Remembering - a key to peacemaking. A sermon for Remembrance Sunday based on Matthew 5: 43 -48
“Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste if Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste if glory, waste of God,
Brutal words from a clergyman who in 1914 had encouraged young men in his Worcester parish to join the war effort. Within a year Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was on the front line as an army chaplain. He was good at it - well as good as any man could be. As well as the usual functions of a priest which he performed well even being awared the Military Cross for running into No Mans Land to help the wounded, he toured the front line with wrestlers and boxers giving morale boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet. But most of all he is remembered for giving cigarettes to soldiers who would soon be going over the top to likely death or at the least serious injury. He wrote a poem about this practice which went as follows;
They gave me names like their nature,
Compacted of laughter and tears,
A sweet that was born of the bitter,
A joke that was torn from the years.
Of their travail and torture, Christ’s fools,
Atoning my sins with their blood,
Who grinned in their agony sharing
The glorious madness of God.
That name! Let me hear it - the symbol
Of unpaid - unplayable debt,
For the men to whom I owed God’s Peace,
I put off with a cigarette.
That poem was called “Woodbine Willie”, and Woodbine Willie became the name given to Kennedy by the troops and is the name through which he has gone down in history.
But as the poem I read at the beginning suggested the Studdert Kennedy who returned to civilian life at the end of the war was very different to the man who had been an enthusiast for war ain 1914. He had seen to much. Unlike many he did not lose his faith but he lived out the last decade of his life as a committed socialist and pacifist.
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy had come to see the reality of war and was shocked to his core by it. He was by no means the first to experience this. Death and destruction are always disturbing and hard to make sense of. Years before reflecting on the Boer Wars Thomas Hardy had written a poem that has always haunted me entitled, “The man he killed.” The final verse is especially poignant;
Yes, quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half - a crown.
But long decades after the deaths of Hardy and Studdert Kennedy, war goes on being a terrible reality with the most striking change being that in the past century the changing nature of war has meant increasingly large numbers of civilian casualties.
And so today we remember. We look back in some cases to people we have known and loved who were killed or injured in conflict or who had their lives in some way or other changed.
For me the person I think of most on this day is an uncle of mine. One of three brothers who had previously not even travelled as far from their homes as Plymouth, he experienced the trauma of losing one of his legs as a result I understand of so called friendly fire. I recall that today was the one day when he would absent himself from morning worship. After all he remembered every day. My father was twice wounded including injuries on Hill112 a battled in which 320 soldiers from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry died = injuries concerning which his hospitalisation probably saved him from some of the worst fighting on the road to Berlin. But of that he rarely spoke. What we did hear about was the officer for whom he had been a batman. Many a time he would recount how this officer had been very enthusiastic in a way which had terrified him. Indeed the officer had been killed. And the story stopped there for about 60 years. But then as a funeral director he was called to arrange the funeral of a bank worker whose wife belonged to our church. Moments after arriving he noticed a photograph. It was he discovered the lady’s first husband and yes it was the officer whose batman he had been. The visit became much longer than was normal as the two of them reminisced. And it opened up Dad to telling more of his war experiences.
Yes today is a day for very real human experiences. But even if we did not have them it would still be right to remember today. For this day is about a debt of honour to those whom we as a nation have sent in harm’s way. It is a day in which we take seriously the sacrifices of those whose lives were cut short and resolve that their stories must never be forgotten, a day in which we remember that if we have no knowledge of the names upon our memorials, every one of them is known by name and loved by God.
So today we remember them whatever their individual stories recognising that those in whose memory the poppies fell last night in the Royal Albert Hall were so very often ordinary young men caught up in extraordinary circumstances and terrifying dangers.
But as we look back we also look forwards. Visitors to Yad Vashem In Jerusalem are reminded, “Remembrance is the secret to redemption.” And this echoes in so many ways the Hebrew Bible where time and again the people are exhorted to remember. For if we do not remember we fail to know who we are and we too often fail to learn the lessons of the past. And today we know the need to learn the lessons of the past so that one day humanity might discover the way of peace and war might be no more and those who once were enemies might find a path to reconciliation and even comradeship.
But we are gathered in a church. Jesus may speak of loving enemies with the change of perspective that this implies. Yet there are those who would say that all too often people of religion have been a cause of conflict rather than a force for peace. And there are times when that analysis is right. Yet I want to argue this morning that we can be the peacemakers that Jesus calls us to be.
Let me develop this further.
Firstly we having a calling to work for peace between people of faith. This means that rather than envisaging the clash of civilisations that was talked about post September 11th, we have a calling to create a healthy relationship between faith communities. This is one of the purposes of interfaith dialogue. Hans Kung the Roman Catholic theologian puts this well when he says:
“There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions."
Secondly in a world with scarce resources, injustice is often a cause of war. Look to the scriptures and you find that justice is a recurring theme. See that one of the greatest moral crusades in recent years, the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt cancellation for the poorest countries has as its inspiration the Jubilee vision that can be found in the little visited book of Leviticus.
Thirdly faith challenges us not just to see things through our eyes or that of our country. When Jesus suggests that rather than emphasise the speck in the eyes of others we should take note of the plank in our own eyes. This means that not just individuals but movements and nations need not just to see their own propaganda but see ourselves as others see us - you know a little thing called empathy.
Then fourthly we need not to let go of the many biblical visions for peace such as the visions of swords being turned into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, a time when nations cease training for war, natural enemies lying down together in peace and of a city where death and pain are no more.
And fifthly we need to hold on to a view that people of all races and nations are special in God's sight
Let me tell you a story from the Bosnian conflict.
A reporter covering the conflict whilst in Sarajevo saw a young girl shot by a sniper. He threw down his note pad and ran to the girl and a man who had just picked her up before helping them both into his car.
As the reporter drove, the man holding the bleeding child begged him to drive faster, giving increasingly desperate updates on the girl’s condition. Sadly by the time they got to the hospital, the girl was dead. Together the two men went to wash the blood off their hands and clothes. After a bit the man who had held the girl, turned to the journalist and said:
“This is a terrible task for me. I must go and tell her father that his child os dead. He will be heartbroken.”
The reporter was stunned. Looking at the grieving man, he stuttered out the words;
“But I thought she was your child.”
The man looked up and replied:
“But aren’t they all our children?”
And he was right. All someone’s children! All God’s children!
For whatever the race, whatever the creed, all are the children of God. And God’s heart is the first to break at the pains of war. This was not how it was meant to be.
I began with Woodbine Willie, a man who knew the realities of war all too well. I end with another man who knew the realities of war all too well, Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in World War 2 and later the 34th President of the USA. Late in his life he reflected on war with these words;
“I’d like to think that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
But that requires peacemakers. So today as we rightly honour the fallen with poppies, silence and prayers, as we commit ourselves to the living who suffer the consequences of war, we resolve also to do our part in peacemaking that death and pain might be no more and God’s peace, shalom, be experienced by God’s diverse community of children.
Yes, we will remember them!