Sermon - Remembrance Sunday 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr at St Andrew's Church, Brussels on Remembrance Sunday 2018.

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, 14 / Matthew 5: 38-48

Text:  For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace                   (Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 8)

IN NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

It is the wound in Time, writes the poet, the century’s tides

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars, death’s birthing place;

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching

new carnage, But how could you know, brave as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?[1]

The poet is Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, and these are opening lines to her poem The Wound in Time written for today, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and the end of the 1st World war.

The poem is part of the Pages of the Sea project arranged by the film director Danny Boyle which will see people gathering today on beaches up and down the UK to pay tribute to Britain’s war dead.

And in churches and war memorials and graveyards  as well as on beaches, people will gather today throughout the UK and much of Europe, as you are doing here this morning,  people of different nationalities, people of different faith groups and none, serving and former service personnel, civilians with no experience of armed conflict, people of all ages and walks of life to remember, to stand in silence, to lay wreaths, to pay tribute, to pay respect, some to pray and all to wonder, to wonder about what the poet describes as the wound in time, the war that was to end all wars, the Great War and the Armistice which brought it to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month exactly one hundred years ago.

888, 246: that is the official death toll of British and Colonial soldiers from the 1st World War.

888, 246: the number does not include the dead of all the combatant nations.

It does not include the number of those who returned home dreadfully injured in body, mind and spirit and for whom life was never the same again.

It does not include the families who were left bereaved, left to pick up the pieces and for whom life was never the same again.

And it cannot include the communities who lost a generation of young men and for whom life was never the same again.

Whatever the official records there is no meaningful way of counting the Great War’s toll of death and destruction.

Although I studied the 1st World War at university, conducted many services of Remembrance and stood in silence at many war memorials, it was only when I first visited Tyne Cot in 2006 I grasped something of the conflict’s overwhelming nature.

Visiting with my friend and colleague, Alan McDonald, at that time Moderator of the General Assembly, the pair of us chatting as we drove from Brussels, the usual banter born of a thirty year friendship, having parked we made our way to the visitor centre.

It was November, mid-afternoon, the setting sun was low on the horizon, and as we stepped out into the cemetery the seemingly endless rows of white crosses stunned the pair of us into silence.

What could we say?

What is there to say?

More than anything else, it is the poet who speaks into the silence.

Isn’t it significant, one of the ways the 1st World War is best remembered is through the poetry of people like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Laurence Binyon and Rudyard Kipling?

Kipling, a committed Christian, lost his own son at Loos in 1915, the body never recovered during his father’s lifetime, and one of the ways Kipling dealt with his loss was through his involvement with the Imperial, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Invited to contribute towards the symbolism and wording to be inscribed on memorials and gravestones, it was Kipling who suggested Stones of Remembrance be built in each graveyard inscribed with the phrase from Ecclesiasticus (44:14) Their Name Liveth Forevermore with gravestones of unknown soldiers reading, Known Unto God.

And it was Kipling who suggested The Glorious Dead as the inscription on London’s Cenotaph.

Yet despite his involvement with the Commission and his contribution to its work, as one of his most famous lines reveals, Kipling was not persuaded by the idea of soldiers fighting and dying for God, King and country.

If they should question why we died, he wrote, tell them, because our Fathers lied.

Whether then or now, in their attempt to get to the heart of things, the truth of things, the deep meaning of things, the poet does not mince his or her words.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem goes on to speak of The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air and of Poetry gargling in its own blood.

These poems do not spare our feelings and sensibilities.

These poems are just as brutal and raw in their language and imagery as the events they attempt to describe.

Yet at their best they speak into the silence, the silence of the human condition, the depths of the human soul, the history of courage and sacrifice, loyalty and inhumanity commemorated on a day such as this, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

And at its best our faith does the same.

For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time

Qoheleth decided it was time to take stock.

As he reflected on the world as he had experienced it, his birth, his life, the lives of people around him, and as he anticipated his death, a horizon beyond which he could not see, Qoheleth wondered if God had a purpose in creation, a plan, and if so did anyone know what it was?

Qoheleth does not mince his words or spare his readers’ sensibilities, vanity of vanities, he declares, all is vanity, because as far as Qoheleth could tell, the world was confusing and enigmatic, the greatest enigma being human beings themselves.

As the narrative of Ecclesiastes unfolds Qoheleth , the author, comes to two conclusions.

Although he believes there is a divine purpose at the heart of life, a purpose which gives meaning to human experience, Qoheleth acknowledges the limits of human wisdom, even the wisdom of a godly person.

And so he is led to conclude the larger purposes of God in creation, and the ultimate meaning of human experience, whether good or bad, is beyond the capacity of human wisdom to discern.

Accepting the limitations of human wisdom brought Qoheleth to his second conclusion, namely, that although we might not be able to fathom the deep meaning of life and all its varied circumstances, the life of faith was still worthwhile and meaningful.

And so with words which have rarely been surpassed Qoheleth said there is a season for everything and a time for every activity under the heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, a time for war and a time for peace.

These are magnificent sentiments, sentiments which speak into the depth of the human soul……………….yet it is not just their poetry which appeals.

What appeals is the underlying conviction that time and experience is meaningful, each day, each hour, each moment, each season held in the providence of God.

What happened next? Carol Ann Duffy’s poem asks

War.

And after that?

War

And now?

War.

War.

History might as well be water, chastising the shore; for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.

Well, the poet might think so, and perhaps the historian, but with the eyes of faith the people of faith dare to believe nothing is wasted, nothing is overlooked, no life, no person, for all are embraced in the providence of God.

Here is one of the gifts of faith, the gift of reassurance, a precious gift on any day but especially on a day such as this; the faith that when human beings have done their worst, God remains – and because God remains so too does hope and life and love.

Living in an occupied country, the people of Jesus’ day suffered the domination and abuse of imperial Rome.

Knowing it was a soldier’s right to force someone to carry their equipment, the disciples would doubtless have experienced or witnessed people being bullied, harassed and assaulted.

Now Jesus is telling them to turn the other cheek and walk a second mile.

Difficult, demanding, challenging, controversial; as the passage unfolds we discern Jesus calling disciples to transform relationships of domination and abuse into relationships that embody healing and wholeness.

After all, although the old way of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth might limit retribution it still left people blind, and toothless.

More importantly it left them feeling hurt, alienated and angry.

Something new was needed, something different, and as Jesus describes situations of injustice with which the disciples would be very familiar, he invites them - he invites us - to imagine new and different ways of living and being and responding, ways that open up the possibility of reconciliation, restoration and peace.

Here is another of the gifts of faith, its promise of a new heaven and a new earth, and on this 100th anniversary of the Armistice what it would look like if we dared allow Christ’s teaching to shape the way we live, our home and family life, our church and working life, our politics and our international relationships?

For everything its season and for every activity under heaven its time

Today, the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month it is our privilege to join many others in remembering a time of war and praying for a time of peace, in keeping silence, laying wreaths and paying tribute to those who died in the Great War and those who carried the scars of warfare for years afterwards.

We do so in a church erected to the glory and honour of God and to the memory of Presbyterians who lost their lives in the 1914-18 war and rest in Belgium.

And if the poet is right – and she is - and the wound in time still weeps let the final word, a word of healing and hope, be with a different soldier come poet.

Teach us, good Lord,

to serve Thee as Thou deservest

to give and not to count the cost

to fight and not to heed the wounds

to toil and not to ask for rest

to labour and not to seek any reward

save that of knowing that we do Thy will.  [2]

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

 


[1] Carol Ann Duffy The Wound In Time

[2] Prayer attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola