November 14, 2021

Thy Kingdom Come: A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

A Sermon Preached on Remembrance Sunday 2021 by Canon Simon Butler Matthew 5:1-12 Before the service, our Bass Choral Scholar, Hugo Jennings sang the song In Flanders by the composer…

A Sermon Preached on Remembrance Sunday 2021 by Canon Simon Butler

Matthew 5:1-12

Before the service, our Bass Choral Scholar, Hugo Jennings sang the song In Flanders by the composer Ivor Gurney

The song which Hugo has so beautifully sung is written by Ivor Gurney, based on the poetry of Gurney’s friend and fellow-soldier Will Harvey. It’s the song of a solider longing for his Gloucestershire home from the trenches of Flanders; as such it mirrors the longings of every person caught up in military conflict – absent family, the comforts of home and familiar landscape, the desire for a better world. Sadly, not every serviceman or woman gets to find those longings fulfilled upon their return; even if they are lucky enough to return at all.

As a young man Ivor Gurney was a brilliant young man, a poet and a composer, who grew up in and around Gloucester Cathedral. Having shown such promise he studied at the Royal College of Music, and was seen as demonstrating even more potential than those whose names have become much more familiar such as his contemporary, Vaughan Williams. Gurney had always been a man of tremendous personality, although it became clear that his mood swings had a more serious underlying cause. He had his first breakdown in 1913. When war broke out Gurney volunteered, serving with the Gloucesters. He was wounded in early 1917 and then gassed, but it wasn’t until 1918 that he had a serious breakdown, being diagnosed with ‘shell shock’ – what we would call PTSD. He had a partial recovery and even began to study music again, but by 1922 his condition was so serious that he was declared insane, spending the remainder of his life until his death in1937 in psychiatric hospitals.

It is perhaps only in recent years that we have become able to talk about mental health without adopting hushed tones or carrying a sense of stigma or shame. We are only beginning to address the effects of trauma on our ability to function in family and society. How it must have been in the aftermath of both World Wars, let alone in conflicts before them. It was for this reason that several responses emerged in the period after the First World War, most famously the Royal British Legion whose centenary we mark in this service. Together with the poppy, the two-minute silence, the earlier tradition of Armistice Day, the march-past of veterans at the Cenotaph, the foundation of the Legion marked a concerted effort to begin to honour and respond to the needs of those whose sacrifices involved ongoing scars, physical and mental, alongside the remembrance of the fallen. All these came together in 1921, one hundred years ago.

Two years’ earlier, another charity had begun to serve the 80,000 sufferers from shell shock. The Ex-Serviceman’s Welfare Association was founded in 1919 and lives today under another name, Combat Stress, to whom our collection will be directed today. Among the many creative responses, the use of occupational therapy was pioneered and now talking therapies and other clinical solutions are offered. It’s all a far cry from what Gurney experienced, thanks be to God.

A key element of recovery in any mental health crisis is that of having a supportive community around the sufferer. Good communities are places where mental health issues do not get swept under the carpet, and where people are not prevented from having authentic and honest relationships. Good communities hold pain, and honour and acknowledge it.

In Churches we aspire to be such communities, but set that aspiration into the context of a bigger story, the story of God and his people. Knowing that you fit into something bigger, that can hold onto you when you fear you may not be able to hold on to others – or even your sense of yourself – is a recognised route towards healing and hope. Speaking of his own brush will depression, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Thought for the Day a couple of years ago, “It is my prayer today that anyone who is walking in darkness knows this: you are not alone. You are truly valued and deeply loved. Reaching out and talking to someone can be the first step back into the light.” Such is the story of the Christian faith: a God who is not only there to show how valued you are but to who reaches out to us in a real person, Jesus Christ, and with whom we can talk, and perhaps find our way back to the light and to ourselves. We find healing in healthy relationships with others. Christianity’s belief in Jesus, God made flesh, offers us the possibility of such a healthy relationship with God.

One of the most striking things about the Beatitudes, the teaching of Jesus given at the beginning of what is known as The Sermon on the Mount, which the Deputy Mayor read for us earlier, is the way it turns all our expectations upside-down. We can easily fall into the trap of lionising prosperity, health, self-assertion, power – in short everything that helps us ‘get on’ in the world – and not the experiences which Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in this famous passage. It’s worth noting that, in the other version of this teaching, which is in Luke’s Gospel, the so-called Sermon on the Plain, Jesus adds an extra twist to the teaching: “Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are full…woe to you who laugh…woe to you when all speak well of you.” It’s very uncomfortable for us.

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are part of his explaining the nature of his big picture, what he calls the Kingdom of God. Put simply, this is a vision of a world, and a route to such a world becoming reality, where the God and Father of Jesus reigns in the world. At its heart lies a vision of a world living in harmony with itself – with all creation being as it was made to be. So we hear Jesus talking about two things that are very much in our minds today: first, the Kingdom is a place of peace and justice, where wars are neither fought nor necessary; and second, as we await/digest the outcomes of COP26, where creation is restored to balance and concord.

Well, all very well you may say; but how? How on earth can such a utopia be achieved? Despite the efforts of the most brilliant politicians, scientists, military leaders etc, isn’t it all a bit pie in the sky. And indeed, many have come to believe that the purpose of Christian faith is – primarily – about what awaits us in heaven, and that what matters now is that we concentrate on saving souls. The problem with that view is that it flies in the face of the life and teaching of Jesus. He doesn’t see it all about what happens when we die, as important as that might be to hold onto, especially on Remembrance Sunday. Rather, he talks about the reign of God, the Kingdom, coming “on earth as it is in heaven”. That’s what we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. That the way we live on this planet, the decisions we make, the way we structure our society, and so much more, would start to look like the way we imagine heaven to be.

And the Beatitudes are, if you like, part of the manifesto of the Kingdom. They say, in short, that when we prioritise the sorts of people who they call ‘blessed’, the kingdom of God will begin to be seen among us. The poor in spirit (or the poor if you read Luke), those who mourn, those who are meek, who don’t insist on forcing themselves onto others, those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who practice mercy, who don’t hold grudges or pay back in kind, those who are pure in heart, who have a single-minded focus on God’s way, those who seek and make peace with others, a vital task in a war-strewn world, those who are persecuted because they seek justice in the world, and those who face opposition and punishment for living out their vision of the Kingdom of God in the world. When we put these people at the heart of our vision for the world and for society, when we listen to them just as they (whether they realise it or not) are listening to God’s heart for the world. So, when people started listening to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who returned from the trenches with shellshock, they were listening to the heart of God. When we seek to ensure that those living with long-term and acute mental health conditions and honouring their place among us – in church or society, we are listening to the heart of God. And when we listen to those insistent but small voices from those tiny island nations in the Pacific about climate change, we are listening to the heart of God. And, if we do not, then “woe to you who are rich now…” God is on the side of such people.

Remembrance Sunday, one of my favourite days of the year, honours the little people who served, not the glories of war – people like the ordinary, musically-talented Gloucestershire solider, whose madness was made so much worse by what he went through and saw in Flanders; people like the returning veteran from Afghanistan who cannot speak of what he saw and people like the many ordinary Afghans betrayed out of their hope by the failures international policy over a generation, facing starvation and an uncertain future; and people like those crying out for climate justice and every other fair and righteous cause in this broken, divided and – we now know all too well – increasingly fragile world.

Jesus offers a way in which to make the changes we so long for, an upside-down Kingdom where the last, the least and the lost have pride of place. And, even more extraorinarily, he creates a community where these values are meant to be seen and lived out as a sign for the rest of the world: he creates the church. And, if you think all we stand for in this church has had its day, and that this is simply useless idealism, then perhaps reflect on these words of G K Chesterton, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Lord God, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.




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