Sermon by The Ven Stephen Robbins, Chaplain to the Bishop of Salisbury
Sunday 9 November
25 years ago today I was chaplain of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in Berlin when the Wall came down. I remember the joy and the euphoria at the time, and how we reacted by breaking open the war stocks and making people a cup of tea. However, on the news this morning we hear that they are fighting in Donetsk in the Ukraine and we can link the process, which led to the Wall coming down, led to the break up of the Soviet Union and the fighting today.
There are many and varied reasons why wars begin. It is easy for us to blame politicians but I am reminded what Archbishop Michael Ramsey said to lay people when they complained about clergy, “We can only get them from you” Politicians come from us.
This morning’s gospel ends with “Keep awake for you don’t know the day or the hour.” In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins Matthew was speaking of the return of the Lord Jesus. As time went on and Jesus didn’t return it has been interpreted by Christians and the church to mean the time of our death. Keep awake for we don’t know the day or the hour.
Many of those we commemorate today; who have been killed whilst in the service of their country had a good idea about the day and the hour. Those in the First World War knew that if they were, ‘going over the top’, there was a fair likelihood of them being killed or injured. In the Second World War when soldiers were in battle or advancing to contact it was the same and even in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you were going out on patrol there was a fair chance you would be attacked. In Iraq and Afghanistan chaplains would often have prayer cards printed to give the troops. One such card had the Lord’s Prayer on one side and Psalm 23 on the other and there is the story of a corporal (who never darkened the door of a church) who before every patrol read Psalm 23 with his section. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. Those facing conflict know something of the day and the hour.
But what of those of us who are left? One can see why friends wish to commemorate those who have been killed but why us? Laurence Binyon wrote his poem, “For the Fallen” in September 1914-a month after the start of the First World War. By that time we had already lost thousands of troops and the belief in the, “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” fallacy was fading fast. A month into the war and Binyon was saying we need to remember them. The verse of his used today and at most Remembrance services since they began shortly after the end of WW1 is so relevant. “They shall grow not old……..we will remember them.”
By the end of WW1 when on average we lost a British serviceman every 21/2 minutes, where the thick end of a million families were left grieving, everyone knew someone who had been killed; they could remember them. Over 8 million people had served, one way or another. They knew of conflict. They knew the noise, the sight, the smell but all of them have gone. The Second World War generation are fading fast. Thank God how comparatively few know what it is like to lose a loved one in conflict.
Because of the media we know something of their grief . We have seen the corteges coming through Wootton Basset-but nothing like the World Wars. Can you imagine non-stop corteges with a hearse every 21/2 minutes for over 4 years? Can you imagine that in the time taken to preach this sermon 4 British service people killed?
So in this Act of Remembrance few of us actually will be remembering anyone. We can use our imaginations. We can commemorate the loss, the lives the wounded, the widows and orphans. We can perhaps feel a little of the loss.
This is not a time for jingoism and the glorification of war. This is not a time for false patriotism and an excuse to condemn Johnny Foreigner.
This is a time to mourn.
This is a time to thank God we live in the country we do-despite its faults.
This is the time for us to pledge ourselves to work for peace and justice and the care of others. There has been an upsurge in the keeping of Remembrance recently, but without the intention of we who are taking part of working for peace and a more caring society, it is merely sentimentality.
We can show those who have made the sacrifice that a country worth fighting for is worth living in.