Trinity 7 - Remembering WW1

A sermon preached in the United Benefice on 3 August 2014 by Fr Robert Thompson

The last time I preached on Remembrance Sunday in our parishes I reflected on the fact that at St George’s our war memorial is the baptismal font. At first this may seem incongruous, for we tend to simply associate fonts with the christening of children. However, as I reflected then, it is actually a highly appropriate form of memorialisation. Theologically Baptism is the sacrament in which we die to sin and rise with Christ. To have the font as the focus of  our remembering of those who have lost their lives in war from our parishes, in the service of our nation, is to place that remembrance within the context of human sinfulness and ‘fallenness’, our common human incapacity to embody here on earth the peace which constitutes God’s reign. Further, it is to identify that remembrance with recalling our own identity as those whose lives are claimed by God and joined with Christ’s by submersion in the water. To remember at the font is to be challenged continually as individual, communities, nations and the whole humanity to turn away from sin, the world, and the devil, and all their fruits, including hate, enmity, violence and war (even if we consider it be justified), and to turn to Christ who is the Prince of Peace.

As we come today to particularly remember the outbreak of World War One, it is the Lectionary, our cycle of readings, that this time throws at the preacher a seeming spanner of incongruity. The gospel of the feeding of the 5,000 does not, at first glance, seem fitting on such an occasion. The story of the multiplication of the fish and loaves is a long way away from the grotesque horrors of the historical trenches of northern Europe. Similarly the gospel motif of the hungry being fed and there being 12 baskets of left overs is a long way away from the modern wars and violence that fill our news: the insistent and escalating conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples which has marked this past week, but not forgetting Syria, Iraq, Russia and the Ukraine, to name but a few others. Likewise the gospel sentiment of Jesus’ compassion towards the crowd is a long way away from the needs of the refugees that are displaced by conflict, or the victims of violence of many other kinds, yet alone those whose lives are imperilled by natural disaster and disease, (like the present outbreak of the ebola virus in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon), or by famine, malnutrition or poor sanitation.
Today’s remembering of the outbreak of the First World War and its juxtaposition with the feeding of the 5,000 places this remembering within the context of the primary Christian sacrament of continuing communion with Christ, the Eucharist. Christ fed this crowd as Christ continues to feed us each time we come to remember his life and celebrate his continuing, risen, life-giving presence in the power of the Spirit. Our remembering today is placed beside the principal way in which we participate in the fullness of Christ’s life in Holy Communion. In this sacrament we hear Christ’s story in scripture; we receive Christ’s life in the body and blood which is his communion with us; and we respond to this feeding by committing ourselves to live out what it is we eat, by making our lives a Eucharist, lives of thanksgiving in which ‘we live and work for God’s praise and glory’ and the good of all creation. Being in communion with Christ is to be open to receive the grace of the Spirit to live Eucharistic lives, lives of thanksgiving, in the same way that Christ’s entire life, death and resurrection is itself a Eucharist, an enduring melody of his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; an incarnation of what the fullness of thankful and gracious human life can be, because he lived, taught, healed and even gave up his life for the sake of that compulsive vocation and vision to proclaim, to inaugurate, to embody and to be God’s reign of justice and peace on earth.

Today’s placing of our marking of the outbreak of World War One along side the feeding of the 5,000 and it’s Eucharistic allusions is also evocative of a much wider web of biblical imagery. I entitled the front piece of today’s pew sheet ‘and the desert will blossom like the rose’ drawing on imagery from Isaiah 35. The entire biblical book of Isaiah can be seen as relating to the ‘desert experience’ of the exile in Babylon of the Hebrew people away from Judah and Jerusalem, after their political power had fallen to foreign control. In parts of the text (1–33), the dominant theme is a projection of judgement and restoration not only for Judah and Jerusalem but also for the nations. In other parts (34–66) there is a presupposition that judgement has already taken place and restoration is at hand. So the overarching narrative of the biblical book is a sustained and continued meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile.

One of the dominant themes of the book of Isaiah is that the return from Babylon to Judah is understood as a ‘new Exodus.’ The text imagines God leading the people through the desert and back to Zion. This new Exodus is presented as both being like the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, but also different from it.  Whereas the Sinai desert was described as a terrible and arid wasteland (Deut 8:15), in the new Exodus, the land between Babylon and Judah will be transformed into a paradise in which mountains will be lowered and valleys raised to create level road (Isa 40:4). Whereas in the Sinai desert water was scarce, in this Exodus, God will "make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water" (Isa 41:18).

The use of the desert metaphors of the text of Isaiah relate then to how God can transform the worst of human experiences: slavery, exile and the loss of freedom into the fullness of God’s promised redemption: liberation from bondage, servitude, and exploitation. But the text insistently does not restrict this to national self-interest, rather liberation for the Hebrew people is closely allied with the freedom of all the nations to live together in peace and prosperity. As the evocative use of the text of the second chapter of Isaiah (2.4) on the wall of the UN building in New York articulates, in this new Exodus God will precipitate the nations to:

“beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.”

In today’s gospel too we also find ourselves in a desert with Jesus. We hear that Jesus is pursued by the crowds to a ‘deserted place.’ But even here, in the desert, he has compassion and cures the sick. Even here in a place in which nothing grows, he feeds the crowd from what little is around. Here in the place of ultimate scarcity of material provision, which can so often provoke the responsive scarcity of human affection and compassion, Christ in contrast shows the desert to already be a place of abundance, blessing and solidarity for all in the presence of the transformative power of God. These insistent biblical images of the manna, the blossom, and the bread and fish in the desert remind us, as we mark the outbreak of the First World War, that even the searing heat of the furnace that is human destructiveness, violence and war cannot eclipse the continual life-giving nature of God.
This God who brings vibrant life to human deserts is the God whom we encounter and who feeds us at every celebration of the Eucharist. We recall a story that embodies both the full depths of human sin and also the glorious, generous, abundance of God’s liberation of humanity from it. We remember how we as human beings are always in the business of killing off, of crucifying, all that is best about our full humanity as we bring to mind the story of Christ’s own unjustified death. But we also remember how in this most arid of deserts, Calvary, Golgotha, the God of love, justice and peace is not eclipsed, nor defeated, and not buried forever.  For this death, and Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross, signify the fullness of the nature of a God who is simply love, who gives and gives to others and to us, without counting the cost, and who even in the desert of death embraces others as he did in his life and ministry.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins beautifully articulates this fundamental Christian belief that the cross is not defeat but love, and that Golgotha is not a desert but a place of abundant fruit, in his poem Hazards Transformed, which is printed in today’s pew sheet. It’s a wonderful reading of the Parable of the Sower that is subversive of it’s more conservative interpretations and also alludes to today’s gospel.

Hazards Transformed
Gerard Manly Hopkins 1844-1889

Although the letter said
On thistles that men look not grapes to gather,
I read the story rather
How soldiers platting thorns around Christ’s Head
Grapes grew and drops of wine were shed.

Though when the sower sowed,
The wingèd fowls took part, part fell in thorn,
And never turned to corn,
Part found no root upon the flinty road—
Christ at all hazards fruit hath shewed.

From wastes of rock He brings
Food for five thousand: on the thorns He shed
Grains from His drooping Head;
And would not have that legion of winged things
Bear Him to heaven on easeful wings.

For Hopkins the heart of the gospel is that wheat can grow in rocky ground, in weedy ground, and even on ground where the birds devour the seed. There is no ground more stoney, more weedy, more shallow, more infertile than the ground which supported the cross, but here ‘Christ at all hazards fruit has shewed’ because his broken body and his blood outpoured are the fruits of his entire life of self-sacrificial love in which we share in the Eucharist, the communion of his body and blood.
Poppies may now grow on Flanders Fields but the sodden and blood stained trenches of the First World War present us with another desert metaphor of human destructiveness. But even here in the midst of war, the breakdown of relationships between nations, the abject suffering of individual soldiers, and even in the midst of dying and death itself we are also aware of the  many stories  which witness to the capacity for profound human love, compassion, care, solidarity and sacrifice, not only between allies but even to one’s enemies too. These stories echo the text of Isaiah which transcends the boundaries of nations in order to project a vision of God’s reign in which not just Israel but all the nations flourish.

Our remembering today in the context of the Eucharist also points beyond the interests of our own nation. The Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which all come form north and south and east and west to feast at the supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist evokes the fullness of Paradise, and it calls you and I, the whole Church, to be a living Eucharist in our lives not just for ourselves but for all people. The Eucharist is not a dinner party for the community of believers, a club of the religious in crowd of the like-minded,  or a feast for people who think they have a monopoly on truth. Rather the Eucharist at its heart is about the transformation of food and bodies, of bread and wine and all of us into Christ’s living and breathing body here on earth. It is as the contemporary Christian writer Sara Miles puts it “something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.”
(Sara Miles, Take This Bread)

The unboundaried nature of the body of Christ in Eucharist, and of the coming  Reign of God in fullness, alerts us to the fact that we should not remember the First World War as a war which has ended. Many of  our contemporary national boundaries, and the conflicts that result from them, are themselves products of that war and its  subsequent settlement. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, which World War One effected, sowed the seeds of many of the atrocities that fill our news channels today. It was in this period that the Balfour Declaration (1917) stated that “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” which led in turn to the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. It was in this period that the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France (1916) parcelled out the collapsing Ottoman Empire between the two nations leading to the establishment of the moderns states of Syria, Iraq and Turkey and the lack of any autonomous homeland for the Kurdish peoples. What’s happening today in Israel/Palestine and in the takeover by ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) of the city of Mosul in northwestern Iraq are intimately connected, not just theologically, but also historically to the outbreak of the war which we remember today.

With all of this connected, live and continuing human conflict in mind I want to end my reflection today with a poem by the foremost Israeli poet of the twentieth century Yehuda Amichai, which again is printed in today’s pew sheet.

The Place Where We Are Right
Yehuda Amichai 1924-2000

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

To remember any war in the context of Eucharist is always to remember that we are not always right, because we are confronted with our own sinfulness and the death of Christ in which we are all humanity is complicit. But it is also to remember that when we realise that we are not always right we plough the furrow in our hearts in which God’s seed of love, justice and peace can come to full fruition and the rose of Christ’s risen life will bloom in the desert of the human heart.
Holland Park Benefice