Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance and the need for new vision

Homily at the Sung Eucharist - 13 November 2016

(Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19)

Words we hear in today’s Gospel:

9 When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Listening to these words today they may seem to indicate a certain inevitability about the state of the world as it is. “There will be great earthquakes…” - and thousands are living in temporary accommodation only a fortnight or so after the most recent earthquakes to have afflicted Central Italy. The world is still not immune to famines and plagues. But most of all we know the continuing persistence of war which blights the lives of millions in Iraq, Syria and so many other lands - with a fall-out into other nations through the fear generated by the tacticians of terror. What can we do to turn back the tide of war? And there is a temptation to say, “We must be strong, and show our strength.” It goes along with the rhetoric we have been hearing all too much in these last weeks of making America “great” again. There’s no denying the reality of that rhetoric when it is employed by a Russian leader. And what about our own nation? - perhaps we might be on dangerous ground if we too readily succumb to the aspiration of putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain.” We truly should be “Great Britain…” but as the name is intended and in contrast to the “Little Britain” which empty patriotism might so easily conjure.

The war dead we honour today died not to make our country great but to secure freedom and justice not only for our own land but for others. As the epitaph in the war cemetery at Kohima says,

When you go home, tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow, we gave our today.

There’s another sort of epitaph in this poem - and it’s possibly due to its popularity that the poppy has come to be so potent a symbol for us today.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem itself is the epitaph, composed by the Canadian doctor and artillery commander John McCrae when he was called on to take the funeral of another officer. In the midst of the Battle of Ypres in May 1915 there was no chaplain available and McCrae stepped in to officiate. “We are the Dead…” - and he means those buried beneath the crosses and poppies. But we feel it ourselves - our place alongside those who had so recently lived and loved in the flush of youth, felt the warmth of the sun but now know the coldness of death and the clay in which they are laid. Do not “break faith with us who die…” That must be the challenge to us now. But there is that other line that might give us cause to ponder: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Does that mean, keep fighting on regardless? Or might it make us question, how do we pursue our differences and quarrels? - how do we look at people we might consider the enemy, who we write off as alien to ourselves, beyond a common understanding?  

The poet and soldier Roland Leighton found himself challenged by an experience he recorded in Ploegsteert Wood in April 1915:

"...there was a grave in the wood with a carefully made wooden cross inscribed with the words: 'Here lie two gallant German Officers.'

“The men who put up the cross congratulated themselves a little on their British magnanimity, but when, later, they pushed the enemy out of the trenches in front of the wood, they found another grave as carefully tended and inscribed: ‘Here lie five brave English officers.’”

Leighton himself would be killed in battle before that year ended. But before his death he had realised that humanity and compassion are not the sole possession of those we consider friends and allies. What should bind us together should be far stronger than anything that might divide us. It’s there in Wilfred Owen’s poem, Strange Meeting, where two soldiers emerge from battle on the other side of death to tell of all that is dear but now lost - and to speak finally the devastating words of recognition: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend…”

In this week’s Church Times, the Anglican Priest, Paul Oestreicher, writes of the time his father took him - as a young man - to visit the fields where the Battle of the Somme had been fought a century ago. It was a sunny day as they walked through cornflowers and poppies. His father, born in Germany, had volunteered to fight with patriotic fervour - and he survived the carnage of war to be promoted from Private to Lieutenant in the 11th Bavarian Artillery. At the end of the war he found himself in a field hospital in Alsace, bitter in defeat but still with his pride in the Fatherland intact. But not for long. In 1918 he found himself having to escape the French before they could take him prisoner as they re-occupied Alsace. In 1938 - having Jewish parents - he had to flee for his life from Germany.

Most people in this country have been mystified or more likely uncomprehending at the refusal of FIFA, the world governing body in football, to agree to the wearing of poppies by the England and Scotland teams in their match on Armistice Day. Their reasoning is that the poppy is a political symbol - an argument which would barely enter into the minds of the vast majority of us who simply wear them. As I’ve been talking with children in schools I hear what is surely much nearer to the point - the poppy which bloomed in those fields of battle, its colour the red of blood shed by those who died, a beautiful flower which might speak of lives so cruelly cut short, and its fragility which speaks of our own precious, human vulnerability.

The poppy stands against the callousness of the hard-hearted, against the rhetoric of politicians who set national strength in opposition to the requirements of justice and provision for the needy, against anyone who would diminish the human dignity of our neighbour in a world which is God’s creation.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook the other day: “Well, there you go. I was just spat at.” One man had blocked her path as she walked down the street in Sheffield, another spat at her. She is a priest like me. Unlike me, she is black. After so much blood has been spilled and so many lives given in the cause of freedom and justice, there are still those who confuse patriotic service of their country with hatred of those they feel do not conform to their national ideal. A misguided nationalism which thinks it knows what is against but has no right sense of what it is for so easily writes off anything and anyone perceived to be different as simply alien - and you might be written off as alien because of your religion, race, sexuality, colour, the way you dress or your economic status.

As we lament the wars of the last century we need again to ask, why were they fought? - to what end were so many lives given? As we despair at the millions whose lives are still destroyed by wars being fought now in other lands, we need to ask what is required of us that peace with justice be built here in our own land today? Let not the sacrifice of others have been in vain.

The vision which Isaiah is given for his people is a vision towards which we should all work:

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat…
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox…
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.

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