14th November 2021
Sacrifice and presence
A sermon preached by Canon Eleanor Rance, Rural Dean of Stonehenge
Sunday 14 November 2021, 10.30, The Second Sunday before Advent; Remembrance Sunday
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On the middle finger of my right hand I have a small scar. You wouldn’t be able to see it very well even if I were sitting beside you. It covers the stretch of skin just below the nail, over the creases of the knuckle. I know it’s there, especially when the weather is cold, or when I scratch that layer of skin, or get a cut. It takes a while to heal and hurts in a way that is disproportionate to the size of the scar. It’s certainly not something that could be noted as a ‘distinguishing mark’, however.
But I know it is there, and I know how I came by it. It was the middle of the night, and we were carrying a coffin up the ramp of the C17 for its journey home. We lowered the coffin carefully onto the metal floor of the aircraft, and opposite me a colleague gave a gentle push to straighten it up so it could be secured for its flight. My hand was still curved around the base of the coffin as it shifted backwards, and in the process skinned my knuckle.
I hope you will be able to imagine the context. We’d already had a formal service of farewell, the piper had played Flowers of the Forest in lament, at dusk. But hours later this was the quiet dignified departure of a colleague, and it would not have been improved by fuss generated by an insignificant injury. I stood up quickly, grabbed my fingers firmly in my left hand and walked back down the ramp.
To tell you that I am enormously grateful for my tiny scar may sound flippant or ignorant. But it is for me a lasting and outward reminder of my time in Iraq in 2004. It is always with me, along with other small internal scars which no-one can see. It reminds me of Kris. It reminds me of Gordon, Christopher, Lee, Marc, and Paul, whose deaths occurred while I was there. It reminds me too of Sarah and John who died two years later in Basrah and whose funerals I conducted in the UK.
You will have your own scars, your loved ones will have theirs. Scars are personal, some are private, but others give us the opportunity to witness to, and speak about sacrifice.
I’m a child of the 70s and 80s, and so I can’t help but note that Graham Kendrick wrote the words in 1983 ‘Come see his hands and his feet; the scars that speak of sacrifice’.
Our readings this morning remind us – were we ever to need a reminder- that we are in the midst of a time of transition and change, that all is not perfect, that conflict is part of our experience now, just as it has been for the past 2000 years. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was once, for all, as the letter to the Hebrews has it ‘when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’.
It does not say ‘and then everything was perfect in the world once more.’ The sacrifice, the emptying of self, the carrying of the burdens of all upon the shoulders of one, gave us permission to be the sons and daughters of our heavenly father, freed us to live eternally, gave us hope and the promise of eternal life. Sacrifice may be a single event as noted in the letter to the Hebrews, but the effects of sacrifice spread across the years and through the generations.
But we continue to live with the tensions. We continue to be given free choice to embrace that sacrifice or to live as if it has not happened. We are not toys lying on the nursery floor to be drawn into some celestial tea party and then discarded when the deities tire of the game. And while we continue to live, therefore, with those tensions, with that freedom to push our own will and desires ahead of those of our sisters and brothers, we will live in a world which has darkness and pain. But that also means we have opportunity. To speak into the darkness, of hope. To point to the cross. To live lives of service and sacrifice that others might be free.
People often think that chaplaincy and ‘religion’ are pretty futile within the armed forces. People looking in from the outside, I mean. After all, why align yourself with people who want to go out to war? I was asked that very question, in fact, just over 20 years ago when I felt called to serve as a chaplain in the RAF.
I cannot speak for all, but I can speak for myself and my own experience. And I will say that the most profound and moving moments of my ministry have often been in the midst of chaos and pain. Even when that chaos is Mess rugby and standing in the bar of the Officers’ Mess at 3am. That’s the moment when it is safe to talk to the padre, incidentally, unnoticed by your mates.
The agony of seeing an aircraft broken on the airfield and a comrade lost. In the devastation of walking up the path to a front door. In the deep quiet of a chapel of rest. In the sorrow and anguish of a relationship smashed and fragmented by prolonged absences and diverging paths.
During the 1st World War chaplaincy as we now understand it was being brought to birth. Many of the clergy who served on the Western Front came from cities and towns, from a 2 year curacy, from years of pastoral parochial ministry. They were very much – as a Marine friend once disparagingly called me ‘civilians in uniform’.
Their brief was to stay at Regimental Aid Posts, to tend to the injured, bury the dead, take services when they could when the men were resting behind the line. Among their duties were mission, and the warning against the dangers of VD. Being in the front line trenches was not expected or required. By the end of 1915, 4 army chaplains had died. By the end of the war 100 had been lost. Why?
Because the chaplains knew that their place was in the midst of their men. They moved into the trenches, they crawled through the muck of no man’s land to recover the injured, dead and dying. They comforted and prayed with their boys. They lived the war, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Why? Because they believed that in order to truly show the love of God they needed to be present.
In order to truly show the love of God we need to be present.
Right now, as another year of the pandemic draws to a close, perhaps there is irony in using the word ‘presence’. But the comfort of presence right now comes from the written word, the glitchy start-stop of zoom or facetime, the voice on the phone, the 2 metres from the doorstep…
We may not know the pain of muddy trenches, the exhaustion and sorrow etched on the faces of service personnel sitting packed into the floor of a transport aircraft as we saw at the end of the summer, we may not carry visible scars, however tiny. But we do know, each of us what sacrifice and true presence look like. It is not in vain. It is never in vain. We know that because we hold in our hearts today the names of loved ones and comrades who lived out lives of sacrifice and presence.
We have still raw injuries from the losses of this past year, we are weary, and exhausted. We grieve as we reflect upon the losses and trials of millions across the world whose lives continue to be torn apart by conflict. But it is for us to keep looking to Christ, who tells us ‘do not be alarmed, this must take place, but the end is still to come.’ It is now our presence and our sacrifice that may speak to our sisters and brothers of the greater, infinitely more profound presence and sacrifice of Christ.
And we are mere weeks away from the clarion call ‘Awake, Awake, put on your strength!’ and then the announcement of Emmanuel; God with us. And so we have hope.