Sermon preached by Canon Sarah Mullally DBE
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-end
Luke 20: 27-38
Let me forget — Let me forget,
I am weary of remembrance,
And my brow is ever wet,
With the tears of my remembrance,
With the tears and bloody sweat,
Let me forget.
If ye forget — If ye forget,
Then your children must remember,
And their brow be ever wet,
With tears of their remembrance,
With tears and bloody sweat,
If ye forget.
‘If ye Forget’ is a poem by G A Studdert Kennedy, an army padre, which was published first in 1927 in Unutterable Beauty. It articulates for me the tension between the importance of remembering and the pain in doing so.
Remembering and retelling the story is part of any culture; remembering occurs as parents tell and retell to their children and grandchildren what is most prized in their community.
In Hebrew Scripture or the Old Testament we see the telling and retelling of the stories which belong to a community of faith. As God’s people journeyed through the Wilderness, into slavery and exile in Egypt then on into freedom in the Promised Land, they would remember. They would tell and retell their stories whilst in exile, of the time before exile, to sustain them and to point them forward towards hope. In exile they needed to remember who they were in order to remember who God was for them, and his generosity and grace. Their continuation as a community was often due to this retelling.
This morning we remember and retell the stories of those who have fought and have died in the hope of peace. Some here remember loved ones lost in battle or conflict more than half a century ago but who are still loved and missed. Others are caught up with much more recent events – in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. But remembering is not always easy. I have been struck over the years, when taking people’s funerals, by the number of people who say of their relatives – they never spoke of what happened in the First World War.
For the generation of the First World war there was no memory loss: instead there was too much memory. Many of them carried not only visible but invisible scars which meant that it took may years before they were able to speak about them. We who come later need to retell their memories because the alternative, with all its risk, is to forget.
Today we remember and retell the stories of those who have fought, not just out of a mark of respect, not just to give thanks for their selfless sacrifice but because it is only by retelling their stories that we can hope for a more peaceful future.
In the last month I have read a book by Emily Mayhew called Wounded. This is an account of the extensive research which Mayhew undertook using public and private archives to produce a highly readable account of the men and women who struggled to save lives among the horrors of the Western Front in the First World War. In doing so she has created an impressive account of the medical care at the Western Front but has also recognised the courage and determination of the men and women who saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
The book is a vivid mix of the horror of war and the determination of humanity. One account documents the horror of the second assault on Aubers Ridge in September 1915 at the battle of Loos in which there were 8000 casualties – such inhumanity – and which so repelled the German gunners that they sent out their own medical personnel to help carry the casualties back – such humanity.
Studdert Kennedy was awarded the Military cross during World War I and his citation read: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty he showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station.
For me these accounts and many more highlight the tensions in war of inhumanity and humanity. So in silence we remember today the sacrifice that has been made in war. Let us remember both courage and determination but also the horror of such conflicts. Let us not shy away from struggling with the dilemmas war brings and let us not stop asking questions of God – for this we must do if we hope for a world of peace. The hope of peace seems far off. I read recently that since the end of the Second World War there have been over 150 major conflicts, resulting in 30 million deaths. I don’t know how accurate these figures are but we are a long way from peace.
However, the reality is that peace isn’t something that can just materialize all at once out of nothing, just because people get tired of strife and violence. Peace is a process which takes place over time. It is a process that takes place as we learn to lay aside our self-centeredness and focus on God as our hope.
In another Studdert Kennedy poem, Faith struggles with good and evil but points to where our hope for peace should lie:
Finally. I know not why the Evil,
I know not why the Good, both mysteries
Remain unsolved, and both insoluble.
I know that both are there, the battle set,
And I must fight on this side or on that.
I can't stand shiv'ring on the bank, I plunge
Head first. I bet my life on Beauty, Truth,
And Love, not abstract but incarnate Truth,
Not Beauty's passing shadow but its Self.
Its very self made flesh, Love realised.
I bet my life on Christ – Christ Crucified.
Our hope of peace must be in God.
Here in our gospel reading we have the Sadducees, who rejected the idea of life after death, ridiculing the Pharisees, who were its exponents. In Jesus’ response the main focus of the passage becomes God, God as the certain detail which hope has. Ultimately it is faith in a God who loves which forces the issue, despite the intellectual difficulties.
So, as we long to see an end to war and man’s inhumanity to man, let us see God as the certain detail which the hope of peace has. Let us also know that peace should start with us. So instead of loving what we think is peace, we should love others and love God above all; and instead of hating people we think are war makers, we should hate the appetite and disorder in our own soul that are the causes of war.
So, today as we remember those who have given their life in war in the hope of peace, let us honour them in silence but also by building a more peaceful loving world for their children and ours and knowing that our certain hope for peace is in God. Amen.