Remembrance Day Sermon
By Revd. Suzanne Pattle
Over the past few years we have marked some significant anniversaries; next year marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. These years of remembrance have helped new generations understand more of what their grand-parents and great-grandparents went through. The hardships they faced, the courage they showed and the faith they shared have become more real to us. Last year we displayed some stories from our own community as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ending of WW1 – we have displayed them again this year in the church centre.
I have been watching ‘World on Fire’, the BBC mini series – the last episode being tonight. This drama, set in the early months of the Second World War, follows the stories of ordinary people caught up in its horrors. We see the story of Kasia the Polish waitress who fell in love with Harry, an English diplomat serving in Warsaw at the outbreak of war. Her story unfolds against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Her parents are killed, her brother has joined the army and she has no idea whether he is dead or alive; her little brother Jan, under Harry’s care, is taken to safety in England. Grief-stricken, she joins the Polish resistance. Lois, Harry’s girlfriend in Manchester, is a singer who joins ENSA, touring the military bases to boost the morale of the troops. Her father Douglas is mentally and physically fragile, scarred by his experiences of battle in the first world war. A pacifist, he struggles with the dreadful reality of another war breaking out, not knowing the fate of his wayward son Tom, caught up in the evacuation of Dunkirk. We witness the fear inflicted on its own citizens by the Nazi regime, as the fate of a German family in Berlin unfolds. They worry about the fate of their epileptic daughter who does not conform to the perfect Aryan ideal and live under the constant threat of informants. Nancy, an American journalist living in Berlin reports on all the happenings of the war, watched by the Nazi censors, ready to pull the plug on her broadcasts if she oversteps the mark: she risks herself for the sake of broadcasting the truth as she sees it, her story modelled on a real journalist of the time. I have found it all compelling viewing, as it focuses on the stories of individuals, male and female, old and young, British, American, Polish, French, and German, all swept into the maelstrom of war. Living their lives – stories of families and individuals played out with the war an ever- present backdrop. Their stories could have been our stories.
I asked someone recently if they were watching this – their response was somewhat different. I lived through it so I don’t want to watch it all again – that was her story. She vividly remembers taking her baby cousin out in the pram while the news was broken to her aunt that her husband was missing believed killed. That child, like so many others, grew up never knowing her father and her mother struggled to bring her up with little financial support. The effects of loss cascade down the generations even to this day. That lady’s response brought it all home to me in a way watching a wartime drama never could.
Those who have lived through conflicts whether past or present are indeed those who know what it is to sit in darkness and the shadow of death. The darkness of hatred and evil that seeks to destroy and dehumanise the other, which takes on a life of its own destroying all that is held dear; the ever-present shadow of death looming over every family as they worry about those in the field of battle, and over every individual caught up in the immediacy of conflict. For those of us who did not live through the horrors of war we do well to remember what they experienced and the sacrifices they made. We do well to honour their memory and give thanks for them as we will do shortly at the War Memorial for the Two minutes’ silence.
But every year I find myself asking again why? Why did we not learn the lessons of the First World War? Why did we pursue such an unjust peace settlement at its end that it sowed the seeds of conflict for the next? Why after the terrible cost of the Second World War – and I do not question the need for Hitler to be defeated – did nations all too soon find themselves divided once more by rival interests and ideologies, with only the threat of mutually assured destruction in the nuclear era preventing outright conflict. And why, after the initial euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, which heralded a new age of optimism, do we find ourselves living in an era when divisions are rife. Far right extremism and popularism are on the rise again, both in our own nation and abroad. Not to mention the conflicts that are still on-going in Syria, the Yemen, Iraq and those areas less reported in the news.
Every day we’re reminded that what was supposed to be ‘the war that will end war’ did not lead to that: human pride, greed and folly has led to millions of deaths since 1918. This year for the first time wreaths are being laid for the victims of terror – a new kind of darkness that stalks us. We are currently experiencing a profoundly uncertain time in the history of this nation: we are deeply divided and unsure of our future. The use of divisive and hostile language is on the rise, inflammatory language which polarises rather than seeks to understand and to reconcile. People appear less inclined to listen to another’s point of view; politicians have been called traitors. In the worst cases the words used border on an incitement to violence. Just this week there have been reports in the news about deeply disturbing messages of abuse sent to MPs of every political persuasion. Is this the kind of nation that those who came before us fought to preserve? Is this how we honour their memory? Is this how we use the freedom they won for us? As the peace anthem from the 60s puts it ‘when will they ever learn’, ‘when will we ever learn?’ Is it simply a constant of human experience that we will always be living in darkness rather than the light, overshadowed by things that are death dealing rather than life-giving? Where is hope, where is love, where is mercy?
The gospel passage points us towards a better future. It promises us both mercy and peace, it promises us light and hope, it promises that there will be a fulfilment of all things in Christ who comes as the light. In his complete identification with our humanity he experienced hostility, hatred, suffering and death. But the story did not end there, and it is because of this that we can journey on in hope, knowing that Christ is the one who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us, through the power of his suffering love. We look forward to that day spoken of in Revelation, when there will be no more tears, or sorrow or suffering.
Peace can only truly come through the reconciliation of the division of our own hearts – it begins with us – our words, our actions. Jesus is the one who brings forgiveness, reconciliation and peace – only in looking to his cross and resurrection will we find true healing, wellbeing and wholeness. We need to humbly examine our own lives: what impact do we have on others, do our everyday actions build walls or seek to dismantle them? Every person of whatever creed, colour, political persuasion or nation has the capacity for hostility towards the other, or can make the choice to see the other as equally made in God’s image and pursue that which makes for peace. This does not mean avoidance of challenge: sometimes it takes great courage to stand up and name the darkness that threatens to engulf people, whether that be as a result of prejudice, hate speech or threats of violence. Peace and reconciliation continue to be something that we should work for – in the honest examination of our own hearts, in our families, communities, in our nation at the critical time, and the wider world. We need to do this for the sake of those who paid, and continue to pay the terrible cost of war, and for the sake of the present in order to build a better future. What will our legacy be to the generations that are to come?
The Bible looks forward to a time when our hope for peace will be fulfilled. It speaks of the ‘old order of things’ passing away and God making ‘all things new’. May that begin with us, may we allow the one who is heralded as the prince of peace to work his love into our own hearts. And may those who have lost loved ones and still mourn them be comforted by the fact that all our loves and sorrows are caught up in the suffering heart of God, and that one day we will see them face to face, healed and whole.
‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace’ Amen.