Strange things still happen in our green and pleasant land and some memories do last a long time. On Monday afternoon this week just gone we arrived in Lewes in Sussex. Lewes if you don’t know it is a delightful English country town for 364 days a year but in mid-afternoon on November the 5th we found the shops closing and being boarded up, we found all roads closed to traffic and we even saw parked cars being towed away. As dusk fell hundreds of people of all ages in a great variety of elaborate costume began to congregate in places around the town as the Sussex bonfire societies got ready for the night they wait for all year.
Processions with flaming torches, banners, effigies and marching bands started to process and wind around the town stopping for various strange ceremonies and plenty of refreshment and it all culminated in the middle of the evening with a massive march through the town centre with all these torches and banners and effigies and perhaps the most extraordinary sight of all - 17 flaming crosses held aloft in the midst of the parade.
These crosses hark back to the Marian Persecutions when between 1555 and 1556 a total of 17 protestant believers, the Lewes Martyrs as they became known were burnt at the stake in the town. That’s over 450 years ago and it’s still being remembered. Well, sort of remembered - in many ways the Lewes bonfire celebrations are now one great over-the-top fire festival, a night when a generally well ordered town goes pretty much wild for a few mad hours. Possibly not what the aforementioned martyrs had in mind as they went to face their dreadful sacrifice.
A few days later, more prosaically, I found myself in Waitrose doing some shopping. I dutifully followed the list I’d been given but as usual I fell for the buy one get one free offers so now we’ve got enough Kleenex tissues lined up to see us through the winter full of colds and two bottles of Mr Muscle standing in reserve for the next time a sink blocks up. And a receipt that says I spent about £50 but saved £5.21. Whoopee. I was reminded of a disarming comment a colleague once made, “What will you do with what’s been saved?”
It’s a good enough question in Waitrose but perhaps even better on Remembrance Sunday. What will you do with what’s been saved? You don’t need me to remind you of the folk of this and every other parish in the land who fought and died or had their lives ruined in two world wars and in too many other conflicts since. You don’t need me to remind you that military personnel continue to put themselves in harm’s way and will continue to do so. No doubt most of us know of some who have died in war and fear for others who are in the front line even as I speak. How do we honour them? How do we give substance to the ceremonial of this Remembrance Day service? What do we do with what’s been saved?
Maybe the poppy appeal slogan from a few years back gives us a hint: The best way to honour the dead is to care for the living. In our readings we heard an echo of this exhortation as Paul spoke of the believer’s response in the presence of death: stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. In remembering and caring and labouring for the greater good we honour the dead.
So caring for the living will mean different things for each of us - the first thing that springs to mind is often visiting, giving, that sort of thing but it’s not just that - our involvement in our jobs, our communities, politics perhaps, all speak of care for the living, and done well, all speak of honouring the dead and what we do with what’s been saved.
Returning to Lewes, as the evening progressed all these societies I mentioned dispersed to their various sites on the edges of the town where bonfires and fireworks were to complete the evening. In general things were getting madder and louder but we stumbled across a remarkable event by a small war memorial where hundreds of folk were assembled for a most moving and solemn remembrance service. A short homily, a full two minutes silence, a musical tribute then great poppies were picked out by fireworks - clearly someone there was working hard to bring some contemporary relevance to this extraordinary event.
Of course not everyone was paying attention - plenty of folk were anxious to get past and revel on so it was tempting to see a bit of a metaphor for those who remember and those who forget but I’m sure that’s quite unfair on an individual level. Having said that, we live in a society with astonishing prosperity and richness of choice compared to that inhabited by the vast majority of those who fought in the world wars. We have in many ways inherited treasure from those who had little.