A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 8th November 2020
Many of us for whom Remembrance Sunday is an important annual observance will have been marking significant anniversaries in the past few years. 2018 saw the centenary of the Armistice; 2019 saw the centenary of the first Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday observances and the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day; and 2020 sees the 75th anniversary of VE & VJ Day. These will likely be the final significant anniversaries where the veterans of global conflict will be with us.
Of course, the anniversaries of 2020 have been somewhat overshadowed by all the focus on the pandemic – we were unable to have a planned service here to mark that occasion earlier in the year. But that in itself has reminded us of that other more unpleasant anniversary, the centenary of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19, whose effects were massively amplified by the quantity of human movement across the world towards the end of World War 1.
In reading Laura Spinney’s excellent history of the 1919 pandemic Pale Rider at the beginning of the Covid-19 emergency back in March, I discovered that the scientific and historical consensus is that the Spanish flu epidemic had its origins not in Spain but in the military camps of Alabama in the United States. Maybe, if we follow President Trump’s renaming of the current virus as ‘Chinese’ perhaps we should rename the Spanish flu epidemic the American Flu epidemic. Spinney’s book led to a chance discovery by me of a news article from earlier this year from an Alabama journalist recording the newspaper reports of clergy, as they responded to the closure of churches to public worship that was ordered by the Governor of Alabama in October 1918. The Birmingham News published excerpts from the sermons the local clergy would have preached that Sunday. There was encouragement of people to slow down, to give time to ‘cogitation and meditation’, to go for a contemplative walk in the countryside. Sound familiar?! I was rather amused by Pastor Wells of Highlands Methodist Church who said, “There will be no services at this church until further notice. The treasurer will be glad to hear from you. You will readily appreciate the importance of this announcement.”
But it was the local Rabbi’s comments that made a conscious connection with the ongoing conflict in Flanders. “There is a new spirit abroad,” wrote Rabbi Morris Newflied. “It grips us all; the men fighting and suffering on the battle front as well as those behind the fighting lines, in the fields and factories, in all walks of life – all of us are made to feel the breath of this new spirit. It grips us with a new understanding of the destiny of man and with a clearer vision of God. This stupendous conflict…is but humanity’s groping, agonizing effort, inspired by this new vision, to come back to God. The nations of the world are struggling to find their souls..”
A better world. Discovering what really matters. Resetting the priorities. Those sentiments were active in 1918 as much as they were in 1945 and were but a few months ago. Do you remember what we were all saying as we sat at home for weeks on end, as we learned how to adapt to new realities, and as we watched Captain Tom do his thing? We must learn from this. We have a real opportunity to do things different.
As I was writing this sermon, I was reminded that I said something similar last year on Remembrance Sunday when the focus was on those who returned from conflict determined to build a better world. I made connections with the Sermon on the Mount. Well, here we are a year on, and I find myself asking what I did with that sense of determination, whether I have found myself being merciful, poor in spirit, a peacemaker. For me at least, such a recollection is immediately followed by my ego seeking to justify myself: So much has happened since then – for goodness sake we’re in the middle of a pandemic – I just need to focus on living, getting through this dreadful season, avoiding getting the virus. But that is to avoid the hard reality that, for many people, the luxury of a season when life is stable enough to concentrate on so-called ‘higher, spiritual matters’ never arrives. Most people in the world, whether they have to live on subsistence income, or struggle to put food on the table for their families and pay the rent every month, they don’t have the luxury of imagining that there will be a time when we can set aside material concerns in order to concentrate on the spiritual. For them, being merciful, poor in spirit, being a peacemaker has to happen in the midst of these realities, not apart from them.
And so it was with soldiers. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have fought in the trenches and to have spent long lonely hours thinking “Some good must come out of this hell” only to return to the rear or back to their families and homes, only to have to face the fresh terrifying outbreak of ‘flu, with all the death and despair that it brought.
Truth be told is that if we are going to find the deepest meaning and purpose in life, we are going to find it in the midst of suffering, struggle and even death. Comfortable, settled life is the exception, not the norm. If we are to live well and to the deepest extent of our humanity, we have to find in moments like these, just as many people do every day around the world.
This is not new, this connection between meaning, suffering and struggle. Writing to the church in Rome, St Paul in his most theological letter says this: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. For Paul, this is the consequence of faith in Jesus Christ, in the simple act of taking Jesus Christ at his word, and trusting him with our lives. This, he says, brings us peace with God and I take from that faith takes us into a different place with our Creator, where God is not distant and apparently against us, but that he is with us and for us. It is this act of trust that enables us to set and see our lives in a new context, one where peace with God is at its heart, where we know that we are – in the most ultimate sense – safe and secure. From this sense of safety and security, we find a new relationship with life’s challenges and struggles – what Paul calls ‘suffering’ – one that doesn’t ignore their realities but changes the way in which they affect us. So, “Suffering produces endurance” – we see this in the countless people whose ability to keep going in the face of so much that life throws at them humbles us. And “endurance produces character” – we see this in those whose ability to endure reveals a deeper quality of life lives because of what they experience. We’ve seen it in so many people these past six months, just as we have seen so many people formed by the horror of war, become leaders of depth and quality in the past one hundred years. Perhaps, at risk of controversy, our journey of increasing disenchantment with politics and politicians in my lifetimes is partly to do with their increasing distance from those who served and experienced war and conflict. Endurance produces character. “And character,” says Paul, “produces hope.” Knowing what suffering means, knowing how to life through it and to endure in it, knowing how this shapes and moulds us into the sort of people with depth and character, this is what gives us the sort of combination of vision and experience to hope, to grasp what the soldiers in the trenches longed for, and what we – in that moment earlier this year – sensed, that a better way of living is possible, a better society can be grasped. “And hope,” says the apostle, “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts….” Many of us will know that famous quote from Corinthians about three things remaining, “faith, hope and love”. Here is a cycle of virtue within the Christian tradition. It is not that these three virtues are options or choices, but they inevitably lead from one to the other. Faith leads to hope leads to love. That’s what Paul is writing in Romans and it is why, in Corinthians, “the greatest of these is love”, because love is the consequence of faith leading to hope. This is the connection in Christian faith between doctrine and ethics. We love because God loved us enough to send Jesus to die upon the cross. He is the one who models faith, endurance, character and hope, all leading us to love.
So this is a model for us to ponder and live by now, in the midst of this strange and disturbing period in our lives, and perhaps to learn from those who suffered, struggled and endured a hundred years ago – and in heat of battle 75 years ago as well. We have become conditioned to what ‘normal’ looks like by such a lengthy period of peace and prosperity. Our normal is, in historical context, abnormal. This is not to wish us into conflict or further periods of disease or lockdown. It is simply to note that in the main we lack that hope-giving, character-forming, endurance-shaping experience of most other people who have lived. The pandemic then is an opportunity for us to grow, to develop and to be shaped by what we are living through. We might have tired of the cliché of making an opportunity out of a crisis, but that doesn’t not – in this context – mean it isn’t true.
The Christian faith offers such a resource. Having faith, itself a gift from God, isn’t primarily a private spiritual decision made as a sort of lifestyle choice; it is a profound path to love, which is found through hope, itself often shaped by suffering, endurance and character. Knowing Jesus Christ isn’t a route to private moral improvement, it is a way of living outward in community, for the sake of our neighbour.
Those who serve us in armed forces, those who have stood in the front line in the battle against this dreadful pandemic, they may or may not be Christian. But, deeply embedded in the DNA of both the NHS and the armed forces are Christian concepts and experiences of faith, hope and love, and that love is expressed through service. National Health Service. Armed Service. I wish you all the ability to endure this period, but I also encourage you to take its opportunity to grow and learn from what we are going through.
Now these thing remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.