Sunday 8 November 2020, Eucharist
The Third Sunday before Advent Remembrance Sunday
Preacher: The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
In this year of global crisis if we as people of faith – if we as a nation – fail to ask those questions of ourselves then I fear we will have failed to respond to what God is asking of us. It’s when the times are hard, it’s when our reserves of strength are low, it’s when exhaustion threatens to overwhelm us, that we discover who we truly are, and who we are truly becoming.
Brothers and sisters, times are hard, reserves are low, and exhaustion threatens. Who are we? Who are we becoming?
Remembrance Sunday is a good day to begin to ask those questions of ourselves. For the stories we tell about the people and events that we remember today have been critical in forming who we are, and they have much to teach us about who we might become. As we have navigated our way through the landscape of the pandemic of 2020, the titanic struggle of 1939-1945 has echoed all around us. In facing the greatest threat that peacetime has posed us we have been surrounded by stories of the greatest threat that wartime has posed us.
When the Queen addressed the nation at the beginning of the first lockdown, she recalled her first radio broadcast, made to child evacuees in 1940. Then, she said, we faced the challenge of separation from loved ones; then we knew it was the right thing to do; the challenge for Britons eighty years later is to show equal strength. She concluded with words sung by Dame Vera Lynn, “We will meet again”. We celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day under lockdown and that of VJ Day under the constraints of social distancing. We celebrated a new national hero in the war veteran Captain Sir Tom Moore, and we mourned the death of Dame Vera herself.
Today we honour these stories. We honour those who served alongside Captain Tom. We honour those who danced to Dame Vera’s music. We honour those who listened to the Princess Elizabeth and her sister as they said “Good night” to the children of the Commonwealth. We honour the heroes of Victory in Europe and the heroes of Victory in Japan. We honour those who fought, and we honour those who fell. And because we honour them we ask ourselves those questions: who are we? Who are we becoming? For we are their legacy.
The wise bridesmaids in Jesus’s story about a wedding feast take flasks of oil with their lamps. They think not of the present and not of their own immediate needs. They think of the future; they anticipate another’s needs. Jesus tells stories because he understands their power. Stories fire our imagination. They allow us to inhabit their twists and turns in a way that didactic teaching rarely does.
So what stories will we tell this Remembrance Sunday?
Even as the Second World War wreaked its bloody havoc a vision of the future was being formed in this country, a vision which anticipated the needs of the years of peace that would surely follow the great conflagration. William Beveridge, whose name is forever associated with the vision, was greatly influenced by William Temple, wartime Archbishop of Canterbury. Temple wrote these words in 1942: “If each man and each woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society”. Accordingly, wrote Beveridge, five giants would need to be banished from the road to reconstruction as surely as Nazi tyranny would be banished from the world. Disease, Want, Squalor, Ignorance, and Idleness would be met and would be mastered because each had the capacity to diminish and disfigure the lives of God’s children.
Yet that story of the war, a story of prophetic insight, a story of courageous provision for the common good, a story informed by Christian truth, is a story of the war that we hear and tell less frequently than we do another story. This is a story not of mutual endeavour for mutual flourishing, but a story of rugged individualism, of a brave nation standing alone against Hitler’s armies. It’s a story that’s based on unscholarly history, ignoring the pilots from fifteen other nations who fought the Battle of Britain, and ignoring the Dutch, French and Belgian vessels that took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk. But with its claims of uniqueness, exceptionalism and isolation it’s powerful, and in recent decades it has perhaps drowned out that other story.
Two stories of our shared past.
Who are we, and who are we becoming?
The virus has surely shown us (and it seems we need to be shown) that rugged individualism will get us only so far. It’s difficult to stand alone when the fridge is empty, when the schools are closed, when there is no one to talk to, when a prescription needs collecting, and when the risk of infection is high. We flourish together or we do not flourish, and what Beveridge and Temple offer us is that we flourish together when we have a shared vision of the common good, a shared vision in which every person matters, matters infinitely.
“At midnight there was a shout,” says Jesus “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him”. Throughout this year of crisis a number of shouts have gone up. Some have come from Beveridge’s giants, who still stalk the land. They all tell us that midnight is at hand; they all tell us that the bridegroom is coming; for they all tell us that the future is upon us. They interrogate us and pose those questions: who are we, and who are we becoming?
The critical strain placed upon every part of our health service by Covid – intensive care, oncology and mental health provision - is one such shout. The child food poverty targeted by Marcus Rashford’s campaign is another. The manifest dis-ease with our history revealed by Black Lives Matter is another. The seeming carelessness about the rule of law enshrined in the Internal Market Bill is another. The institutional defensiveness of the Church spelt out by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is another.
Who are we, and who are we becoming? How we respond to these shouts will answer those questions, for our response will reveal whether we believe there to be a common good, and what we believe it to be. Captain Tom inspired the nation with his selfless commitment to helping others; Vera Lynn sang her heart out to lift the hearts of people living in fear and anger; the fallen of VE and VJ gave their today for our tomorrow.
Midnight is at hand. It will soon be time to greet the bridegroom. T he future is upon us. Beveridge wrote that a "revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”.
Who are we, and what are we becoming?