Sermon - Sunday, 12 November 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Remembrance Sunday.

Scripture: Isaiah 24: 1-10 / Matthew 5: 38-48

Text:  You have heard that it was said ……………..but I tell you                    (Matthew 5: 38)


It began on 1st July 1916.

It lasted for 141 days.

It was fought over a fifteen mile front.

Its aim was to relieve the French troops at Verdun and to weaken the German lines.

It was the first battle in which tanks were used and the importance of airpower was recognised.

Having bombarded the German lines with heavy artillery for seven days, some 100,000 soldiers were sent ‘over the top’ only to be met with a hail of machinegun fire from the German troops who had weathered the bombardment in deep trenches.

With over 57,000 casualties on that first day, 19,240 killed, it remains the bloodiest day in British military history.

The Somme – the name has come to epitomize the unimaginable horror of the Great War.

One hundred years later Margaret and I attended a vigil held at Edinburgh Castle to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme.

The vigil began at sunset on the evening of 30 June with a short service held on the esplanade in front of the Scottish National War memorial.

The service was conducted by my colleague Neil Gardner, minister at the Canongate and himself a former Black Watch army chaplain.

Throughout the night groups of serving and former serving soldiers mounted a guard of honour at the casket inside the War Memorial until dawn when we gathered again – perhaps one hundred of us – as Neil led us in another short act of worship.

We sang the 23rd Psalm, Neil read from scripture, spoke briefly and led us in prayer.

The event could not have been handled more sensitively, Neil led the worship services beautifully, and yet it is not anything he said that lingers long in my memory.

Rather it is a sound, the shrill sound of a whistle.

At 7.30 am on 1 July 1916 Alan Hamilton’s great uncle blew a whistle to lead his men over the top and into battle.

One hundred years later, 1 July 2016, 7.30 am, as we stood in the early morning light Alan Hamilton, himself a serving soldier, blew his great uncle’s whistle once again.

There are no words, simply no words, to describe the experience of hearing that whistle, suffice to say in the silence that followed, and realising it was probably one of the last sounds many men heard, I felt as though I was standing on holy ground.

As you know, the Great War is often referred to as warfare on an industrial scale and some of the trench battles at Passchendaele and the Somme as carnage on an industrial scale.

Historians have sifted through the wreckage of the Somme and those who led the British campaign, General Douglas Haig in particular, have been the subject of fierce criticism, not least because many of the soldiers going ‘over the top’ were part of Kitchener’s Volunteer army, persuaded by that famous poster to sign up and demonstrate their patriotism, but with little or no battle experience.

Although it was at a terrible cost, the Somme was not without its outcomes and many historians consider that it did indeed help to weaken both the resources and the resolve of the German army.

Inevitably any service of Remembrance is about our past – but not just our past.

Today, as we recall something of our nation’s history and recognise the human capacity for evil and acts of unspeakable brutality, as well as giving thanks for those who served and paid the ultimate price in years past, one of the things which is important for us to do is to recognise the women and men who face the reality of human evil and wickedness in the world today and who today and tomorrow are committed to protecting our nation’s liberty.

Each year at the General Assembly, time is always given on Thursday morning to welcome many of the military chaplains to the Assembly.

The Rev Dr David Coulter, the current Chaplain General, is a Church of Scotland minister and along with many of his fellow chaplains, David was welcomed by the Moderator to this year’s Assembly.

Of all the churches which send ministers to serve as military chaplains, the Church of Scotland is the only denomination to welcome them to its Assembly, to recognise the very particular nature of their ministry and to assure them of the support and prayers of our Church, not least in situations which those of us living and working in civilian life will never encounter.

One of Britain’s senior military officers is always a guest of the Lord High Commissioner and, having been noticed in the Gallery, is invited by the Moderator to address the Assembly.

As a further tangible expression of its support, this year the General Assembly also formally subscribed to the Armed Forces Covenant.

The Armed Forces Covenant endorses two broad principles:

that no member of the armed forces should face disadvantage in the provision of public services compared to any other citizen;

that in some circumstances special treatment may be appropriate, especially for service people who have been injured or bereaved.

As well as the Church of Scotland, the covenant has now been signed by the Scottish Government, every local authority and health board as well as Police Scotland and the Scottish Prison Service.

Of course, signing a document is one thing, seeing it translated into meaningful action can often be a different matter, but the Assembly’s willingness to endorse the Covenant was itself a recognition of the Church of Scotland’s support for the women and men of today’s armed forces whose job it is to put themselves in harm’s way.

As well as offering practical and pastoral support, one of the other things it is important for the church to do in the season of Remembrance is to keep alive a different vision, the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, what the Bible describes as the new Jerusalem, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.

You have heard that it was said ……………..but I tell you

Whatever else it does, the Bible recognises the human experience of evil and wickedness and Isaiah could not be accused of mincing his words.

No-one is spared God’s wrath, master or servant, borrower or lender, priest or people, for all humanity is corrupt, the earth has been defiled, the vines have withered and the wine dried up, the music of the tambourines and the harp have been stilled, and the cities lie ruined and desolate.

Quite simply the party is over as creation turns back to chaos.

Isaiah offers a terrifying vision of divine judgment on humanity’s collective failure to honour and follow God’s commandments – and from all that we see happening in our world today, it is one to which we are still needing to pay attention.

However it is with such a prophetic judgment in mind that I think we need to hear Jesus speaking.

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 was telling them to turn the other cheek or 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 to imagine new and different ways of living and being and responding, ways that would open up the possibility of reconciliation, restoration and peace.

A new heaven, a new earth, the new Jerusalem with the old order of things passed away – in this season of Remembrance what would it look like if we allowed this vision of the future to shape the way we live today, our home and family life, our politics and our international relationships today?

Or to put that in other words, when on the sound of a whistle men went over the top, have we the courage in our day to turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us, that is, to commit ourselves to the different way of life Christ calls us to live and the different kind of people Christ calls us to be.

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.

Amen [1]


[1] Prayer attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola