This is the text of the sermon delivered by Chris Whipps at the Service of Remembrance for both parishes held at All Saints', Alburgh on Sunday 10th November 2013.
It is an honour to stand here before you on this significant day. The closest I have been to war is seeing it on the television. Yet, today is so desperately important. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. Today is, in part, about the memories that we bring with us. Some of you may bring memories of active service. Some of us bring memories of those we have loved and lost. Some of you may bring memories of civilian life during wartime. Each of us brings different memories to our act of remembrance.
Sadly, many people misunderstand what today is all about. We are not here to glorify war or the supremacy of this or any other country. We are here to acknowledge publicly and before God that countless people have given their lives for us, for our freedom and for others and their freedom. We are here to pray for all who suffer and have suffered as a result of war. Those who like me are too young to remember war need to remember the men who gave their today for our tomorrow.
Whenever there is a war or conflict we are usually hopeful that it will be the last, that there will be no more war. But we are not free from war and the pain of war. Our purpose today is to acknowledge that pain and to remember it, but also to thank God for the freedom that so many now enjoy because of the laying down of life by so many for this and many other countries, and to pray for peace. We thank God for those who laid down their lives for others, as John’s gospel talked about. We acknowledge the example of Jesus in laying down his life for others.
Remembrance Day calls us to memories of the dead of two world wars, and the nearly 70 years since of anything but peace. The numbers are mind-blowing, as we think of Africa, Europe, Ireland, the Middle East, in our lifetime. It has been said that if all who died in the First World War marched 4 abreast, when the head of the column reached the Cenotaph, the end would be in Durham; and by the end of the Second World War at Edinburgh! Who knows where it would be now? We remember not just the dead, but all who have suffered the living death of mental torture or physical disability.
Each year, as the time for remembrance comes round, very mixed emotions surface. For some, the pain and suffering they experience is still so great that all commemoration is tinged with bitterness. Talk of reconciliation and forgiveness provokes anger, and a feeling that no-one understands the horror and brutality they witnessed or experienced. For others, the commemoration is the opportunity to acknowledge the horror of war, and pay a tribute to those who sacrificed themselves, or were sacrificed, and to express gratitude for the measure of co-operation that has been achieved between nations who were formerly at each other’s throats.
Others find themselves close to despair, because people seem to have learned so little. We’ve seen history repeating itself in the Balkans; we’ve seen a peace process that was conceived in such hope in Northern Ireland almost destroyed by people who can’t let go of ancient feuds. A former policeman and his daughter narrowly escaped an attempted car bombing in Belfast only this week! We’ve seen unspeakable cruelty in parts of Africa; and then there’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Middle East. The list could go on and it won’t include only things that happen outside the UK. What happened to the vision of ‘a world fit for heroes to live in’ we ask, as we look at the homeless, the helpless, and the despised in our own society?
What is the point of remembering if we don’t learn from what we remember? It has been said that history repeats itself because we don’t learn the lessons the first time round. Remembering has to be coupled with action for a better world. One of the tasks the Gospel calls us to is that of peacemaking. That can sound very bland, pouring oil on troubled waters, pretending that as long as everything looks alright on the surface, all is well.
To be a peacemaker is to be at the cutting edge of relationships, where, as we draw closer together in our common humanity, we take forgiveness seriously. One of the first things to recognise about forgiveness is that we all need it. None of us belongs to a race with completely clean hands. All participants in war do terrible things to each other. We have to stop looking for somebody else to blame, and look at where our responsibility lies. We have to recognise that within each of us there is the potential for evil as well as for good – and if we haven’t behaved all that badly as individuals, let’s give thanks that the Grace of God has been at work in us.
What then is forgiveness? We sometimes talk about it as though it was easy. ‘Forgive and forget’ we say, ‘let bygones be bygones’. But we can’t forget something that has devastated us, either in war or in personal circumstances. Forgiveness does not mean letting people off as though what they have done doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t exclude due punishment. Forgiveness means setting people free. Forgiveness is not forgetting, it’s learning to remember differently, it’s saying, ‘what happened was evil, and it hurt, but I’m not going to let it poison my life any more’. When we can say that, we set ourselves free too. Forgiveness starts with us being changed. It’s not easy or cheap, but it’s the way to fullness and peace, the life to which God invites us.
Being a peacemaker means taking life seriously, facing up to its pain, and helping people set each other free from memories that lock them into hatred. That’s not easy! When Jesus tried living in a spirit of forgiveness, he was crucified, and he carries the scars for eternity. But scars are better than running sores.
Jesus said in John 15.13, “No-one has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends”, true, gloriously true! Jesus was on his way to his own execution, the most dramatic example of the point! The cross is firmly in view here when Jesus says that laying down your life for your friends is the highest form of love. In World War One this text was used again and again in sermons and lectures to young men, which most were, going to the front line, maybe to die for their country. Many tens of thousands did just that! God of course honours the self-sacrifice and dedication of those who devoutly believed that they were doing their duty, just as we are gathered to honour them ourselves here, today.
So we remember. We remember those killed in war, and those scarred by war, with deep gratitude for the sacrifices they and their families made. The red poppy will always be a symbol of that. We remember so that we take the lessons of history to heart. A white poppy is worn by a growing number of people as a sign of commitment to justice and peace. Red and white poppies are not alternatives, but compliment each other. Only this morning I heard on the radio about poppy origins. The artificial red poppy was introduced by Frenchwoman Anna Guerin and adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921. In this country it is made by disabled former British Military personnel in aid of servicemen of the British armed forces. The white poppy was started by the women’s co-operative guild in 1933 as a lasting symbol for peace and an end to all wars. A lack of understanding of their intentions in the 1930’s, confusing the white poppy with the white feather of surrender, led to some women losing their jobs as a result. There is even a purple poppy to commemorate animal victims of war which is worn with the red one.
We remember because it’s one of the great Bible words, calling us back again and again to God’s faithfulness, and his will that his people should live in love. Jesus’ command to love one another is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. Each time we meet for a service of Holy Communion, we remember Jesus who suffered and was raised to life so that we might have life in all its fullness. Let’s open ourselves up to the possibility that life really can be different, because we remember.
Let us pray;
O God of Peace, whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the Kingdom and restored the broken to wholeness of life; look with compassion upon the anguish of the world and, by thy healing power, make whole both people and nations; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
Chris Whipps (Reader, Earsham Benefice).
Information about the war memorials in the village are held in the History Section.