A sermon preached at St Mary’s, Buckden, 13th November 2011
For many of you here today, you are here because of a promise: the silent agreement that those who come back will remember those who do not. You’re here out of solidarity with all who share in the fellowship of arms, those alongside whom you have fought, at the very brink of life and death, with the certainty that you would die for them, as they for you. Greater love have no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends. You’re here because as long as you live it’s your responsibility to be here, to remember, to ensure that the act of remembering continues.
You’re here, perhaps, because you fear that if you don’t do this, nobody will. There are fewer and fewer people who have any first hand memories of the first world war, and in another generation there will be nobody left who remembers world war two. Every year the number of first hand witnesses dwindles, and every year there is concern that the will to remember may dwindle with them.
Yet, the remembering goes on. This church today is packed. Every year another generation of young people from our uniformed organisations turn out to pay their respects.
On Friday I was at Buckden School for their Armistice Day service. Everybody sang – the whole school had learned the same hymn with which we opened our service this morning. Everybody – even the four-year-olds in reception – honoured the silence with seriousness and respect. A young lad in the Beavers read the famous words by Lawrence Binyon in a voice with a clarity and dignity that would make any of you proud. 250-odd children, and dozens of adults – staff and visitors – the vast majority of whom have no personal experience of serving their country, all engaging in an act of remembering. It seems that the will and desire to remember is as strong here in Buckden as it has ever been.
I guess that like me, many of us here today also have no direct memories of conflict to bring to mind today. We may have the stories of spouses, parents, grandparents, friends, and we may have our own imaginings of what reality lies behind the news reports from Afghanistan; but we come here not because we have our own memories to process, nor because of a promise to fallen friends and comrades, but because we recognise a collective need and desire to remember, for everyone’s sake.
For remembering is more than recalling. Today is a chance to re-member, to reaffirm that even if we have not seen action, we stand in solidarity with those of you who have, knowing that you have stood for us. Look around you now. If you, like me, have no direct experience of war, know that you share this space today with those who have risked everything in the service of their country and in the pursuit of peace. If you are among those who have seen active duty, whether in current conflict or in years past, look around you now and see that your risks, your courage, your sacrifices, are honoured today by so many.
All of us are called today to re-member. To reaffirm that we are members one of another, united in our common humanity, members of one body, and that when one part of that body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. You are here to pray for all those who are in the midst of that suffering at this very moment – to pray for our service men and women who are risking life and limb this very day in the quest for peace and stability.
And so we come because we know that the world needs to be reminded that peace is not easy, and it is not cheap. A few years ago a friend of mine, who is an army chaplain and now approaching retirement, was preaching at a civic Remembrance service, his 5 medals pinned to his preaching scarf. The dean of the local cathedral asked him about them. “For a man of my age this is a lot” he replied. “But look at young soldiers today – within a very short time they have 5,6,7 medals. You have to look back to WWII veterans to see lads wearing as many – and that speaks volumes about the state of the world.”
Behind those medals is the human cost: the lives lost, the injuries sustained, the mental scars from experiences beyond most of our imaginings, the marriages lived hundreds of miles apart, the constant nagging fear that mummy or daddy may not come home this time. These cannot be quantified.
The God who went to the cross and suffered some of the worst that humanity has ever invented to inflict upon himself knows that peace is neither easy nor cheap. Every day the news reports can only hint at the truth that war is ugly, and complicated, and that, in the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “peace is not something that we can wish for, but is something that we make, that we do, something that we are, something that we give away”.
Among those who have ever put on a uniform and known what it is to fight, there are very few indeed that would ever glory in war itself. All of us here, I think, long for a time when the sword might be beaten to a ploughshare.
But in the mean time, the reading from the letter to the Romans, is honest about the present reality – a reality of hardship, distress, persecution, famine, sword; a reality in which people are ‘being killed all day long’.
And yet this same reading tells us again a well-rehearsed but still startling truth: nothing – not even all these horrors – can separate us from the love of God.
If we want to find God, of course we can find him here in church today. But he is not only here. He was in the trenches in the two world wars, and at the Somme. He was there when telegrams bearing news of tragedy and loss were opened and read back at home. He was there in the hospitals and there in the silent poppy fields.
And today he is also on the dusty, pot-holed roads of Afganistan, and in the smoke-filled air.
However dark the world seems to be, the light of God is stronger. When hatred seems to be taking over, the love of God is stronger. And when all around is destruction and death, the life of God is stronger. For there is nothing that can separate us, or our brothers and sisters in the field, from God’ love – not in this world, and not in the world to come.
We know that there is nothing that cannot be transformed by God…and as we wait for the ultimate transformation of our battered world, there are smaller transformations going on…each of them a sign of hope.
I heard from a friend about a project in Mozambique, in which former rebels could bring their Kalashnikovs to a church-based charity, and swap them for a plough, or a sewing machine, the means to make a living and start again. Those same weapons are then decommissioned and dismantled, and used by a group of Mozambiquan artists to create works of art, and even chairs and tables. “It is a practical solution based on the Bible”, says Mozambican Bishop Dinis Sengulane. ”We tell people we are not disarming you. We are transforming your guns into ploughshares, so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread.
We are transforming them into sewing machines so you can make clothes. The idea is to transform the instruments of death and destruction into instruments of peace and of production and cooperation with others.”
The big picture seems to be one in which world peace is a far-off dream, a political and practical impossibility. And yet, even in the most dire situations, there will be such small signs of peace breaking out. Sacrifices made, risks taken, second chances offered, humanity and yes, love, triumphing in tiny ways, against all the odds. I hope and pray that those serving in Afghanistan today are seeing those same fragile signs of hope. We must continue to pray for all those whose duty and service it is to nurture those seeds to take root and grow, in the most unpromising conditions.
Our focus today is quite rightly on those whose lives have been given and taken away, and those who today still risk life and limb in the service of their country, and in the pursuit of peace. But we must not do is fall into the trap of thinking that peacemaking and peacekeeping can be left solely to the professionals: the army, the navy, the air force, the marines, the politicians, the decision makers of the world, as if the pursuit of peace were a specialist activity that can safely be left to others. It is our duty – all of us – as children of God to be peacemakers, to work to break the continual spiral of violence and aggression which causes so much destruction and death and grieves the heart of God.
Peace does not begin and end in Afghanistan. In the conflicts of our lives here, in this village, in our workplaces and schools and homes and neighbourhoods, these are also places in which we are called to be bringers and forgers of God’s peace.
So let us commit ourselves to work as hard as we can for it, both here and throughout God’s beautiful but broken world, and as we do, let us remember again all those who pay the price. Amen.