Remembrance Sunday

Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton, Sunday 8th November 2015

As many of you will know, our Sunday school children are currently studying Pilgrims Progress, the story of Christians journey to the celestial city via massive obstacles such as the Slough of despond and the Hill of Difficulty. People perish on the way yet somehow our hero keeps going, displaying endurance in places of mortal danger.

For many who fought in the world wars, their experience was not unlike Christian's journey. They were compelled to leave home, only to find themselves caught up in something seemingly insurmountable and bigger than all of them. 

Today we remember those who fought in conflicts and we are privileged to have amongst us today veterans of conflicts since the two World Wars. Many of us will remember our own relatives who we knew who served in the two world wars or in conflicts in the years that followed; we will also commemorate those who died on some foreign field, perhaps, for example, that great uncle never known by later generations but forever etched in the family consciousness.

My own great uncle Eric was 18 at the outbreak of the Great War. This is his memory:

About 2 o'clock in the morning of August 5 the post office man came along. My brother had made arrangements, showed him in which bedroom he slept. He made a noise outside and then delivered the telegram confirming that war had been declared. I had at once to go down and wake up the Sergeant major in Lavenham and he sent people out to the villages around about to tell them they must come in. The local haberdashery opened straight away so that people could get their kits all completed. The whole village was woken up. One felt one was taking part in history; the excitement-it was like a holiday-everybody was moving about. The Salvation Army band had all turned up so we marched to the station with the band, crowds all around us. The whole spirit was ecstasy-Rupert Brooke has got it absolutely right in his poems.

Like so many, Eric responded to the call immediately, rather like the apostles in today's gospel who left their nets immediately on encountering Jesus and followed him.

So it was that three Wolton brothers left Lavenham on a journey they knew not where. Two would not return until 1919, having fought at Gallipoli, in Gaza, and at Jerusalem and Damascus ending up in Cairo. For the third Uncle Owen, the Lavenham telegram man would, a year later arrive at the family home with news that Owen, a much loved Sunday schoolteacher had been killed at Suvla Bay within minutes of engaging in his first action.

How could it be that Owen, who worked in a bank in Bishops Stortford less than a year before, would end up being killed on the shores of the Aegean Sea? And how could his parents be prepared for such an outcome?

My grandfather and his brothers story is one of countless millions in these conflicts. I am sure you are thinking of your own family's experience; indeed it may be that some of us had relatives on opposing sides in these conflicts. By Gods grace, here we are in the sight of God, reconciled and shortly to join together at God's holy table.

The First World War grieves us for many reasons, not least for the sheer innocence of the participants. At the outset, they had no conception of the carnage and horror that was about to befall them.

And the awful thing about the Second War, was that they did know, at last until Hiroshima, which took war and destruction to a new level.

Today we remember the pain of those who survived and their loved ones, pain so often not shared with others. No family was untouched. Here in St. Georges we have many names on our memorial which are testament to the loss we suffered. In Campden Mansions in Peel Street, for example, six families lost sons.

The Book of Psalms contains verses that have such resonance for certain moments of our lives. As we also remember those who were damaged mentally and physically and disfigured, some so much so they could not be seen public, we are reminded of Psalm31: "Even my neighbours look down on me. I have become an object of fear to my friends, and whoever sees me outside runs away in fear"

The Psalms are also hopeful and today's Psalm contains this verse:

"God is my strong rock; in him is my refuge."

In October 1946, Bishop Leonard Wilson preached in the BBC Radio Sunday service. He was Bishop of Singapore at the time of its capture by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Interned in the notorious Changi jail, he was accused of being part of a spy network and was interrogated under torture, and in the BBC broadcast said this:
In the middle of that torture they asked me if I still believed in God. When, by Gods help, I said, I do, they asked me why God did not save me, and by the help of his Holy Spirit, I said, God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain or punishment, but he saves me by giving me the spirit to bear it.'"

Today, as we remember those who have experienced war, we thank God especially for the gift of endurance.

We also thank God for the power of the human spirit to renew and rebuild.

In the Great War, the city of Ypres was flattened by four years of fighting. Dr. William Shakespeare, the grandfather of a member of our congregation, was a young medic on the Western Front at Ypres.

This is a section of his poem on Ypres Cathedral:

Hope and mirth are gone. Beauty is departed.
Heaven's hid in smoke, if there's Heaven still.
Silent the city, friendless, broken-hearted,
Crying in quiet as a widow will.
Oh for the sound here of a good man's laughter.
Of one blind beggar singing in the street,
Where there's no sound, except a blazing rafter
Falls, or the patter of a starved dog's feet.

In September I visited Ypres. It was reconstructed after the Great War to look, as accurately as possible, as it did in the years before the conflict. Today Ypres is a beautiful, prosperous, peopled city.

Ypres is a physical manifestation of the power of the human spirit to endure and renew and to resurrect. It is testament to the power of hope, the gift of God that encourages us to work to bring about the Kingdom on earth. If you have faith you have hope. If you have hope, you have everything.

Today, when we are all too aware of the havoc wrought by false ideologies we give thanks to God for the gift of hope and freedom, the freedom to worship without fear, never forgetting those whose sacrifice has made this possible.

Fr. Peter Wolton
8th November 2015

Holland Park Benefice