This is my sermon from Remembrance Sunday.
Readings: 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13 and Luke 21.5-19
At 11 o’clock on 11th November 1919, this country observed Remembrance Day for the first time. Exactly a year after the armistice was signed, the country stood silent to remember those who had died in the Great War. They remembered those 908,371 men and women of the British Empire who had been killed in the first conflict to engulf most of the world. The following day, the Manchester Guardian reported on the first two minute silence in London:
‘The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and became so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.’
We live in a very different world today; there won’t be many trams stopping or dray horses hunching up for the silence. However, I believe those survivors of the First World War would be glad that we are meeting today to continue to remember the dead of that conflict. They would also be shocked I think to realise that we gather to remember the casualties of many other conflicts as well because the War to End All Wars wasn’t. In fact, there has been an armed conflict somewhere in the world pretty much ever since. It is hard to calculate how many people have died as a result of wars in the last 98 years but figures seem to range between 131 million and 160 million men, women and children. Even at the lowest estimates, that’s over twice the population of the UK (2011 census).
So we come to remember the casualties of war today but why is it important that we do so? I think that there are three main reasons:
The first is that it is part of the contract we have with those who have died. This is not a contract that has been drawn up by lawyers or is enforceable in the courts but it is a contract none the less. It is between those who have died fighting for their country and the citizens of that country; between the dead and you and me. It is a contract that says that they will be remembered. Remembered not only by those who love them but by those who do not even know their names.
The second reason is a consequence of that contract. Remembrance Day is important because it is an opportunity for us to remember that many of those things which we enjoy, those liberties which are the right of citizens of this country, those freedoms we so often take for granted, came at a price. Many of them were won or protected on the battlefield. Our country is as it is in part because of the wars in which those we remember died.
There is a third reason which is equally important: when King George V visited the war graves in Flanders in 1922, he said:
‘I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.’
All war is devastating, however just the cause. It not only leaves the dead but also those who are maimed in body, broken in mind and those whose grief cannot be comforted. It not only takes a toll on combatants but also on civilians in the chaos it causes. That is why estimating casualties of war is such an inexact science: how do you count those who die from the famine, disease and violence that war so often brings in its wake? So we remember to count the cost of conflict and are reinvigorated in our calling to be peace-makers.
As Christians, we too believe in the importance of remembering. The Bible frequently exhorts us to remember, to remember who God is and what he has done, to remember how he has remained faithful when his people have gone astray, to remember that he loved the world so much that he sent his only son so that his world might be saved. Understanding the importance of remembering, we have been given Holy Communion as the act of remembrance which is so often at the centre of our worship. But why is it so important that we remember?
First, we need to remember who God is: so often we forget who God really is and shrink him so that he becomes something we can understand and control. However there is nothing small about God: he is a lion, not a pussy cat. He is our Father yes, but he is also in heaven and his is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever, not ours.
The Good News of our faith is that we are loved by God. That is the truth behind the words on the war graves of unknown soldiers: ‘known unto God’. We are all known unto God and loved by him. He demonstrated the depths of that love for us on the cross: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ We can love God because he first loved us. We can have a relationship with God because he has made it possible through Jesus. We need to remember that our relationship with God comes at a price. The German theologian and pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was a casualty of war, killed by the Nazis in April 1945 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wrote about the dangers of forgetting the price of grace. Grace is the ultimate free gift but unlike so many of those free gifts we receive today, it was not cheap. It cost God everything for the price of our salvation was the cross.
Finally, we need to remember who God is and what he has done for us so we might be encouraged in our discipleship. In Holy Communion we ‘do this in remembrance’ of him to recall what Christ has done for us and to ask the Holy Spirit to transform us so we might become more like him. It is spiritual food to strengthen us for our spiritual journey. As our Gospel reading reminds us, at times this journey will be tough: there will be times of war and famine, times of hardship and persecution but remembering that God is with us in good times and in bad, that he will give us the strength we need to endure, that he will give us the words and wisdom we need to persevere, will help us to remain faithful.
So today as we meet to remember the casualties of war, we also meet to remember ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ As we remember let’s commit ourselves afresh as children of God to bear good fruit, to love one another and to work for peace. Amen.
Revd Rebecca Fardell