A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Hebrews 9 v 24-28; Mark 1 v 14-20
In a few weeks’ time we’ll be marking the centenary of the death of Alois Alzheimer, the German neurologist. I’m alert to that anniversary because I’ve recently read Sally Magnusson’s book ‘Where memories go’. It’s a deeply moving account of her mother’s life as a talented Scottish journalist, of her marriage to the television presenter Magnus Magnusson, but especially her later years as a victim of dementia.
In this season of remembering I want to begin by recognising our growing experience of failing memory.
Somewhere my brain neurons have stashed away the statistic that if each of us live to the age of 90 then 60% of us will have moved from the forgetfulness of later years into full blown dementia. If that is really true then our society is going to have to face three sobering features of this reality.
· One is the sheer scale of that experience amongst the elderly. Most families will now have someone suffering from that family of diseases we call dementia; someone for whom structural and chemical changes will lead to the death of their brain tissue and its consequences.
· Secondly, we have the challenge of how we care. What Sally Magnusson’s account does is to show how very hard it is, even with great determination, to maintain someone with dementia in their own home. It will remain a stiff task unless we fundamentally change our approach to social policy. This isn’t about costs; it’s about attitude and imagination.
· And thirdly, it’s to recognise how frightening we find the prospect of dementia. My son was at the Cathedral School with someone whose mother had early on-set Alzheimer’s and so by the time the lads were 11 years old, his friend’s mother no longer knew who he was. To be trapped within a mind which ceases to remember even our own children is surely a terrible fate.
So perhaps we’ve never been more anxious about the subject of memory. Yet our growing familiarity with dementia is teaching us some things about human being and how precious is the gift of remembering. And I want us to apply two of those things to this commemoration which we call ‘Remembrance Sunday’.
Firstly, we’ve discovered how hard it is to separate off what we remember from our deepest sense of self.
Anyone who has lived close to dementia knows that lost memory is a form of deep bereavement. The person themselves seems to disappear, to disconnect. On Friday I buried the ashes of a woman who’d suffered from dementia for the last ten years of her life. As we walked from the grave her husband described this final act as the end of ten years of grieving. He had only been able to watch as the person she had always been manifestly disappeared before him.
Now apply that to our shared memories. Remembrance Sunday is related to what we might call preserving the ‘soul’ of our nation: the sense of who we are as a people with shared history, some of which has involved enormous expressions of courage and sacrifices of life. It’s about keeping our corporate nerve cells which carry our memory in good order.
· What brought us here through many conflicts and the toll they took on our families?
· What values did we consider worth defending?
· To whom do we especially owe an expression of gratitude?
Such things make up the soul of our nation. That essence of who we are as a people together.
The second thing dementia has taught us is how important it is that we remake memories in order that they should go on bringing us understanding of what is happening to us today.
One of the ‘terrors of the tattered mind’ (Lorn Macintyre) is that inability to reclaim and remake memory in order to let it help us be better resourced for the challenges of today. If it is a ‘terror’ for the failing individual it is surely also a ‘terror’ for the nation which ceases to use its memory as a resource for living more peaceably, living better.
On this Remembrance Sunday we’re in the business of making past memories of war our own. Through our imagination and solemn ceremony, through our silence and the last post, as we stand before God in penitence, we use our memory to preserve the dignity of sacrifices made, but also to seek out spiritual resources to help us manage painful memories to good effect; resources of repentance, forgiveness, mercifulness and an altogether bigger perspective built on the foundations of faith.
From our gospel reading, when Jesus met with violence, with the unjust killing of John the Baptist, he started a campaign of stimulating the collective memory of his nation.
· He used language with deep echoes of ancient prophets: ‘The time is fulfilled’
· He asked those around him to remember who held the ultimate authority: ‘The kingdom of God has come near’
· And he promises God’s intervention; ‘repent and believe in the good news’. Human history may be ambiguous, even tragic, but it is meaningful to us because it is God’s realm. He is still and ever active.
In the face of John’s sacrifice Jesus turned to his memory and strengthened the memory of faith to make sense of it and to step forward with courage.
Today is about the dignity and soul of our nation:
· The sacrifice of the fallen
· A covenant with those who have served in our armed forces, especially those whose lives have been changed by trauma or injury.
· It’s also about preserving our soul and dignity by cherishing those who risk declining into invisibility, those who, for whatever reason, suffer a tattered mind.
And it is about staving off a form of national memory loss, if you like resisting corporate dementia.
Lest we forget.