John 15:12-17 Remembrance Sunday 2017 by Revd. Alex Pease

Remembrance Sunday

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

This talk is recorded here but the transcript follows:

We have repeated at the Epitaph today: ‘We will remember them’ ‘We will remember them’. But what does that mean? How do we remember them?

Well, I have to admit, I don’t remember them, in the ordinary sense of the word. I never knew those from Easton killed in the First World War: Albert, James and Thomas Freemantle (two of whom were brothers killed on the same day), Cecil Chiddy, Patrick and Louis Collard, Sidney Tilbury or Albert Cooper.

But there is a sense in which we can still remember them by hearing what they did and seeing if we can emulate them in some way.

Two stories: firstly, about a man called Revd. Theodore Hardy, the priest in charge of Hutton Roof, a rural parish in Cumbria. He was 51 when he applied to be a padre in the Army, in the Autumn of 1916, just after the Battle of the Somme.

When he finally joined the 8th Lincolns at Sarton, it was December and the trenches were frozen, huge numbers of the regiment had been killed. At first the soldiers weren’t much interested in him. In those days only about a quarter of the UK population were regular church goers. Rather more than now, of course, but nevertheless, there was not an immediate understanding of the usefulness of a middle aged vicar in the trenches.

Hardy soon realised that leading services was a waste of time. He said ‘its the life which tells; without that, preaching is of no use’.

He decided that he would spend all his time, in the line with the officers and men, sharing with them the discomforts and dangers accompanying them in their pain.

He had had some first aid medical training before he left England and so he got stuck into carrying stretchers with wounded men from the front line back to the battalion medical aid post.

He made himself so useful that, during the Arras offensive he often didn’t sleep for over 36 hours. There were extensive casualties and he spent his time, when not carrying stretchers, sitting with the dying; holding their hands; reading to them; praying with them; and over them.

It was said of him, that he could do more for a human soul in five minutes contact than most clergy could do during months of instruction.

And then there was Passchendaele. In the terrible carnage of that battle, Hardy crawled out into No Man’s Land, between the British and German lines, leading a rescue party to recover some wounded men, who were stuck in the mud. He had nothing to defend himself with (padres still do not carry weapons even on active service) and he remained there, in the mud, for two days, by the side of a soldier, who was three parts submerged in the mud, 70 yards from the enemy trenches.

He fed him to keep him alive and worked with others the whole of the following night to extricate him, despite the constant sniper and machine gun fire. He got to know the trenches and no mans land, in that area so well that he was hard to replace. So that when his battalion retired for leave, he remained in the trenches.

He went out with all the stretcher bearer teams, his calm confidence and leadership was evident, despite nightmare shelling.

He would regularly make nightly visits, to the outposts on the line to encourage those on duty, cheering everyone up. As he approached each post he would say ‘its only me, boys’ and bring them cigarettes and sweets and take letters back.

The soldiers loved him…

For all these numerous acts of bravery, he was awarded the DSO and the MC. But his modesty was such that he would always cover up the medal ribbons with his hand when talking to a soldier, who did not have any similar decorations.

By 1918, the final German offensive began Hardy was found spending the day lying within 10 yards of an enemy machine gun post comforting a wounded man then, at night, came back to organise a rescue.

Somehow he and a sergeant, despite the enemy artillery, machine gun, sniper and mortar fire managed to get this man back to the safety of their trenches. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Sadly Hardy was killed three weeks before the war ended. Despite efforts by his bishop and even the King to get him home.

One more story. A 7th Day Adventist Christian called Desmond Doss from Lynchburg, Virginia refused to bear arms in the Second World War but also refused to remain at home as a conscientious objector.

He qualified as a medic and after many struggles with the US military found himself in a military unit responsible for storming the island of Okinawa, south of Japan.

Some of you may have seen his story, in the recent movie Hacksaw Ridge. If you have not – can I recommend it to you. It’s a sort of Saving Private Ryan meets the Passion of the Christ!

The task of Doss’ unit was to capture a feature called the Maeda escarpment which they could only get up by scrambling up cargo nets to where the Japanese were waiting for them in caves, tunnels and pill boxes. Several battalions had tried to do this and failed with a huge number of casualties. And so did Doss’ battalion, as the Japanese organised a counterattack just as they were putting in their attack.

Doss was the only unwounded man left remaining at the top of the escarpment as everyone else of his unit who was uninjured had fled down the nets.

But Doss started lowering wounded men by a rope tied in a bowline, one by one from the escarpment; hiding from the Japanese patrols; one by one he lowered the wounded; he lowered them all to safety.

As he crawled and pulled and patched the casualties in the movie he is shown as praying over and over again ‘just one more Lord, just one more’.

It was calculated that he saved at least 75 casualties in this way. For this incredible act of bravery he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, the US’s highest decoration only awarded 45 times in the whole of the Second World War.

How are we to remember such men – and the women like them: men like Hardy, men like Doss; women like Edith Cavell, time doesn’t allow me to include her incredible story.

How are we to remember the millions who have died or been wounded in conflict last century and this one and those who survived but bravely went into harm’s way and their families at home worried to death about them, month in month out?

I think the thing that strikes me about the service man or woman: the soldier sailor and airman is that word ‘service’. These were all people like you and me but who gave no regard whatsoever to their own lives, to their own interests.

In this they were following the example of Christ. They were remembering Him, who waiting for his inevitable crucifixion taught his disciples at the last supper, as told by John, in the passage we have just read that ‘greater love has no one than this: to lay down your life for your friends’. Love God, love neighbour and make disciples were his two great commandments and one great commission to us.

And this is what these two remarkable men exemplified: Leading men to Christ by their example. And there were hundreds of thousands like them.  In both world wars and even today. Our Armed Services exemplify in some respects the teaching that life is about service not self: The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is ‘serve to lead’.

The idea of giving your life for others is hard wired into British Armed Service culture. And it’s an idea that is unknown in so much of society today. So many of us, myself included, have spent so much of our lives just thinking about our own interests; how our lives can be more comfortable; how we can have more fun. The aim of our lives can be ultimately about what serves us, not what serves others.

So hearing the example of Hardy and Doss is profoundly humbling. It certainly is for me and I guess it is for you too.

We cannot control the times in which we live. Hardy and Doss and the hundreds of thousands of others who have been on active service during the last century could not choose the times in which they were born. But we can decide what we are going to do with our lives in the times in which we find ourselves. We can decide what we are going to do with the remainder of our lives, whether we are young or old. Are our lives going to be about self or about service? How are we going to be remembered?

Like Hardy and Doss, who sacrificed themselves to rescue the casualties in their time, their context, we know that there are casualties in our community, the Who Cares survey we did in the Summer has told us this….

The question is are we going to commit to rescue those casualties in our community? To go out into no mans land. Or are we going to stay in the safety of the trenches, in the safety of our own family life, protected from the messiness of other people’s lives?

Because if our lives are really about service and not about self, we can truly say that we have remembered them……And also that we have remembered Him

Amen

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