I find it very difficult to preach on Remembrance Sunday. We honour and remember those who gave their lives for their country in time of war. What can be said about it?
You know, of course, that Remembrance Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and Belgium, and barely a family in this country did not lose somebody. Both my grandfathers were involved in this war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost both its sons. Indeed, many families did lose all their sons – it was a hard time.
Those of you whose roots are in this country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started, and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job organising the invasion of France. And so it goes on. There are things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next generation.
But then, my generation grew up with the threat of the atom bomb over our heads; we knew, no matter how much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.
And, of course, during that time there was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Peace is very rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.
Of course, once we had got past 1989 and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something wrong with this picture.
But then, people forget. There is a saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them. And we all know how true that is. Each May, we were on holiday on the Plateau de Vercors, in the Alps above Grenoble. There is a village there, called La Valchevrière, which is nothing but ruins, except for the church. The village was destroyed by the Occupying Power in the 1940s because they were harbouring members of the resistance movements, and sheltering Jewish people. It has been left in place as a monument to the French Resistance, and as a reminder that nothing so dreadful must ever be allowed to happen again. Fine – until you remember the “ethnic cleansing” that has been going on in Bosnia and Serbia only a very few years ago. People forget, and the worst sort of events of history are repeated.
And so the saga continues, war and terrorism – for the boundaries are very blurred; don’t forget that today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s honoured freedom fighter, depending on who wins. At one stage, having been imprisoned for terrorism was almost a sine qua non of being a Prime Minister of a newly-independent country! War and terrorism, terrorism and war, then, continue right up to the present day.
So, we wonder, where is God in all this? What have all these events to do with God? Or, indeed, why, as Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the other side; well, we know that, don’t we – look at that poor young man shot dead at Stockwell Station last July who turned out to have been totally innocent. Shoot to kill policy, forsooth!
It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus. But he also said that there would always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even while we know we will be unsuccessful.
Robert and I visited New York less than a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed. We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at its height?
Anyway, the first Sunday we were there, we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out to be a Lutheran Church. And I’m so glad we went – the people there were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England. They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had happened, and that the future was very uncertain for all of us, yet they knew, too, that God was in it with them.
And God is in it with us, too. Whatever happens. God was there in the trenches with those young men in the first War; God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked planes, too. God was there on the Underground and on that bus on the seventh of July this year.
We, who call ourselves Christians, sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism – it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
But we must do all that we can to make peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of this campaign in Afghanistan are; I don’t know whether our government is right or wrong. I do know, though, that people are suffering, through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in London and Jerusalem, and other places where they lost loved ones. They are still suffering in Iraq. They are suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their faith – and, indeed, in places where Christian people are attacked in predominantly Muslim areas.
War causes suffering. It is never noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.
And our Scripture readings for today,especially the extract from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, remind us that we totally don’t know what’s going to happen. Robert and I drove through Tavistock Square about twelve hours before that bus blew up in it.... and who knew, on their way to work that summer morning, that they wouldn’t get there, and that for some, life would have changed forever in the worst possible way? If we knew when the thief was going to come, Jesus says, we’d make sure to lock the house!
St Paul reminds us to put on faith and love for a breastplate, and the hope of salvation for a helmet – he rather likes his military metaphors, I notice. But we do need to know that we are enfolded in God’s love, surrounded by faith – both our own faith and, on those occasions when that faith falls short, the faith of others in our church, other Christians – and to know that we do believe, at least most of the time, that this life isn’t all there is, and that God is in control!
And the story Jesus told in Matthew’s gospel reminds us that we are expected and required to use those gifts that God has given us in His service. Those whom we honour today, “the fallen”, the ones who were required to give their lives in the armed forces, maybe they didn’t get a chance to use their gifts. Maybe those who have died in terrorist attacks didn’t get such a chance. Certainly those who were taught that it was their duty to die for God, rather than to live for him, they never got a chance. But we have that chance – let’s take it! We don’t know what may lie around the corner.
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