Remembrance Sunday Homily, November 8th 2020
Third Sunday before Advent.
John 15:9-17 and Romans 8:31-39.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life,
we pray that you will not let us stray from you, the Way, nor distrust you, the Truth, nor rest in anything other than you – the Life.
Teach us by your Holy Spirit, what to believe, what to do, and how to take our rest. Amen.
Retired US General Harold Moore wrote the Book “We were soldiers once and young”, discussing his command’s first battle in Vietnam. In the opening pages he quotes those words of Jesus: 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus shares this words on the evening of the Last Supper. On that evening our Lord commanded an act of remembrance to be held. That act is called by different names, Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper, Mass, Eucharist. I would like to consider the Last Supper, and how it guides us on Remembrance Sunday.
I believe it helps us reflect on remembering, on being thankful and being agents of change…
At the heart of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, is remembrance. He had a meal with his friends where he washed their feet, and taught them. He commanded them to love each other. The standard he amazingly set was his own expression of love to them: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. He asked the church to remember what was about to happen to him – like the bread he broke, and the wine that was poured, his body would be broken and his blood shed – his death was for them and for each of us. He would say: ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11:24-25).
Today we recall those who died for us, there were those who died in battle – perhaps in their first or after many; there were others who intended to fight but who were killed before reaching the front, dying on ships torpedoed by submarines, in bombed cites, or even in friendly fire. We remember all those individual lives.
There was a purpose for Jesus sacrificial death – so that a new future is possible for all of us, so we could be free, free from sin, free from guilt, free from fear, enjoy the gift of eternal life.
There was a purpose why these service men and women died. They died to bring freedom, peace, security, stability, seeking to remove injustice and oppression with justice and righteousness within the different countries of Europe, of our world.
In Holy Communion, we remember a death on a cross. A way, that was deemed so awful a Roman citizen was not allowed to be crucified. That is why Peter is crucifed, Paul is beheaded in Rome – because he was a Roman Citizen.
As we remember we seek to some of the reality, a glimpse of the horrors these members of the armed forces and their families faced.
Growing up, as young teenager, I wanted to be in the RAF, to be a fighter pilot. That hope ended when I discovered I needed glasses. But I grew up with a great interest in World War and military things. Callum is following in his father’s interests.
Yet since I became a church minister, I learned something else about the war.
You see I would meet war veterans and part of me would want to engage them in conversation about the war. But you know what – very few ever chatted about what happened. Sure about funny things or where they’d been, but not about events. I believe it was all too painful what they did or saw, how it had affected them.
It reminds us of the horrors the members of the armed forces can experience. And the horrors or stress experienced by their families – worrying, anxious, those who would receive a letter teling them a loved one had died about a far off place they didn’t know where it was.
There are Commonwealth War Graves across the Netherlands. A few years ago, I visited the Cemetary in the south, near Venray. As I looked at the graves – 15th October, 17th October 21st October, 19, 22, 18, different ages, 300 men in that small place. Next time you are near such a cemetery take some time. It struck me the sadness, the numerous deaths within a small space of time over a small part of the Netherlands.
Today the armed forces and veterans of whatever country we represent, need people who seek to understand what they faced or what they went through on our countries behalf or on the behalf of others.
Our remembrance leads us into Thanksgiving. Anglican churches, like ours, often call Communion, Eucharist – a Greek word which means ‘thanksgiving’. The death of Jesus, turns us to thanks. He did lay down his life for us, we did not earn his death, the cross proclaims a God of love – Jesus who laid down his life for us out of love; God who gave his son up for us all, out of love.
Likewise at such times, as we think of what the armed forces did in the World Wars but also in conflicts since, we express our thanks for what they have done and the sacrifices they made.
Many times as a Scout, I attended Remembrance Services and thought of the lives laid down, which included the soldiers who came to N. Ireland to seek to bring peace and stability. But in recent years, I realised there was more needed, to be thankful, for all they gave up, for these men, who were just doing their job, supporting the police, yet people would hate them or try to kill them. The soldiers who could not walk freely on the streets of our towns, or who lived in bases with double walls in case of car bombs or walls high enough to resist mortar attacks. To thank such men and women who came and served away from home.
Jolanda when we were in Telford, wanted to, on a Remembrance Sunday service to say thank you to the British people gathered in our small church – many of whom were in their 60s – because their fathers, uncles, brothers had gone to war, to help bring freedom to the Netherlands. For someone to thank them from a country – the Netherlands – which had been liberated.
In September 1944, American, British and Polish paratroopers landed in Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem in Operation Market Garden. Last year, I saw a video interview with an elderly lady, who as a school child, just after the war, her and others began laying flowers on the airborne graves. In remembrance. In thanksgiving for their sacrifice.
Finally, in the Roman Catholic church, the name for the Communion service, is Mass. At its core meaning, it means ‘to send’. At the end of an Anglican communion service, a minister like me usually says – ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’; ‘in the name of Christ’ people reply.
So you remember,
you give thanks,
and then you go,
empowered by what you have experienced in church to love and serve God.
You return to church each week having loved and served God, and then you are sent again.
Jesus reminds us, “I chosen and appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit.” Fruitful lives for God – in our families, where we live, where we work or study.
Fruitful lives begins where we are right now.
Remembrance Day invites us to remember, to be thankful, but also to be an agent of change, to bring fruit. This can take a few forms…
The apostle Paul says to Timothy: “Pray for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” (1 Timothy 2). Pray for authority figures so that peace dominates countries and continents and not war, that across our world, justice and righteousness would roll on like an never failing stream.
Pray for the colleges, high schools, universities, some of whose students will become influential people in the years ahead. To pray that they – those upcoming leaders and influencers- would be peacemakers and peacekeepers in the coming years.
Praying for the coming kingdom of Christ. Yet it is possible to only concentrate upon that coming of the Lord and what it means for us individually. But Isaiah 2 states when the kingdom comes:
“The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes, they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” What wonder the consummated kingdom means for this war torn world…
And perhaps for some of us, God may lead our lives into situations where we can prevent conflict happening. It sounds crazy, but as someone stated: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As a pastor, I am challenged by the example of German pastors during the Second World War, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against Hitler and his regime even though they were warned. And they were imprisoned; some killed. They refused to go with the flow but spoke out, to try and prevent a greater evil coming, they sought to see justice and righteousness flow again.
33 years ago, on this Sunday, while across Northern Ireland, people gathered to remember, the IRA had set off a bomb in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, near the Cenotaph. 11 people were killed 63 wounded. One of those killed was Marie Wilson, a nurse, daughter of a man called Gordon Wilson. They had been buried in rubble. Gordon and Marie were pulled out, but she never regained consciousness.
In an interview with the BBC, broadcast the next day, Wilson described with anguish his last conversation with his daughter and his feelings toward her killers:
“She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.”
Wilson went on to add,
“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet.
She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
Gordon was a committed Christian, and an ordinary man, a man who ran a shop in a county town. Yet when tragedy came, he chose to pray. His faith mobilised and shaped his actions… and his actions, showed the people of his town to be forgiving, reconciling, than embrace fear and conflict.
God may take one of us, some of us, where our influence may be important for a town, for an individual – we may be silent or we can be outspoken for the values of the kingdom.
And we do all that we do, in the confidence that nothing but nothing can separate you, me, from God’s love in Christ. There is no greater expression of God’s love than that demonstrated through Jesus. That love overcomes all we can ever face or come across. Paul points to death – the great enemy – which has a say in everyone’s lives. Yet its power to separate from God has gone – due to Christ – we do not grieve as people without hope Paul says. We grieve with hope.
General Montgomery, army commander, before the key battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, told his troops to read these verses before the battle would begin. As a Christian and as a general he would invite his troops to pray before each battle. In recommending these words, he knew his troops would face many of the situations Paul described. Yet even in that, including death, Montgomery held to that nothing could separate them from the love of God.
In these words, Paul encourages us, should anything in life seem able to tear us away from God and his goodness and his love, it will not do so. No length of time can cut us off from the grace of the Lord. His words are so helpful – we can struggle with the sorrow from the experiences we go through now, from the stress of still being restricted even in lockdown due to a virus, we can have fear or anxiety about what is coming. Yet he says our fears about today our worries about tomorrow cannot cut us off from the love of Christ.
So as we seek to be an agent of change where we are, we walk in that confidence of his love above us, around us, behind us, beneath us, ahead of us.
So, on Remembrance Sunday,
we are thankful,
and we seek to be proactive, to be agents of change, to allow God to use us, that what those we remember died for, will not come near again.