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A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Here, if it be of any interest to readers, is my draft sermon for Remembrance Sunday at Little Paxton Church. It is a mixture of ideas and thoughts from previous years, but including some valuable reserach which the late Derek Eyres from Little Paxton carried out last year just before he died. I hope the sermon may be of hope to those of you looking for some thoughts for this unique sunday. I must acknowledge that the reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Pilate came from another author some years ago – but I cannot now remember who.

I recently visted Madingley American Cemetery  and discovered that  around the  base of the flagpole the words are the words: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high”.

You may know that those words come from one of the most  famous poems to emerge from World War I, namely “In Flanders Fields” written  by the Canadian physician John McCrae, who himself died while serving in a field hospital in Belgium.
“To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high”.
The poem continues:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

And so it has always seemed incredibly important to me to honour this day of Remembrance in ways that are sincere, reverent and which always try to make sense of the suffering that millions of individuals and communities went through and go through who are caught up in war.

The thing that strikes me about the Madingley Cemetery is the  size of it and the large numbers of young men it  honours. It was established in 1943 and is the only USA WW11 burial ground in England. There are 3,812 American military buried there  each with a white cross marking their place and on the wall running from the entrance to the chapel are inscribed the names of 5,126 Americans who died but whose remains were never found.

Most of these died in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the strategic air bombardment of Northwest Europe during World War II. Along the Wall are four statues representing a Soldier, a Sailor, an Airman and a Coast Guard in their typical uniforms and weapons.

If you stand and look at the crosses you can imagine that each represents a young person – some were very young- who had lived and breathed and had hopes and fears just like us. When we reflect on the huge numbers of civilians and military personal who were killed in the two wars of the last century it can feel impossible to begin to conceive  of all the suffering physical and emotional and mental that people went through. There are so many stories of bravery that could be told of those who lived through the wars of the 20th century – and those who didn’t make it. But how today can we make sense of the vast amount of suffering and indeed the ongoing suffering of those caught up in modern day wars?

In the weeks before he died in December of last year, Derek Eyres did some extensive research into the lives of  some of those who died from our local communities. One was Rifleman Samuel Irons. Sam as he was known, was born into the Irons family in Diddington and brought up by an aunt in Eynesbury. He was an old soldier, having served in the Boer War. He was on reserve for five years until 1913 and then worked at Little Paxton papermills. In 1912 he married Mill Lillian Ashpole from Little Paxton  but when war broke out in 1914 Sam, who had already served his country with much bravery,  rejoined his old regiment the 2nd battalion, The Kings Royal Rifle Corps.

In May 1915 he wrote to his wife:

My dearest wife,

I am keeping quite well  and hope all at home are the same.

We are in trenches again and only 50-80 yards off the Germans. Our fellows could hear them singing in the morning as plain as anything. Of course they keep firing at us all the time and we let them have something back you may be sure.

My thoughts are always about you and wondering if you are keeping well. I suppose the things are looking nice at home now and I hope you will have a good crop of potatoes, as I know things are very dear at home. You must go out as much as possible and enjoy yourself. We are having some lovely weather here again now but all the same I would rather be at home with you. Of course we know some of us must be out here or we should have those bounders over in England. May God keep you and protect you from all harm. Your loving  husband, Sam.

On May 31st 1915 – just days after he wrote that letter, Sam was killed in action and was buried in Woburn Abbey Cemetery in Calais.

Rifleman Arthur Withey wrote to Mrs Irons:

I am sorry to have to inform you that I was present at the time of your husband’s death if you have not heard from the war office that he was killed on May 31st. I am glad to say he died a true and brave death and did not suffer any pain. I send all his comrades’ deepest sympathy as he was very much liked in the company. Hoping that God will give you health and strength in your sad bereavement. I was requested by Sam if anything should happen to him to let you know.

Rifleman Withey himself died in action on 16th January 1918.

These brief but touching insights into the all too human stories of bravery and grief were   repeated millions of times over during the major conflicts of the last century – and just as tragically are being repeated day after day as young men and women are being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watching films can one of the way to bring truth home and recently I watched a film called Jarhead – portraying war mainly as waiting for something to happen.

The film is set in the Gulf War of 1991, and it’s about Marines( called jarheads)  doing their tour of duty in the desert. What you remember from it is the bafflement of those young men trying to make sense of going to war ‘in a country they don’t understand against an enemy they can’t see for a cause they don’t fully fathom’.  You feel the disorientating effects of the relentless heat and the vast lonely desert spaces, and that strange alchemy that I guess only fighting men and women know: the boredom, the tension, the fear as the waiting goes on and on, the sudden rush when the action finally erupts.

At the end of 1916, the year of the Battle of the Somme  the poet Robert Graves looked back on his experiences as a soldier.  It’s much the same as Jarhead, only foggy, cold and wet.  ‘This is a dreary flat place… with the intolerable boredom of mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again.  No one is at his best here… The year is dying of atrophy… and the war is settling down on everyone – a hopeless, never-shifting burden.  While newspapers and politicians yell and brandish their arms, the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets.’

The question is, and always has been, what meaning attaches to the lives and experiences of men and women in war, caught up in huge impersonal forces over which they have so little control?   what meaning attaches to their deaths?

‘What passing bells for those who die like cattle?’ wrote another soldier-poet Wilfred Owen – not to insult his fellow soldiers whom he loved dearly, but to point out that when slaughter is relentless and indiscriminate, we need to give even more value to each individual, recognise the humanity of each as someone’s parent, someone’s child, someone’s sibling, colleague and friend.

Remembrance Sunday focuses very sharply this contrast between the terrible and merciless forces of armed conflict and the lives and destinies of the individual human beings who are caught up in them.  And this is one way of reading the final week of Jesus’ life as he endures the ordeals of his passion and goes to his death on the cross.

Thinking about his last week we can glimpse how he too was the victim of huge impersonal forces beyond any one human being’s ultimate control.

The encounter between Christ and Pilate in St John’s Gospel is one of the great scenes not only of the Bible but in all literature.  In it two world-views collide head-on: two empires, two cities, two kinds of power.  There is the Reich Pilate stands for, established through violence, the force of arms and imperial hegemony; and there is the kingdom of Jesus that is ‘not from this world’ but is based on the truth he has come to bear witness to.

There is no meeting between these two cities, and there is never any doubt as to the outcome in Jesus’ case.  He dies as the victim of what human beings do to one another without end.  Yet for St John, death is Jesus’ destiny.  It is not quite as we had thought, that Jesus is the helpless victim.  Far from it. It is rather that death is his chosen path.

He has power to lay down his life, he says, and power to take it up again.  Indeed, the person on trial in our reading is not Jesus at all.  It’s Pilate, and the world-order he represents.  And Jesus’ decision to walk the path of suffering and embrace death is precisely the source of his authority and his kingship.  It is how he bears witness to the truth.  Which is why, at the cross, he is able to cry out in triumph, ‘It is accomplished!’

Living and dying purposefully – isn’t that at the heart of our observance today?  When we see on thousands of war memorials the names of the fallen beneath the words of Jesus, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’, we are face to face with the wish, the belief, that somehow, apparently pointless avoidable suffering can be given meaning by associating it with the purposeful suffering of Jesus.

I doubt that we would want to use the older language of ‘the glorious dead’ today: our memories of pride and gratitude are too coloured by a sense of the pity of war, the waste of human lives, the tragedy of a broken world, our ambivalence about the motives of politicians whose decisions sometimes slide us too easily into armed conflict.  We are too aware, in a way that previous generations perhaps weren’t, of the despair of so many of the world’s peoples: innocent civilians whom the correct jargon callously calls the ‘collateral damage’ of war; the poor who are always its forgotten casualties.

But we do want to say (and a nation is in a pitiable condition if it cannot say it) that those who died in the service of their country did so purposefully and not in vain.  That is to give to their deaths something of the meaning we crave.  And it is to glimpse how ‘God is for the suffering people’ as the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, himself executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War for his courageous stand against Hitler.

Ecce Homo says Pilate as he presents Jesus to the crowd: ‘behold the man!’ – for the Son of Man in his suffering is every human being in pain, every victim for whom there is no way back from the shadow of death, only through it to what lies beyond.  For if we can begin to see how human suffering is interpreted and given meaning by the passion and resurrection of Jesus, we can begin to glimpse the wonderful truth so well expressed in our final hymn, and that changes everything:

And when human hearts are breaking / Under sorrow’s iron rod,

Then they find that selfsame aching / Deep within the heart of God.

Today pride and pain walk hand in hand.  We would not be truly human if we did not remember with pain.  We would not be good citizens if we did not remember with pride.  Pride and pain meet with passion, and today should be a day of passion.  But it’s not our own passion that is the real truth of today, but the passion of Jesus who was obedient to death.  This is the truth by which we live and die, that gives meaning to our bafflement, and courage under the ‘hopeless, never-shifting burden’ of war that our planet has borne for so long.  We bring our memories to the cross of the man who did not die in vain.  And that changes everything.  It makes it possible to sing, as we shall do presently, ‘God is love, so Love for ever o’er the universe must reign’.  It gives us back our hope.

 

 

poppies - many

November 6, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Beautiful. Thank you.

    Comment by Marie | November 7, 2009 | Reply

  2. Dear Vicar,

    Thank you for a very lovely message. I watched several of the Remebrance Day clips on my computer, the two minute silence at the Cenotaph, the wreath laying, and ceremonies in the Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “Pain and pride” is a very good way os summarizing. With the tragedy of the soldiers killed by a comrade at Fort Hood so fresh in my mind it is a comfort to look at tevent sin this way. We don’t expect our soldiers to be murdered at their own base, and want to know how it can happen.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Pat | November 8, 2009 | Reply


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