A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 10th November 2019
Being a priest of a particular generation, I have found myself conducting the funerals of many men who fought in the two World Wars of the last century. One of the things that many of them have in common is that they rarely, if ever, speak of their wartime experience. Just earlier this year, a family in grief told me of the war service of their deceased father who they only ever heard once talk of his war service, and that was when he met – coincidentally – someone he had served with. They spent a memorable evening talking of their experience. And then the shutters came down again.
You can understand why. Who would want to burden their loved ones with such knowledge? How on earth could they understand the life of a soldier in conflict? What can we say about such unspeakable things? Wilfred Owen writes about this,
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?
We understand so much more now of the realities of war and the long-term effects on those who are asked to serve and fight. We know of PTSD. We know how prolonged exposure to conflict, or the sudden trauma of action can affect servicemen and women and their families. The words of Sergeant Davis read by Evalyn earlier reveal much, not just by what he says, but by what he leaves unspoken.
When the millions gathered on Armistice Day 1919 their thoughts were rightly with the soldiers, service and airmen. Since that day, quite rightly, Remembrance Sunday has given honoured places to our war dead, from Flanders to Fallujah.
But, for the Christian person at least, committed as we are to a vision for people which transcends race, tribe, nation and the many other things that divide us in our shared human identity, this honouring of the dead of battles past and the returning survivors of war is not the only thing that is required of us at Remembrance-tide. As a young naval officer, standing at attention on Remembrance Sunday at Dartmouth, I don’t only recall being asked to remember ‘our boys’ as though they were the only casualties of war or the idols of the tabloid press. This is where a Christian vision of the world and a military service perspective coincide. We are both asked to remember all the victims of war, civilian casualties, displaced families, even our enemies, people like us who wore the uniform and who, theoretically in my case even though the Falklands War was fresh in the memory when I served, nevertheless stepped forward to offer our service in defence of others. It is here, I think, that Remembrance Sunday, properly understood, becomes over time, as much a public act of repentance as an opportunity to honour ‘The Glorious Dead’. It is an act of acknowledgement of the reality of human evil, the bitter pain of the failure of human beings to find more humane solutions than warfare, and a counting of the cost, in human life, of all that failure implies. For those with faith, it is public confession of sin, an act of reparation for failure, and a commending to God of the victims of war, in service and civvy street.
One of the big differences between 1919 and 2019 is the globalisation of communications. We now see much that a soldier sees from the trenches and, as someone did with me the other day, we wonder whether this generation would fight in the way those men did in Flanders. We often disparage the young – the ‘snowflake generation’ say some, the most entitled generation say others. But maybe, with what they know of warfare, things our predecessors never did or could, their presumed reluctance to fight might encourage politicians and diplomats to seek other solutions to conflict and dispute. Who knows? We pray God we may never have to find out. The candidates in the forthcoming General Election need our prayers, though; for one of them will perhaps bear the heavy burden of decision-making.
But another difference is that, with a globalised world, there are other victims of war among us. We encounter the victims of Syria (the world’s largest refugee population) or Iraq, and countless other hidden wars here among us. We welcome them here, out of both human kindness, and as acknowledgment that history judges us bearing some, if not significant responsibility, for the contemporary state of the Middle East, beginning with 1917s Balfour Declaration. Over recent months, this church together with others in the Deanery of Battersea, have created Battersea Welcomes Refugees, our own modest local response to the consequence of war. We have found homes for a handful of Syrian families, through the generosity of local landlords, willing to sacrifice some personal gain for the sake of hospitality to some of war’s victims. In reflecting on this, it strikes me that perhaps as Remembrance Sunday develops and deepens its meaning over the years, and as the combatants of World War 2 are promoted to glory, perhaps this Sunday in time will become a focus for all the victims of war, service personnel and civilian, British and non-British, friend and enemy. Sometimes a combination of politics and necessity ask us to choose sides in conflict: that’s the realism of human living in a fallen world. But, never it seems to me, should we choose between different kinds of victims of warfare – ours or theirs, soldier or civilian, settled status or refugee. They all deserve the full honour of this moment.
This Remembrance Sunday the thoughts that have guided me in preparing this service and this sermon have been around those who return from war and those who flee from it, soldiers and refugees. Soldiers return determined that their fighting will not have been in vain; refugees arrive powerfully driven by a sense of gratitude for the hospitality they have been offered.
One of the things that the 20th century revealed about the aftermath of both World Wars is that those who returned became determined to build a better world. To give but two examples of reforms which we now take for granted but which arose directly from a desire to do this: the enfranchisement of women in 1918 and the building of a National Health Service in 1946. Periods of social reform and improvement, driven by an understandable vision and hope, often follow major conflict.
Christians share this vision and hope and, if you want an exposition of what it means to build a better world, looking to the example of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount would be a great place to start. There is often a sterile debate among Christians about whether the application of the Sermon on the Mount is primarily moral or political: is it meant to encourage us to be good individuals or to build a good society? It is not difficult to see both as the goal of Jesus’s teaching. Merciful people building a compassionate society; poverty of spirit (Matthew’s version) facing the challenge of poverty (Luke’s version); hunger and thirst for righteousness in personal conduct and in a just world; or to go beyond the Beatitudes we had read this morning – respect for women, a rejection of retaliation as an acceptable motivation; most challengingly of all, love of enemies. These are not easy values to live by – they require us to take a stand, just as servicemen and women are willing to stand up for their principles. They require courage, just as soldiers, sailors and airmen show courage in the face of opposition. They require trust, not just faith in God, but trust in those around us in the community of faith that we will work together, encourage one another, share together in the common endeavour.
When I was at theological college, one of our tutors told the story of a former student of his from that college, recently-ordained, who preached the sermon on Remembrance Sunday at the Church he was a curate at. Certainly daringly, and rather unwisely, he held up a white feather, the sign of cowardice in the First World War, and told the congregation that anyone who didn’t or wasn’t willing to take Jesus’ words about peace, justice, mercy and compassion to heart, should collect a white feather from him as they left. It was a very unwise thing to do, and gained the predictable response. His Vicar spent the week following building bridges with local people.
But, although I would not dare to single out anyone but myself for such a feather, the point is extremely powerful. It takes the same sort of courage to live the values of the Sermon on the Mount, to live the sort of life of meekness, poverty of spirit, hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, seeking of peace, as it does to be willing to serve on behalf of others in a conflict zone. Indeed, while coming under fire is a terrifying experience, it tends to be a fleeting one, while the journey of living the Beatitudes is a life-long one. Coming to church, belonging to the Christian community, is therefore in some ways a form of spiritual combat training, equipping and training us to live these challenging, but world-changing values, in our daily lives, learning how to ground these deeply visionary, some might say idealistic virtues, in the messy reality and complexity of economic policy, business ethics, climate change, personal conduct and much, much more. Our glorious Leader is not a general arrayed with medals and the laurels of victory; he is one who – eternally – bears the wounds and the cost of living the Sermon on the Mount. He asks us to follow him.
Thank you to those who serve in our Armed Forces; thank you to those who welcomes refugees; but thanks be to God too for those who follow the way of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Thank you all for your service, your courage and your commitment. As we sang last week on All Saints’ Day, taking up a military metaphor, “And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!.”