Missing the point
Two things have struck me in this past week or which relate to this Remembrance Sunday observance which we have all come to be a part of today. Firstly I was musing on a time when, on a day with colleagues we spent some time discussing what we would be doing this Sunday and how we would approach Remembrance day (sometimes we need a bit of prompting or we can end up saying the same thing again and again).
Anyway, in the course of conversation with these colleagues one of them talked about how when he was a curate the Vicar who was training him would have the press come and attend his Sunday services on remembrance day because this Vicar wouldn’t do anything special for the Sunday and would always spend his sermon railing against what he called ‘a glorification of war and violence’ and the papers came to report year on year how this Vicar responded to Remembrance Sunday. This prompted one clergyperson in the group to become quite agitated about how Remembrance Sunday does glorify war, and how the Church of England makes too much of it. I was just about to chime in with some kind of, probably less than measured response to this, when another person in the discussion just said ‘nonsense’ and the conversation stopped there.
Of course it is nonsense, we don’t gather around the cenotaphs and war memorials of our communities to celebrate war, but to mourn, to give thanks for those who sacrificed themselves that others might live and that we might enjoy freedom.
One the privileges of being a Vicar is getting to listen to people’s stories, and some of the most moving experiences I have ever had have been the stories which those who fought in the great wars of the last century have shared. None of these men and women have ever given a hint of being glad to have been at war, in fact their stories are overwhelmingly sorrowful and often painful to recall. They don’t talk of the glory, they talk of how unworthy they felt to survive when all around them their comrades were falling, they talk of the pain of losing friends and family, they talk of narrow escapes, and the strength of friendships made in time of war.
There are stories where people have acted with great bravery in wartime, and where the actions of valiant men and women have been glorious and praiseworthy, but none of them have ever said to me ‘I wish it would happen again’. Some people may lament the loss of closeness that was a part of working together to defeat an enemy which was under the influence of and evil dictator, or the loss of the comradeship that came from the will to survive. But there is no sense of the glory of war.
It seems to me, and it comes powerfully from all the conversations I have with those who have served not only in the Second World War, but in countless conflict since, that there is no glory in war itself, no desire to be at war, no longing to fight in these people. But there is a sense of pride in having served their country, a sense of gratitude for the life which they have, and often a sense of guilt that they did survive when many others didn’t.
So those who think that this important time of year, this remembrance season, exists for the glorification of war have completely missed the point.
This time is, as the name of it suggests, for Remembering. We who have not experienced the pain and the fears of war have a debt of gratitude which we bear towards those who have. Who fought for our freedom, who gave themselves. We will remember them.
We remember those who were broken by war, those who lost loved ones and those who upon their return found themselves, and find themselves, in need of care and support – the care and support offered by such groups as the Royal British Legion. We call to mind our need to continue to support these people, especially through our giving to the poppy fund. We will remember them.
We remember the good thing which we have, the freedoms we enjoy, and the price at which these freedoms come. We will remember them.
We remember those still serving, and fighting in wars all over the world today, those who put their lives at risk as part of their calling to serve in the armed forces. We will remember them.
And we remember that all of our freedom comes from the God who gave his only son to take away the power of sin and death, to replace hatred with love, and fear with perfect freedom. We will remember Him.
Which leads me onto the second thing which I remembered whilst preparing these thoughts – this time it was my daughter, Katherine, who at six years old (a couple of years ago now) wanted to know a bit about our gathering by the Cenotaph in the village where I lived in Cambridgeshire on remembrance Sunday morning. She asked me ‘is tomorrow forgiveness Sunday, daddy?’
And with the wisdom that sometimes only comes from children I think this is very much a part of what our remembering is about. We remember Christ’s call to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As we seek to heal the wounds which break our relationships with those who have historically, and are now, our enemies we commit ourselves to peace and to the healing of the nations. We commit ourselves to the fight for justice, and truth, and love and faith, which is a part of our calling as Christians.
We recognise how our fallen human race so often finds itself at enmity with one another, and we ask for forgiveness for those times when we have held hatred in our hearts, we ask for the strength to grow in forgiveness that we might be people of peace. We forgive others their trespasses, as we know that God forgives us our trespasses.
And perhaps, even after all this time, some need to forgive themselves for not feeling worthy of the life which they have been given, knowing that many worthy men and women have perished in war. There is the striking image in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ of the young soldier, now old, who goes to see the graves of the men sent to take him home following the push into Europe which led to the end of Nazism, where he turns to those around him and asks ‘Was I worth it? Am I a good man?’ A concern that haunts many who have survived. Today we give thanks for their lives, their examples, all they have contributed to the life of our communities and our country, and we say that ‘yes, you are worth it’.
And for all of us, we remember that God believes we are worth sacrificing himself for. In our reading we heard that ‘greater love has no-one, than to lay down their life for their friends’. Jesus laid down his life that we might be forgiven and freed from the evil of this world, from the burden of sin and guilt. God considers us his friends, and that no life is wasted.
We gather here as those who have not missed the point, who come not to glory in war, but in truth, and hope, and faith and love and peace and with a profound sense of gratitude for our lives, for our freedom and for the cost which bought us that freedom.
We will remember them.