Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 November 2015
Remembrance Sunday 2015
In the autumn of 1915 the British Army was recovering from the Battle of Loos in France on the Western Front. Advancing over open fields on 25th September, within range of German machine guns and artillery, the British losses were devastating. Poison gas drifted back over the British lines. On the following day twelve attacking battalions suffered 8,000 casualties out of 10,000 men in four hours. There wasn’t enough amunition, there were insufficient reinforcements, By the end of the day the British retreated to their starting positions, having lost over 20,000 casualties. General Rawlinson wrote back to the King’s adviser, Lord Stamfordham: From what I can ascertain, some of the divisions did actually reach the enemy’s trenches, for their bodies can now be seen on the barbed wire.
This is beyond our comprehension, and if you multiply those violent deaths on all sides by the number of years and the number of wars right down to Syria today, I think the only reaction we can truly have on Remembrance Sunday is to sob our hearts out. And if the way we do that, the way we stand as a nation in remembrance, appears a little morbid and sentimental, then so be it, if that is our way into the world of the dead and the way we acknowledge their sacrifice. It is all too easy for Christians to take a high moral view and say that there shouldn’t be wars, and that the generals were donkeys, that it was all a waste and we should have peace at any price and so on. These are not sentiments for Remembrance Sunday. Today we try to deal with what did happen, not what might have been. With God there is no ‘might have been”. Christ was crucified. If we look at what did happen, rather than what we would have liked to have happened, we can not only find room for pride in those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but we can bring ourselves into the picture alongside them and decide which side we are on.
Thomas Merton wrote in his journal somewhere that he couldn’t see how anyone could be a Christian, could have that faith without a deep commitment to Christian civilisation. I wouldn’t dare unravel the politics of the Middle East for you, but it should not surprise us that Christian communities are being obliterated, because a distorted religion of hatred, death and truncated memory – as we see in their destruction not only of life but of monuments of remembrance – those fanatics will not stand for any religion based on fragile love, a living sacrifice and remembrance. They do not mix. You are on one side or the other. It’s our turn now. We are called to the colours, to bear witness every day as best we can to the civilisation which has been preserved for us and which only we can uphold. Remembrance does not only look backwards, it carries the memory forward to inspire new generations, to link what happened with what is going to be. So at St Cyprians this morning we had the children lay the wreath at the war memorial, because the link between generations is maintained through acts of remembrance like that.
Despite our prayers and litanies, God does not always bring us Peace. Nobody moves through life untouched by pain, by evil, and by the sheer unexpected unfairness of life. But God does bring us His wisdom. God remembers, God is all creation, all knowledge. God’s wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. Coming to terms with life and death, making sense of our lives in the shadow of the senseless losses of the last hundred years, is not gaining the satisfaction of knowing the right answer, it is about gaining wisdom, going deep into the collective memory of our people and seeing the Cross. That is God’s wisdom, shining there, helping us to understand a little better those urgent messages from the past which we read in the epistles, about suffering leading to patience, and patience to endurance, and endurance leading, not to despair, but to hope. We remember, we see everywhere signs of our suffering God. The more we remember, the more we love.
Remembrance Sunday is a profoundly Christian festival. At his Last Supper Jesus said: This is My Body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this out of love for me. Do this so I am part of you today, so that you can live with my life. We enter a silence of remembrance every time we attend communion. We learn there, from the way God does things, opening up His life for us to share it, to make space in our lives for others, including those who are forever silent, and including our enemies. There is no other way. The silence after the Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. But in the morning, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember them. And the more we remember, the more we love and the greater their victory.