The Sacrifice of Remembrance

11 11 2012

(Preached at Durham Cathedral 11.11.2012)

‘For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven.’ (Ecclesiastes 3.1)

Today it is time for remembrance.

Remembrance Sunday draws human beings together in a way is almost unique.  Young and old gather to remember and reflect, each allowing some aspect of the reality of war to touch their soul. Some who gather will bring new or not so new memories of active service. Some will carry in their heart the memory of a specially loved one who made the ultimate sacrifice. Many will be stretching their imaginations to try to grasp what those people must be feeling. All will be praying that as time rolls forwards human beings will find ways of resolving their differences and repelling aggressors which do not involve warfare.

I have no personal experience of armed conflict. Nor were my parents old enough to serve in World War 2.  Two of my grandparents were active though: my father’s father, an Irish marine engineer in the Merchant Navy in World War 1 was shipwrecked three times and was one of very few to survive.  My mother’s mother, also Irish, served in the army in the Second World War and drove General Montgomery around France in a jeep.  She was not what you might call a smooth driver, or for that matter an easy person. Montgomery joked (we assume he joked) that he was never more frightened than when she was at the wheel.

My two uncles and one aunt were also active in World War 2.  One uncle was injured and ended up in Colditz.  His injury was never properly treated and he remained in pain for the rest of his life.  My aunt was a nurse in the Queen Alexandria Royal Nursing Corps, treating wounded soldiers on hospital ships. My other uncle was killed in action in bombing raids over Germany towards the end of the war. He was nineteen at the time. My father was fifteen.

It was in observing my father that I have learnt most about remembrance. He did not used to come to occasions like this.  They were too emotional for him, and he did not go out of his way to hear sermons. In truth he was more a man for the cinema than the church. I remember when he took me to see ‘The Dam Busters’.  This was back in the 1960s. We didn’t talk about it much but it was an important event. He died three years ago and the night before his funeral I watched his DVD of the same film, sitting in his seat, watching his TV.  Then I realised what it was all about. It was not the story that mattered. Not the triumph, nor the aeroplanes, nor the stirring music nor Barnes Wallace’s bouncing bombs. It was the tragedy of it: so few of those Lancaster bombers came back.  And as they went down, burning and screaming to the reservoir, or crashing in flames into the side of hill, he was remembering his nineteen-uear-old brother. He saw John’s death a million times – though he was nowhere near it when it happened. That is the sacrifice of remembrance.

But in all his remembering he said very little. In fact he was almost entirely silent on the subject. Silence was the only language that could somehow do justice to the feeling, the memory, and the imagination.

So silence is the true language of remembrance. But there are two kinds of silence.

One is because no one wants to communicate. This is the frosty, thick, awkward, hostile, silence which is an outward expression of irreconcilable hostility.  ‘She isn’t talking to me – big time.’ Such silence is a form of shouting. And it is often a prelude to violence. The guns and bombs begin only after the talking has stopped.

The other sort of silence is calm and mutual, it is the recognition that what matters is so much more than we can ever say that we might as well honour that fact by shutting up for a bit.

The silence of Armistice Day – the silence of Remembrance Sunday – is this sort of silence. It is the recognition that in order to do justice to what has happened, to do justice to the cost of war – its sacrifice and shame – we do not need to tell another story or sing another song. Rather we need to be silent together. We need to recognise that sometimes the most important thing we can do is hold our tongue.

Have you noticed this with war veterans?  The importance thing is not the war stories they tell but the war stories they don’t tell: the memories that are unspeakable, the experiences which can’t or shouldn’t be told.

Speaking recently about her new book Toby’s Coat – which is about people terribly disfigured by war injuries – our local Booker Prize winner author, Pat Barker, said that in many ways the book is about the sense of smell. In our brain, she told us, the smell centre is close to the memory centre. That is why smells can be so evocative. Smells can take you back down the years or transport you across the globe in an instant. And smell can be powerfully important in grieving.  The mother of a boy who died violently, once told me that she went in among his clothes to get the smell of him.  She asked if it was normal.  I said it was.  Anyone who has known true grief will understand that.

One of the things that we notice when we are silent is the sound of our own breathing.  It is something we don’t listen to or think about enough.  We all breathe the same air; in and out it goes, in and out of each and every one of us. This is true for us in today’s community of remembrance here. It is the same for those engaging in conflict. The British and German trenches in the First World War were filled with the same rotten air, the same rancid smells. Those who breathed their last on either side had the same stench in their nostrils.  And in the Second World War, those who fell under bombs had their noses filled with the dust of bricks and mortar and the acrid smells of burning household items as well as burning hair and flesh.  Bombed people breathe in the dust of ruin and death. It becomes part of who they are. In Afghanistan today, those on active service are breathing hot and sandy air, finding it all the harder to catch their breath and compose themselves when under attack or on patrol, wondering whether the greater threat is from sniper or IED and not knowing what is going to happen next or who is going to make it through and come home.

Memory and silence, sense of smell, sound of breathing: we must not forget these basic ingredients of our humanity. For of such are fellowship and community made; of such comes the solidarity and empathy what makes us want not only peace and prosperity for ourselves, but makes us strive for the peace that passes all understanding for all people that dwell on earth.  It is a terrifyingly ambitious hope – and we know that in our search for it there will be many sadness’s and tragedies, many sacrifices, many broken hearts and bodies.

But we know too that the power of remembrance is that while it connects us with sadness it also inspires us in hope.

We remember not to allow the past to capture us in its worst moments but to build us up for the future.  We remember not only to honour the fallen, but to raise them in our hearts and to promise to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.

Jesus knew the power of remembrance when he took a loaf of bread, blessed it and gave it to his friends saying, ‘this is my body’ and gave them wine to drink saying, ‘this is my blood’ and told them to remember him in this way.  For of such simple things is the kingdom of God – the long hoped for future of justice and peace, mercy and truth – made. And of such remembrance comes the forgiveness of sins, the cleansing of our hearts and souls of our faults and failures and the all-too-painful realities that accuse us when we think on the qualities of others, and judge ourselves by the sacrifice made by those who cannot be here because they have given their all.

It is our duty this day to ensure that those who in the cause of peace have given, and continue to give, of their life, their health, their youth, are honoured and remembered. But in our remembering we must also vow to give of ourselves for the good of humanity, especially of the generations yet to come; who will themselves one day stand in silent remembrance and grow in hope.

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A Sermon To End All Sermons: Do’s and Don’ts on Remembrance Sunday

4 11 2012

No one argues with you if you say that it is difficult to preach on Remembrance Sunday. Though why it is more difficult than any other Sunday I can’t really think.  In fact, in some ways it might be easier.

After all, it’s a day when the secular calendar and the religious calendar overlap. It’s certainly an occasion where you don’t have to hunt around for a theme. And it’s a ceremony when people really do care what you say and will notice if you put your foot in it. This may not be the sermon to end all sermons – but it certainly matters. It will be remembered.

My most memorable preaching experiences on Remembrance Sunday come from my Loughborough days when I was Chaplain to the Royal British Legion and spoke at the service in the town’s Queen’s Park. The service was under the  wonderful Carillon War Memorial. The carillonneur played Chopin’s Funeral March as the wreaths were laid. Poppies fell during the silence, which ended with a rifle shot from the top of the tower directly above my head. I shared the shelter of the doorway with other local clergy and the President of the RBL, Jim Pitts, while anything from one to two thousand people stood for the whole ceremony. One of my most abiding parish memories is of watching petals fall on Jim’s hat-covered head as I stood immediately behind him.

So – the challenge: a four-figure congregation, outdoors, standing up, in November. It didn’t take long for me to decide that it would be a very bad idea to bore them rigid with church-speak, or to foist my own sociopolitical views on them.

Anyway – that’s my credentials. Here is my list of do’s and dont’s.

Do:

  1. ask others how long it should be and believe them.
  2. write a script, read it out loud in advance to time it, and stick to it.
  3. mention films or literature that will help people focus.
  4. reach out to all who will be present. Remembrance is an inclusive all-age activity.
  5. find something personal to say, something that only you could say. (But keep it really brief, a tiny touch will do.)
  6. connect with the spirit of silent remembrance.
  7. spend half an hour imagining how you would  feel on Remembrance Sunday if you had been involved in active service and had lost friends.
  8. go and read all the names on your local war memorial.
  9. inject Gospel hope into both the tone and content of what you say.

Don’t:

  1. include any pulpit humour in the opening paragraph.
  2. construct an argument about just war theory.
  3. become a political commentator for the day.
  4. pay any attention to aspects of the ceremony you find uncomfortable – just screen them out and focus on the bits that have meaning for you.
  5. even think about wearing a white poppy.

P.S.  When I first thought about this I imagined the ‘don’ts’ would outnumber the ‘do’s’ but I am glad it is the other way around.

P.P.S. I myself will be preaching in Durham Cathedral, where people will be sitting comfortably. Nonetheless I plan to take a strong dose of my own ‘do and don’t’ medicine. I hope it works for us all.

P.P.P.S  I know this is a bit opinionated, but comment is free.