A sermon preached on 9th November, 2014, by the Revd. James Heard
Over the last few months the Tower of London has hosted a major art installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red marking one hundred years since the first full day of Britain's involvement in the First World War. It was created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins. 888,246 ceramic poppies have progressively filled the Tower's famous moat over the summer. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war. The river of red poppies is an incredibly moving sight – the way in which they literally bleed out of the wall and surround the Tower. The poppies are available for sale and will raise millions of pounds which will be shared amongst six service charities. It has captured the imagination of the nation – well over 4 million have visited the Tower.
Despite some criticism in the media about the display – it is, of course, terribly easy to throw stones, to criticize – I’m with David Cameron here: it is an ‘extremely poignant’ reminder of Britain's casualties during the First World War, as well as many other wars in which our armed forces have served. And its particularly fitting as we welcome back our combat troops from Afghanistan. It also asks us questions for today and tomorrow about how we are to build Christ's peaceable kingdom in the face of many threats. We hear the cry of global neighbours, witness the evil of ISIS and others, and we desperately need the wisdom for the right response. The display is deeply moving, serving to remind everyone what a huge loss of a person's life represents. And today, Remembrance Sunday, we remember them.
We remember a number from this very parish of St George’s and St John the Baptist, who were killed in the Great War. I wonder what they must have felt, the thoughts and emotions of the 1000s of young men who were called up in the World Wars, when they received a letter through the post – their calling to leave what they were doing in life and embark on a dangerous, probably lethal calling, to serve their country? Among them was William Dowling, aged 17, from Campden Houses. He was a Signal Boy on HMS Good Hope. His ship was sunk, with all hands lost, in the Battle of Coronel, off Chile. Or, dying in the same battle, Kenneth Somerville, who served as Midshipman, also aged 17.
It’s a poignant reminder for my generation, those of us who have never had to respond to the call to leave friends, family, home and go and serve our country, in danger and hardship, to lose friends, to have to grow up too soon and be left with shocking memories that are never possible to shake off.
It’s a reminder to those of us who have never known what it’s like to have to say goodbye to someone we love, see them leave and then to have to wait for news, with the possibility that the news, when God forbid it should come, will be unbearable.
Today is a reminder to those of us who live in comfort and the luxury of busyness, of absorption in our lives and our children and our friends, trying to imagine what that must have been like. And what it must still be like, for those who continue to serve their country in foreign conflicts. Trying to imagine, it actually feels beyond difficult. So stopping in silence and remembering, this is the least we can do.
Yet pausing to be silent and to remember has, perhaps, more power than we realise. We re-member what has been dis-membered. Lives, loves, bodies broken; and in the act of remembering, we re-enact the truth held by people of faith: in the heart of the all-embracing God of love, nothing and no one is lost or forgotten. That, perhaps, is the point of the memorial to the unknown soldier, buried in Westminster Abbey ‘amongst the kings and queens’ – of those who are known. What it state is this: However meaningful or seemly meaningless the various conflicts we have been involved in, in God’s eyes, no one is lost or forgotten.
At a time in which war and violence seem in the news 24/7, the words of Thomas Merton are worth remembering. He reflects upon what is necessary for something like Auschwitz to happen:
It is enough to affirm one basic principle: anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist. All the rest will follow without difficulty. Thomas Merton, On Peace (Mowbrays: London 1976) p.81
Accepting caricatures of inhumanity can too easily turn ordinary people inhuman.
Remembrance Sunday must be, at least in part, about reminding ourselves that other people, whoever they are, whatever nation they are from, whatever skin colour they have, whatever religion they follow, are but other human beings, people created in the image of God. These are children, who cry like our own. It’s about tearing down the walls that divide between people and nations, which was epitomized in a profound way in Berlin, when the wall was torn down this day 25 years ago.
Remembering today, being silent, this is the least we can do, as we continue to grapple with what it means to live peacefully and yet to resist evil and tyranny, and know there are no simple answers. The least we can do, is perhaps also the most we can do: not to forget, to show our children how to remember, and to pray, live and work for peace.
Today we remember those who have died, and continue to die in war. And today we pray for God’s kingdom, God’s peace, God’s shalom, to come and heal our broken world. As Christians our vocation is to be peacemakers. We are called to witness to the prince of peace, who gave up his life to bring new life.