10 November 2013 Remembrance Sunday
Rev’d Paul White Readings: John 15:9-17
May I speak in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It was Remembrance Sunday on an RAF Station.
After the Service the Chaplain joined his colleagues in the Mess for a pre-lunch drink. “Good sermon, Padre,” says the CO, “but how is it that you got through the whole thing without any mention of the war?”
“I wasn’t born during the war, Sir,” was the Padre’s answer, “How could I talk about it if I wasn’t there?”
“You’re going to have a bit of trouble at Christmas,” the CO replied.
Of course this joke makes a very serious point – As Christians none of us actually experienced the events of the first Christmas, or indeed any part of Jesus’ life and yet we re-member (we literally put back together) those events week after week and year after year because it is the remembered stories about Jesus that create and form the Christian community.
And the same could be said about Remembrance Sunday. There is now no one alive who experienced life in the trenches in the First World War but we remember those people and their stories and experiences both in honour of their memory and because the very act of remembering them shapes our community and helps us think about the people we want to be.
So, we are here on this Remembrance Sunday, firstly, to remember and to honour the men from this village who gave their lives in the service of their country during the First and Second World Wars and, of course, in subsequent conflicts of which, sadly, there have been many.
One way of remembering them is by naming them.
A couple of years ago in my previous parish I named aloud all the service men and women who had died in Iraq in the preceding ten years. At that point it was over 300 names and it took about 20 minutes just to read their names. One or two people complained that it was a bit long and dull and, of course, it was but the point is that those young people had sacrificed their lives in the service of their country – they and their families had given up everything and all we are asked is to give up 20 minutes on a Sunday morning to remember them. Sometimes we have to put aside our desire to be entertained in order to do something serious for the sake of someone other than ourselves.
When we go to the war memorial in the cemetery in a short while we shall name some of the fallen men out loud in the presence of each other and in the presence of God and their names are ever on the memorial and here in church.
Having named them we also seek to honour them by standing in silence. In the midst of our lives of constant chatter, noise and busyness our willingness to be still and to be silent for the sake of the memory of others is in many ways the most profound and meaningful thing we can offer them.
The men we are remembering, putting back together, here today each made the ultimate sacrifice: They left their homes and family in this peaceful corner of the world, received short basic training, crossed the channel in crowded troopships and were eventually killed in the hell-on-earth that was the trenches and battlefields. They gave up their lives doubtless for a variety of motives – yes, some out of love for their friends and comrades, some for love of family, some for duty to King and Country.
I am sure that none of them left these shores either expecting or wanting to die – in the early days of the wars they probably expected a swift adventure followed by a heroes’ return – but when the reality of war became apparent they still did their duty and they never returned alive to home or to family. Most of them were buried in the huge cemeteries near the battlefields and some were never able to be buried at all. Our naming of those men in this place both on the war memorial and out loud this morning and at every Remembrance Sunday is, in many ways, the only homecoming that they can ever receive.
Next year, 2014, is the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War and, as I mentioned a moment ago, there are now no living veterans of that War remaining. Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, the longest surviving veterans both died a few years ago now and with them died the last living witnesses to the reality of war in the trenches.
The First World War was the first mechanised war in which tanks and machine guns replaced cavalry and rifles. It was the first war in which planes were used to drop bombs and gas and it was the first war to use heavy artillery. Millions of soldiers on all sides were killed or injured as were many civilians. A generation of young men across Europe was nearly entirely lost. Harry Patch, who was decorated in both world wars, had an abhorrence of war that prevented him from speaking about it for most of his life but when he did what he said was unambiguous. “War,” he said, was not worth the loss of one life and was the “…calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.”.
The scale and the horror of the war was such that it seemed impossible and unthinkable that it could be repeated and it was called by some ‘the war to end all wars’. Now imagine for a moment that it had been the war to end all wars. If these men from Hadlow and the millions of others had really been the last to fall victim to war and that the last near-centry had been entirely without war then this service would feel very different, the world would be very different and we would know that despite the horrors of the trenches that something new had been wrought in the souls of mankind.
But unfortunately reality is very different and we know that notwithstanding the sacrifice of so much life on the battlefield that it was not the war to end all wars and that many millions more lives have been lost subsequently in all the wars and conflicts that have filled the century around the world. Not only did the bitterness and unresolved issues of the First World War lead ultimately to the Second World War in which even more millions of lives were lost but I believe that from 1945 to the present day there has only been one year in which a British service man has not been killed in a conflict somewhere in the world, including of course in Afghanistan where servicemen, women and civilians continue to die.
Bearing in mind that most people most of the time want nothing more from life than to live in peace in their homes with their families what is it within humanity that creates this apparently insatiable appetite for war? At heart, and beneath all the surface reasons for any individual conflict, the answer to that question is, I think, the deeply unfashionable word: sin.
By sin I don’t mean eating too much chocolate or drinking more than is strictly good for you or even living in sin, rather I mean the difference that lies between the people that we are and the people that God made us to be. And what, you may ask, did God make us to be? Part of the answer to that question lies in the reading from John 15 that we had slightly earlier. In that short passage the word ‘love’ is used nine times: We were created in the image and likeness of a loving God for the express purpose of being a loving people – this short passage says twice in plain and simple terms that we should love one another:
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and; “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
I don’t know whether any of you saw the Michael Palin programme shown a couple of years about the last day of the Great War and about all the people that died in the final few hours and minutes before the armistice. It was full of sad and shocking stories none more so than the American General whose actions in the last day of the war caused the death of 3000 men simply to teach the Germans that they had been well and truly beaten. However there was something in that program that I found even more poignant than any of the stories that were told in words – and that was the image of both the Allied and the German cemeteries that were filled with images of the cross.
I would dare to suggest that if we took the command to love one another sufficiently seriously and if we understood that Christ went to the cross to overcome our separation from God and from each other then we could celebrate Remembrance Sunday as truly marking the end of war.
I suspect that that is the sort of celebration that Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and all the men we have remembered here this morning would have wanted.