Sunday, 12 November 2017

Of War and Remembrance

In case you wonder, the Bible Readings we use today are not chosen particularly for use on Remembrance Sunday. They’re not about War or the remembrance of those who died in time of war. They’re simply the readings appointed for use on the 3rd Sunday before Advent. So we use them if Remembrance Day happens to fall on this particular Sunday of the Church’s Calendar. But Remembrance Sunday can also fall on the 2nd Sunday before Advent - and if it does we use the readings appointed for that day, and we might find that they are no more relevant to what we actually feel.

But simply to use what the regular lectionary gives us is no bad thing. Scripture meets us where we are, the Word of God heard in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. And as I read today’s Bible passages I thought of what it must have been like for soldiers on the battlefield who might have gathered with their Chaplain for worship. Perhaps they would gather around what was at best a makeshift altar. Probably they would be without any books - the Chaplain reading to them from his Bible - though we know that many servicemen carried a Prayer Book or New Testament, especially in the First World War. What words would they hear? Over the course of years of war it wouldn’t always have been the same passage. Might they have heard today’s Gospel reading of the Ten Bridesmaids (the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as it’s traditionally known) and then gone off puzzled into battle ? … gone off to fight, and many to die.

On Remembrance Sunday we gather to remember. To remember doesn’t mean that we have to have been present during the terrible events of war. It does ask us to enter imaginatively into the lives of men and women who have served their country - often at great cost in wounds borne and lives lost. What took them into service? There were those who volunteered, others conscripted, others acting as non-combatants for conscience’s sake. And they were there because of people who made decisions which sent them off to war: politicians and generals; sometimes for the cause of justice, freedom, truth and right; sometimes through ambition and pride. What we can say is that it is ordinary men and women from ordinary communities like our own who have left loved ones, families and friends, to go to war - to serve their country; and hopefully to serve humanity - to do something for a greater good.

St. Paul in the first reading we heard from his first letter to the Thessalonians is writing to people who grieved over the death of loved ones. Their loss through natural causes is hard enough to bear - and he attempts to give some encouragement to them by writing of a life beyond death. I have to say, I don’t think it easily works. We might be distracted by a certain military resonance: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” But there’s no form of words which can speak to every person who has suffered bereavement. And especially today, when we remember those who died in war, we need to be wary of false comfort and recognise the cruel offence of so many lives lost in conflict.

I found myself yesterday reading the story of a young man from my home town of Hartlepool. He was active in his church (St. Aidan’s), he had a passion for learning - and could share it with others - and while still in his twenties became a headteacher. But then the First World War was declared. He loved his country and joined up - and found himself training and guarding an installation back in Hartlepool. And it was there that Private Theophilus Jones died, age 29, during the German naval bombardment of the town in November 1914. Over a hundred military and (mainly) civilian lives were lost in just a few minutes. He was carrying a prayer book which was hit by some of the shrapnel and would have saved his life without even a flesh wound if that had been his only injury; but it was injuries elsewhere on his body which killed him. It’s a story now because the Museum of Hartlepool has just bought that prayer book to be displayed in the town. But it couldn’t save him from the full extent of his wounds.

Where is the hope? Something else I read yesterday reminded me of one of the most renowned of First World War military chaplains, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Let me read to you from an article by Bob Holman:

In 1914, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an unknown parish priest. Ten years later he was the church's best-known speaker, drawing larger crowds than politicians and publishing books that sold millions. How did this happen?

The answer is the first world war. In 1914, he enthusiastically supported Britain's declaration of war on Germany and soon enlisted as a chaplain. He distributed fags to troops and earned the affectionate nickname Woodbine Willie. He joined the soldiers on the western front when they went over the top, and won the Military Cross when he ran through shells into "no man's land" to obtain supplies of morphine. His speaking skills were used to maintain morale. Sickened by the needless slaughter, on his discharge, in 1919, he spoke all over the country, opposing war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty.

Today "Willie" is largely forgotten, although the centenary … of the war may show how relevant he is to contemporary problems. Poverty campaigners and academics do call for social reform. But few are as close to poor people as Willie was. His turning point was when he stopped talking to, and instead listened to, the troops. Through his magnetic preaching, he publicised their views on wanting to end war, their dislike of the monarchy, and their desire for the end of poverty. And in his collection of rhymes, many written in working-class dialect, he expressed their views in their own language.

He became a great social evangelist calling for reform. So did others, but he was different. He gave away his possessions. His salary was modest but he received large royalties – all of which he gave to charities. He left very little money. He was genuine and, when he died, in 1929, exhausted at the age of 45, poor people flocked to his funeral in Worcester. Today, we urgently need poverty campaigners like him.

The dean of Westminster refused Willie a burial at the Abbey because, he said, he was a "socialist". Hardly, if he meant a Labour-party socialist. Willie distrusted most politicians and refused to join any political party. He proclaimed that the church (or churches) had to counter poverty and inequality. His argument was that wealth redistribution would only come following changes in people's values and attitudes, and that only the Christian message could achieve this. True, he did transform some individuals, but no large policy reforms followed. He had little impact on politicians.

Politicians have their place. We need to remember that when there is so much in the media that shows the rottenness of political conduct, and might lead us to distrust them all together. All the more reason why it is important that we use our votes wisely - and hold those elected to account. The cause of freedom and the sharing of that freedom is not to be taken lightly. It’s a cause that many have died for.

And to remember is at the heart of Christian faith. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper. He takes bread and wine; he gives them his Body and his Blood. Given for us… Shed for us…

“Greater love has no one than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” Sometimes the words have been mis-heard and mis-used. But they come from the life and death of Jesus Christ; their hope stems from his living and dying for us. There is a further hope of Resurrection, life with God, but we start by Remembering. Christ shares in our humanity, his loss is felt in human pain - which we share… As this poem by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy recognises - it’s called, "A Mother Understands."

Dear Lord, I hold my hand to take
Thy body broken once for me,
Accept the sacrifice I make,
My body, broken, Christ, for Thee.

His was my body, born of me,
Born of my bitter travail pain,
And it lies broken on the field,
Swept by the wind and the rain.

Surely a Mother understands Thy thorn-crowned head,
The mystery of Thy pierced hands—the Broken Bread.

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