[readings were both from NEB, but the first link is to NRSV(AE)]
Without doubt, the dominant theme for this year of 2014 has been the centenary of the start of the First World War, the Great War – what a name for it! And I imagine that most of us have learnt a lot more about it in these recent commemorative months. 100 years – it’s a long time, but not all that long. We still recognize the names on the war memorials, and lots of people still have personal connections with some aspects of it. Jill’s father, for instance, was there, in the trenches, and he suffered with damaged eyesight for the remainder of his life through having been gassed. And we have seen on our television screens accounts of many intimate memories of bravery and suffering and sacrifice, described sometimes in moving letters, which have spanned the decades and brought home to us the human story of the war.
It began 100 years ago, and four years later it ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a memorable fact that people have remembered ever since with two minutes’ silence wherever possible, on the streets, in factories, in schools etc, and of course at Remembrance Sunday services. A few years ago that practice of keeping still and silent on the day itself had virtually died out, but it’s good that in the last year or two it’s been reinstated.
A firm memory for me is that on each Remembrance Sunday for 23 years I stood facing the war memorial in Cricklade High Street to lead the Act of Remembrance. It was, as at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, as at Colwall Parish Church and as here in All Saints’ Coddington, always a moving occasion.
One year after arriving home, I wrote a poem about it, incorporating the fact that a short way away, though out of sight across the infant Thames, was our by-pass. I called it By-passing Remembrance.
No one moves
No one speaks
Many are present
Young and old
Brownies and bombardiers
Guides and gunners
Scouts and sailors
Cubs and a colonel
Mums and dads
In the High Street
On pavement and highway
Around the War Memorial
Eight names from the Second World War
Eight times four from the First
Men of our little town
With family names
Familiar among us
The Curtisses, the Giles, the Kilminsters
For two long, long minutes
Silence and stillness are unbroken
The only noise is from the by-pass
Two hundred yards away
Across the river
Unseen in no-man’s land
Vehicle after vehicle
Drivers and passengers oblivious of us
That seems like eternity
The Town Band’s cornet
Sounds the Last Post
We hear it as they heard it
At Ypres and Somme and Passchendaele
But they have also heard
The last Last Post
And the new Reveille
The present and the real
Are with them
And for this brief moment
We are with them too
In God’s today
Unreal life passes by
On the by-pass
I expect we all feel in that two minutes’ silence a connectedness with what took place, and with those men whose names we’ve heard once again. The Psalms say that in God’s sight a thousand years are but as yesterday. Well, here a hundred years seem at this service very little. It is God’s today.
One of the most memorable sights of this year has been that sea of scarlet ceramic poppies around the Tower of London. What an inspired idea that was!
In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.
Those famous words were written in May 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor. And today you could say there’s a bit of heaven in London around the Tower.
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. With its almost unbelievable horrors, with its staggering lists of casualties – 20,000 British soldiers on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme; at Passchendaele 140,000 Allied lives lost just to advance five miles – it should indeed have been the war to end all wars. But of course it wasn’t. Fallen, sinful humanity was not able to both heed and act upon its stark and plain message.
I’ve just been re-reading The Day the War Ended by the historian Martin Gilbert. It’s about the ending of the Second World War. The atrocities exposed and committed in the last few months before VE Day on as the concentration camps were discovered and people tried to cover up their crimes were again almost beyond belief.
And now another 70 short years have passed. A fortnight ago today, the Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion and Britain’s long war in Afghanistan ended. There have been some worthwhile achievements – new roads, new schools, new universities and so on. But, Afghan police and soldiers are still being killed at a rate of about eleven a day because of the Taliban insurgency; opium production, though the intention had been to radically reduce it, stands at record levels; a third of all schools in Helmand remain shut.
And all this in spite of 453 British lives lost; 13,000 or so service personnel being injured, some very seriously, and a monetary cost of 40 not million but billion pounds. Was it worth it? You cannot help but ask the question.
Why do nations go to war? Sometimes it’s to defend themselves; sometimes to defend another people or country being invaded or threatened, especially if that’s by an evil regime like Nazism or Islamic State. That’s legitimate: defence is allowable, a duty even. But the aggressors? Their motivation is a desire for dominance, a lust for power, or sometimes naked revenge for hurt national pride.
And those reasons run entirely contrary to our Christian religion. In the Old Testament the God of Abraham is the God of the powerless, the God of the widow, the weak, the poor, the enslaved. The great prophets underlined this truth: bravely they confronted all who wanted to control and dominate others for their own ends. Power, they said, is not holy. Religion is about caring for the powerless, not the pursuit of power. Notice, this is not about leadership – proper leadership is a necessary and good thing, a service. What I’m talking about is that lust to be top of the pile, to be in control, to have the most, to have others under your thumb and to humiliate them.
But remember what St Paul wrote in our second reading: Give pride of place to one another in esteem. Call down blessings on your persecutors. Never pay back evil for evil. Live at peace with all men. And the epitome of all such is of course Jesus – his person, his way of life, his teaching, and supremely his death on the cross. Just picture that cross and Jesus hanging, suspended from it. It’s the ultimate expression of powerlessness, and yet that selfsame cross has become the most powerful symbol in the whole world – a symbol of love, a symbol of forgiveness, a symbol of salvation.
On this Remembrance Sunday then, let us pledge ourselves to follow the way of the cross. It is the way of serving; it is the way of putting others first; it is the way of forgiving; it is the way of love and generosity. It is in the end the only way that can transform and make better the human situation, the only way that leads to peace.