Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 12 November 2017, Remembrance Sunday.

Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Sunday 12 November 2017, Remembrance Sunday.

Today we remember. We remember those who have courageously fought and died in war; on this second centenary year of WWI, we remember that one in four families experienced loss of a family member. We honour and we remember… and we pray for our armed forces.

Today is not the moment to debate the ethics of war. There are some here today who have served in the armed forces; and I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few pacifists. And, of course, some wars seem difficult to justify, particularly in recent years. But now is not the moment to have a debate about all of this. Today is the day to remember.

Matthew’s Gospel parable is, essentially, a call to attentiveness, as a warning against complacency. It’s a call for us to be attentive. Being alert not only to the sacrifice of the dead and their families but also to the largely hidden injured causalities of war, of lives now changed forever. And being attentive to those who defend and serve our nation, those ordinary women and men of the armed forces called on to do extraordinary things.
The parable guards against complacency settling in. We must be shaken from any complacency about its true horror, never just see numbers and statistics but real, aching, blood and tear stained human lives. Of children and the elderly, the pregnant and critically ill, caught up in a doing not of their making.

A few years ago, I began reading a number of books on war. Sebastian Faulkes’ sleep-disturbing book, Birdsong was quite something. Even more challenging was Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man, originally published in 1947. Levi was an Italian Jew who in 1944, aged 24, was transported in cramped cattle trucks to one of the Auschwitz concentration camps. He has an amazing power of description as he reflects upon his and others experience. He describes the whole process of what he describes as, ‘the demolition of man’ (p.26):

As they were getting ready to leave Italy for Auschwitz this is what he writes:
For people condemned to death, tradition prescribes an austere ceremony, calculated to emphasise that all passions and anger have died down, and that the act of justice represents only a sad duty towards society which moves even the executioner to pity for the victim. Thus the condemned man is shielded from all external cares, he is granted solitude and, should he want it, spiritual comfort; in short, care is taken that he should feel around him neither hatred nor arbitrariness, only necessity and justice, and by means of punishment, pardon. But to us this was not granted, for we were many and time was short. And in any case, what had we to repent, for what crime did we need pardon?

When they arrived at Auschwitz the healthy were put to work, whilst the old, sick, including many women and children were sent to the gas chambers.

Like all of the inmates, he experienced a de-humanising process.
We had reached the bottom. Nothing belongs to us any more: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name.

He was known as number: 174,517. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his shipment, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy at Auschwitz: three months.
Levi survived. But only just. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army, the SS hurriedly evacuated the camp on a long death march, which few survived. Levi had become ill with scarlet fever and was placed in the camp’s hospital and was left to die instead of going on the death march. His illness spared him this fate.

Levi survived, often through good luck, but fundamentally because he ‘never lost the capacity to see his companions and himself as men [and human beings] and not things’. Although not himself a believer, he avoided ‘that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck’.
However, the slow revenge of Auschwitz came later in Levi’s life, the sting in the tail. On 11 April 1987 he committed suicide. Elie Wiesel said at the time that ‘Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier’.

Once a year this sort of account needs to be retold. Because there have been regimes that have committed the most horrific of evils… and there comes a point when such evil has to be confronted. That has been done, and continues to be done, by brave dedicated men and women.

Which is why we need this yearly occasion to be attentive, to. One of the reasons we come to church week by week is to remember: to hear the stories of faith, to be inspired to be better, to work for peace, to be transformed little by little, small choice by small choice. We remember because some things should never be forgotten.

I shall end with a poem by Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, with its conclusion that poses a threatening ending, should we dare forget… an ending which, I think, given Levi’s experience, is totally understandable if rather challenging.

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.

Holland Park Benefice