Remembrance 2009 - A sermon for Remembrance Sunday based on Mark 12: 38 - 44
There's something very different about Remembrance Sunday this year. Last yeat at the Cenotaph in London, wreaths were laid by the last three survivors of the First World War to live in Britain - Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and Bill Stone. In the year that has followed that occasion all three of these venerable men have passed away. With them has gone our direct link with that dark conflict. And doesn't something seem to be missing?
And yet reminders of conflict are all around us. This year we have commemorated the 70th anniverary of the beginning of the Second World War, a war that exposed the lie of the First World War being a war to end all wars. And furthermore the story has gone on with a host of smaller yet often deadly conflicts since 1945. And today do we not see so often on our televisions those pictures of dead soldiers being brought back from Afghanistan - more lives cut short, more families broken.
Today we are a nation that remembers. We remember those who showed great heroism, sometimes giving their very beings to save their comrades. We remember the selfless deeds in which thought of others triumphed over the instincts of self preservation. But also we remember those for whom conflict brought out their worst qualities, those who have or should have regrets.
We remember not just those who died but those who suffered dire consequences to body or mind and those who live with the awarenes that loved ones are not as they once were. We remember those who through conflict have lost the love of their lives, the children whom they had brought up or even the parent on whom they depend.Far from glorious this is stomach churning, mind wretching stuff.
Yet we remember. And we remember not only as those who pay a debt of honour though we do that. We remember as those who know that only by remembering that of our story which pains us, can we truly move forward learning from the past as we seek a better future.
I am sure that we can both learn and be challenged by those who have experienced dark times. I have this past week been reading Harry Patch's "The Last Fighting Tommy." It is the story of in many ways an ordinary man from the outskirts of Bath who was plunged into extraordinary circumstances. Amidst the sheer inhumanity of circumstances around him which included the Hell that was Passchendale, Harry seeks to do what is right. There is a description of his unease at killing when faced with an oncoming German shoulder rather than shooting to kill, he shoots at the shoulder which makes the German drop his rifle. As the German continues to come forward Harry shoots first at knee and then at ankle, commenting on this;
"I had about five seconds to make the decision. I brought him down but I didn't kill him."
Yes Harry knew all too well the horrors of war. We see it in his description of a dying British soldier whose pertinent last words were "Mother." No wonder after long reflection Harry Patch comments;
"War is organised murder and nothing less."
But what does our Gospel have to say regarding the Hell of passcendale, the beaches of Normandy or the present day horrors of Helmand Province? Certainly Christians have always known despite criminal episodes in Christian history, that war is contrary to the desire of God expressed in Jesus. Historically there has been a debate between the pacifist tradition which dominated in the early church and the "just war" tradition that emanates from Augustine a little later. Either way war is that which should where humanly possible be avoided even if a debate on permissibility itself goes on. So let's for a moment look to Jesus and two things he has to say.
The first of these is "Love your enemy." In short this means that if arms are taken up the wellbeing of those we are in conflict with must not be set aside. Hatred or greed for scarce resources are not permissible causes to fight. That is what Jesus says.
The second is "Blessed are the peacemakers." this means that in the darkest of hours we must not lose sight of a goal to find reconciliation and just peace. The possibility to build a bridge must always be sought. Again this is not what I say but what Jesus says.
Then look for a moment to our Gospel reading. Here there is a woman in the Temple who has given all she had. What she has done is honourable in the extreme. But that is not the whole picture. This scripture is found in the context of a blazing attack by Jesus on the scribal class at the Temple. Their misuse of power and their gathering of extreme wealth means the Temple can only be afforded by the sacrificial giving of others such as this poor widow. Read in context, we are led to honour the widow whilst being revolted at a system that demands her sacrificial giving.
And so it is today. We honour those who gave their all and indeed go on doing so in the conflicts of our world. We grieve their passing and the suffering of those whose lives have been marred and devastated by conflict. And because we do this we long for peace in which the nations of the world can live in justice and harmony. We long for a world in which we are not called upon to dehumanise others or to treat our courageous young people as pawns in power games. And so even today it becomes our duty to hold power to account where it falls short of proper standards and compassion. The very memory of those who have fallen and the dreadful anticipation of those who may fall in the future demands no less.
We shall remember them.