Sermon - Sunday, 8 November


Sunday, 8 November 2020

(The video version is available by clicking HERE )

The Eloquence of Silence

Where did you first experience the eloquence of silence?

Hasn’t silence a matchless power of its own? Did you first feel it after an outstanding piece of playing at a concert, followed by a stunned silence? Or was it in a sporting context?  Did you witness a truly sublime piece of skill from an individual, the response from a huge crowd a collective hush rather than the normal roar of approval?

My first recollection of the articulateness of silence is somewhat different.  It was at the entrance to our local play park in a Lanarkshire village.  On a cold, frosty Remembrance Sunday morning, the community gathered at our War Memorial to recall those from our area and beyond who had died in warfare.  There were Boys Brigade, Cub Scouts and Guides; politicians, wives and husbands, church folk, shop keepers, rich and poor, unmistakably, indeed central was a rare, rich quality of quietness.  Not any silence, this community never met like this at any other time, never bowed heads, never stood so quietly, never revealed public tears, and were never enveloped in a deep connection with other villages worldwide.  The bereaved, the sad and the fallen – mysteriously connected with a thin strong thread of stillness, a rare eloquent silence which I can vividly remember decades later. The bugler was BB boy Kenny Smith playing the Last Post, then Reveille as my Grandfather had played during WW1 and my Father had heard in the Far East during the 2nd World War.

It was the silence, not the words which touched me on those sharp, vivid, November occasions. There was nothing playful about those mornings. However, even as a small boy, something deeper than words was experienced by those who gathered - impressive, reverential and memorable.  

Let me remind you where and why the silence began? 

On the 14 May 1918 the citizens of Cape Town, SA marked the first silence.  It actually started there as a daily Three Minute Pause. The mayor, after receiving the news of his son, Reginald’s death by gassing in April 1918 decided to institute a practice, which had been sporadically attempted in the churches.  It happened at noon every single day.  Signalled by the firing of the ‘Noon Gun’.  One minute was to be for thanksgiving for those who returned alive, the next period to recall the fallen. It ended with a bugler playing the poignant Last Post followed by Reveille. It is recorded that this new innovation had a most profound affect as trams, taxis and cars stopped, pedestrians halted, many men removed their hats. People stopped what they were doing at work and they stood or sat silently.

Eventually a description was cabled to London by the news agency in Cape Town. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick proposed in November 1919 that some of these elements become an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day. Here is his description of the meaning,

"It is due to the women, who have lost and suffered and borne so much, with whom the thought is ever present.

It is due to the children that they know to whom they owe their dear fought freedom.

It is due to the men....

But far and away, above all else, it is due to those who gave their all, sought no recompense, and with whom we can never re-pay…”

101 years ago his suggestions were received by Lord Milner on 4 November 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on 5 November, and immediately approved by the King. A press statement was released from the Palace:

Tuesday next, 11 November, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years…..

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of their feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities.“

The response was tremendous when the whole world stood silently to attention. "Cables from every part of the world showed how well the King's message had been accepted. From the Indian jungles to Alaska, on the trains, on the ships at sea, in every part of the globe where a few British were gathered together, the Two-Minute pause was observed."

How do we reflect on war today?

Together we are invited to stand or sit and remember when the key moment comes each year.  And together we can reflect on the Bible because it offers a paradox to help us think and act.

It says that there is a time to turn plough shares into swords and also a time to do the opposite, to turn swords into ploughs.  I believe them both to be true. 

God’s desire is for a Universal reign of peace, indeed the coming of His Son Jesus, as Prince of Peace is central to this desire. 

However when nations are not following just practices, it can be necessary to consider what options are needed to stop the advance of a tyrannical regime. It is extraordinarily difficult to make the call to go to war, but I do not think it is war-mongering, rather peace-mongering, to create peace by pursuing justice for a people, nation or continent.

After any conflict we have to do something just as hard, forgive our former enemies and re-establish good relations without rancour, despite the losses and pain. For seven years I shared the Act of Remembrance with the German speaking congregation in Edinburgh, though the pattern stretches back over 30 years. We finish the service by putting our hands on each others shoulders - German to Scot and Scot to German and making an Act of Commitment together. We say,

This is our vow. We commit ourselves to live and witness for the unity of the body of Christ.  We commit ourselves to share the resources of this world and to work together for justice and peace. We own commonness with all humanity and pledge ourselves to an ecumenical understanding which is world-embracing. Then we all say together: This is our vow.

May bold words and the eloquence of Silence speak to you today.  Amen.