Sermon - Sunday, 10 November 2019

The following sermon was delivered by Very Revd Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 10 November 2019.

Scripture: Micah 4: 1-8 / John 15: 9-17

Text: And they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and   no-one shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken                          (Micah 4: 4)

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

Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha and Utah: do you recognise these as the war time codenames given to the beaches on the Normandy coastline?

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Codenamed Operation Overlord the events of 5th and 6th June 1944 were the largest seaborne invasion in history.

The D-Day landings opened a second front which, as well as relieving pressure on the Soviet Union in the east, stretched Germany’s military resources to breaking point and helped lay the foundations for the long and costly campaign which would eventually liberate France and north-west Europe from German occupation.

Under the leadership of General Dwight D Eisenhower, D-Day planning had started the previous December and included various deception campaigns to draw German attention and military strength away from Normandy.

Meanwhile resources were built up in Britain as some nine million tonnes of supplies and equipment was shipped across the Atlantic as well as considerable numbers of American and Canadian forces.

By June 1944 over two million troops from some twelve countries were in Britain in preparation for the invasion with Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian and Polish forces supporting the British, American and Canadian troops.

Delayed by twenty for hours because of poor weather conditions, the invasion happened in two main phases, an airborne assault followed by amphibious landings and a ground assault.

Shortly after midnight on the 6th June, some 18,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped into the invasion area – Allied forces flew over 14,000 sorties in support of the landings and secured air supremacy - while some 7,000 naval vessels bombarded the German coastal defenses, provided artillery support and were responsible for escorting and landing some 132,000 ground troops onto the fifty mile stretch of beaches codenamed Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha and Utah.

Strong winds blew many of the landing crafts east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha, the beaches were mined and covered with obstacles, troops landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements, and if you have ever watched the opening sequences of the film Saving Private Ryan it offers a terrifying insight  

into the dreadful ordeal experienced by the soldiers who landed on these beaches.

Casualties were heavy on both sides and although the Allies failed to achieve any of their goals on the first day – all five beachheads were not connected until 12 June and the town of Caen, a major strategic objective, was not captured until 21 July - the operation created a foothold on the Normandy coastline for the Allied forces from which they could advance and eventually prevail in the war with Nazi Germany.  

Perhaps you watched some of the televised events to commemorate D-Day’s 75th anniversary as the world’s leaders gathered on the beaches which had once been battlegrounds or heard the moving interviews with elderly and often frail men, veterans of the landings, recalling some of the events of the day and the campaign which unfolded and visiting the graves of friends and comrades who paid the ultimate sacrifice all those years ago.

Today it is our privilege to join in that remembrance, to commemorate D-Day and the Normandy landings and to give thanks for sacrifice of life and limb which so many men and women have given to defend these shores.

Whether on D-Day or elsewhere, theirs is a rich legacy of courage and commitment, of fear and determination, of loyalty and loss which we are glad to honour.

Yet what does it mean to honour such a legacy?

According to Chambers dictionary as well as being a bequest, something left to you in a will, a legacy can be something handed on by or left unfinished by a predecessor or previous owner.

Defined in these terms, what is the legacy of something handed on, the legacy of unfinished business left to us on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago?

Whatever else it includes, such a legacy surely includes the realization the world is not as it should be, as it could be, as it ought to be, and as in faith we believe it was created to be.

Whether it is concerns about the climate, global warming, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the polar icecaps, or the tinder box that is the Middle East and the current conflict engulfing the Kurds in Northern Syria, or  entirely preventable hunger and disease experienced by so many people in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, it does not take long to name any number of ways in which this world, our world, God’s world, is not as it should be, could be and ought to be.

On Remembrance Sunday one of the gifts of Christian faith is its invitation not to accept the way things are but to look forward to a different time, a better time, a different way, a better way, a new heaven and a new earth when the instruments of war become implements of peace and the nations and peoples of the world live in harmony with one another and with all creation.

And they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Burns’ poem ‘A man’s a man’, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ or Winston Churchill’s never in the field of human conflict; every now and again you come across a speech, a poem, an article or piece of

 

literature so striking in its vision, so breathtaking in the breadth and depth of its concern and its distillation of human hope that it captures your imagination.

Expressing as it does a picture of the world not as it is but the world as it should be, these verses from Micah belong to that rare category of classic literature.

Micah, a prophetic giant in his day, was a contemporary of another Hebrew prophet, Isaiah[1], and with the same verses appearing in the opening chapters of Isaiah, Biblical scholars wonder if they were both quoting from a no longer existing psalm.[2]

Whatever the source, Micah ministered during a troubled period in ancient Israel’s history, a time characterized by the threat of war and the awful reality of warfare.

Having just described the destruction of Jerusalem as an act of divine judgment, Micah reaches out to a desolate nation and offers a very different vision of Israel’s future.

Set in the latter days, an unspecified time in the future, Micah’s vision is dominated by a mountain on which is set the house of the Lord, the perpetual sign and symbol of God’s presence in the world.

As the nations of the world are drawn to this holy mountain, they receive instruction concerning the ways in which they must walk and hear God’s word teaching the peoples and nations of the world on how they should live.

As the instruction is taken to heart, the effect is dramatic and precipitates a revolution in human society as swords are turned into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the terror and destruction of warfare becomes a thing of the past.

Of course this vision was totally out of harmony with the world as Micah experienced it – and that is just the point – for it was fully in harmony with the world he wanted it to be – as we would all want it to be – and dare we say as God created it to be.

On a Remembrance Sunday this is the legacy we inherit, the legacy which comes to us from the beaches of Normandy, the legacy handed down to us from every battlefield and from every beautifully maintained Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery, the legacy of unfinished business.

You do not need me to tell you the world is not as it should be but you do need me to remind you of God’s promise of renewal and God’s gift of hope, hope for a different way and hope for a better way.

And if our part of calling as a church is – and it is – to keep God-given hope alive it is also our calling to embody the transformation such hope entails as together we pray and work for the day when the instruments of war become the implements of peace, everyone is able to sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees – and no-one will be afraid.

 

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.  [3]

 


[1] Isaiah 2, vv2-4

[2] Peter C Craigie, The Daily Study Bible – Twelve Prophets Volume 11, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1985, p31

[3] Prayer attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola