preachers...certainly the one with which I unfailingly struggle. This year I'm grateful to Revd Anne le Bas, whose words on St Martin I've borrowed verbatim.

The eleventh day of the eleventh month. For almost a century now, a day for remembering the courage and the suffering of those caught up in war...A day when communities across the world stand in silence as a tribute to those who gave their lives in the cause of peace.
Remembrance Sunday.

But even before we reached today, 2012 has been quite a year for Remembering here in our churches. Along with everyone else in the country, we celebrated the Queen's Jubilee and looked back at the 60 years of her reign, but beyond that we had our own celebrations, as we marked the 175th birthday of this church. We reminded ourselves once again that a church is never really about the building...that it should be built of “living stones”. Some are the people who have gathered to worship here week by week, some those who've passed on the faith across the centuries – men, women and children with whom we are linked because they, and we, are part of God's great family.

So today I'd like to share with you the stories of two very different soldiers...both worthy of remembering with admiration. As I do so, I'm conscious of the thousands of untold stories.  I could have chosen any number of soldiers to talk about...but I've chosen two. 

The first is very much part of OUR history. We've not produced any Prime Ministers nor Nobel Laureates in the parish – but we do have our share of heroes to remember...the names of some were/will be read out during this service, but there are many many others, among them a local lad who won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry that any British service man can hope for.

Eugene Paul Bennett was just an ordinary boy from an ordinary family. fanfares of trumpets greeted his birth here in Cainscross on 4th June 1892, and his parents sent him to nearby Uplands School, where he must have worked hard as he won a scholarship to Marling. This was before the days of free education for all, so most ordinary children did not go on to secondary school at all. Eugene, though, was one of the lucky ones.

Except, of course, that he wasn't lucky at all. He was one of that generation born at just the wrong moment, the generation that found itself plunged into the war to end all wars...And like most of his contemporaries, Eugene signed up to serve King and Country...And was posted to France.

Most of us have some idea of what he will have met there...the fear, the pain, the sound of shells, the scream of wounded men and animals.
That kind of hell was the new normal. Once again, Eugene was just part of the crowd as he learned to fight, side by side with his friends – more ordinary people confronted with a world that nobody had dreamed of, even in their worst nightmares.
And then, one day, Eugene did something extraordinary. It was on 5th November 1916....but the bangs and flashes that filled the air at Le Transloy, France, were the sounds of war and not of fireworks. He was put in command of a group of soldiers, whose job was to compete an attack after some of their friends had almost failed. There were many casualties, and the commanding officer had been killed
The official report recorded

Lieutenant Bennett advanced at the head of the second wave and by his personal example of valour and resolution reached his objective with but sixty men. Isolated with his small party, he at once took steps to consolidate his position, under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from both flanks, and although wounded, he remained in command, directing and controlling. He set an example of cheerfulness and resolution beyond all praise, and there is little doubt that, but for his personal example of courage,the attack would have been checked at the outset.
An ordinary man in an extraordinary situation...Doing his job calmly and cheerfully in a situation of great danger and fear.
An ordinary man, but a hero all the same.
The first of our two soldiers.

The second was remembered on 11th November for centuries before that Great War in which Eugene was decorated for his gallantry...because today is also the date on which the church invites us to remember St Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier, born about 300 AD – and for many years he, with St George, was the patron saint of all soldiers.
This might be a little surprising, because, in contrast to Eugene Bennett, Martin was notable for REFUSING to fight from the moment he became a Christian.
He too was serving on a battlefield in France, where the Roman army was fighting the Gauls when he turned round to his commanding officer and announced
"I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight."
His commanding officers accused him of cowardice, but to prove them wrong Martin volunteered to stand unarmed on the frontline the next day, facing certain death. His superiors were very happy to let him – that would show anyone else who had similar ideas what the result would be. That night, though, the Gauls unexpectedly surrendered, and Martin was spared. He left the army and eventually became Bishop of Tours, in Gaul, and served the very people he had refused to fight against for the rest of his life. There is a famous story that a few years before he left the army, Martin had come across a beggar, shivering in the snow by the city gates. He took his precious military cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar. The beggar was very grateful, but the crowd around him ridiculed Martin who now looked pretty silly in his half-cloak. Perhaps Martin himself wondered whether this gesture had been a stupid one, because that night he had a dream. He dreamt he saw the courts of heaven, full of angels arrayed in splendour. In the middle of them all was Jesus, but he wasn’t dressed in cloth of gold but in that half-cloak Martin had given to the beggar. “He is not even baptised yet,” said Jesus, “but Martin has clothed me with his own cloak.”  Martin was reassured and his faith strengthened, but he learned an important lesson that day; sometimes the hardest actions to take aren’t the ones which threaten your life, but the ones which threaten your dignity, which lead to you suffering mockery and misunderstanding for the sake of others.

Two ordinary soldiers who stood out from the crowd.
Two ordinary soldiers responding in different ways to the challenge of war...One decorated for his courage, the other coming perilously close to a court martial.
I'm not standing here to say that one was right and the other wrong...but rather to remind you that courageous service comes in many forms. Those who bear arms to protect our freedoms exercise one, very demanding form of courage, and we recognise, honour and pray for them as they do so, but it isn’t the only one. The frontlines of the struggle for justice and true peace aren’t just in Afghanistan and the other trouble spots of the world, they are right here in our own communities, towns and cities, workplaces and homes, and the battles we really need to fight often can’t be fought with guns and bombs.

War doesn’t come from nowhere; it grows from small wrongs that are not set right, resentments and prejudices which are allowed to take root because no one thinks it is their job to challenge them. We tend to divide ourselves into soldiers and civilians but the truth is that everyone is a part of a great struggle in which the soul of the world is shaped, whether we like it or not. Each of us is called to battle, whatever form that takes. Wherever we see people treated unjustly,
naked, hungry or homeless, excluded or hated without cause, we are on a frontline, a place where the war will ultimately be won or lost, and each of us will bear some responsibility for the outcome. 
The struggle is neither long ago nor far away. It is not a fight that others must engage with. It's one for ordinary Eugene, Martin, you and me. We all share responsibility for making this world better. We're not here for long – but we do need to make a difference.

In this service, as whenever we gather as God's family, we will pray the Lord's Prayer...
Together we will ask that God's Kingdom may come – that kingdom of justice and joy, love and peace – but as we pray, we must also, always, be ready to become the answer to our own prayers.
So today let us remember and then let us be transformed by our remembering, and resolve to take our part in bringing in God's Kingdom.


Still Breathing said...

The older I've got the more I have become unsettled on Remembrance Sunday. It is too easy to slip into patriotism or the glorification of "valour" at the expense of those millions who have died in wars since the beginning of the 20th century. I'm not saying you have done this just pointing out my worry.

Kathryn said...

Oh glory, Hugh...I do hope it doesn't. I struggle with Remembrance Sunday more than anything else in the liturgical year, want to wear ONLY a white poppy and find myself deeply uncomfortable throughout the proceedings. I was hoping that in contrasting Martin with Eugene, I was showing that there was another way.....

clairealcock said...

Great talk, well done you.
Encouraging to know someone else finds this hard too.

Still Breathing said...

Kathryn, I didn't mean you had but I was still a bit sore from a service ending with the National Anthem and I Vow to Thee My Country. The problem is it is a day when people who don't usually come to church turn up and expect something patriotic even if "the regulars" would be happier without that slant. How do we meet those visitors where they are instead of imposing our views on them.
I remember an occasion at the Baptist church I used to attend when a visitor got upset with the young man in front of him not showing respect to God by wearing a baseball cap in church. What the visitor didn't know was that young man not only came each week but was the deacon who ran the youth work!