Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 09.11.14
I wouldn’t make a very good New Zealander or Australian, where November means spring flowers and warmer days. To me the events of November seem to go naturally with darker, colder weather, falling leaves and all the other signs of approaching winter. It’s a naturally sombre time of year. In my favourite childhood book, Little Women, we find this:
“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.
“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively.
Now I don’t wish to cast aspersions on anyone born in November – some of my favourite people, including my brother and my nephew, have November birthdays. But I sort of know what Meg means. It seems fitting that November blows in on the tide of Halloween, with its traditional defiance of darkness and death by dressing up as witches and zombies, and it is followed soon after by All Souls when we acknowledge the losses we have experienced personally. I went to a conference on funeral ministry the other day where a speaker mentioned that with the current fashion for turning funerals into celebrations of someone’s life, there is a real danger of not allowing people to mourn and express their genuine feelings. Every year in November All Souls gives us the chance to be honest about our sadness when our loved ones die.
Then just a few days later, in England at least, we have the great national occasion of Bonfire Night. I wonder if you know that Gunpowder Treason used to be a solemn day of observance in the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer had many pages of special readings and prayers to be used, in thanksgiving for deliverance from the “secret contrivance and hellish malice of Popish conspirators” with their “most traitorous and bloody-intended massacre by gunpowder”. A television programme this week dramatized the events of what it called “5/11”, reminding us that this was the biggest terrorist attack ever planned on English soil. Nowadays we mark the day with cheerful firework displays and the only people who are frightened are our poor cats and dogs. But for centuries the remembrance of this day made English people tremble at the thought of how nearly the government and Royal Family escaped total destruction.
Bonfire Night is over and Remembrance Sunday arrives on its heels. I’m sure many of you have been to see the display of 888,246 ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower of London. Contrary to the Guardian art critic who felt it prettified war, I saw it as a sea of blood washing up against the walls of that ancient fortification. It showed all too clearly what the glorification of power and conquest can lead to: the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or globally millions, of young people whose God-given lives were taken away by their fellow men. A little later this morning, when we stand for the two minutes’ silence, when we present a wreath at the altar, and when we process to the war memorial in solemn remembrance, we will not be celebrating war. We will be mourning the terrible price that we exact from each other when we resort to violence to resolve our differences.
With this run of events in the first half of November, it seems a good time of year to get serious and concentrate our minds on our collective losses and failures. Sometimes we need to admit that life isn’t always easy and pleasant. The funeral conference I mentioned a little earlier featured a speaker who works for the Archbishops’ Council Projects, and she cheerfully reminded us that talk of the death rate going up and down in different years was a bit wide of the mark, because the death rate is actually 100%. We are all going to die, whatever government or church initiatives we come up with. We know neither the day nor the hour, as Jesus reminds us, but we can be certain that the time will come.
We heard at the conference about the huge success of the Death Café movement in recent years. This involves having a pop-up café where tea and cake are served and people are invited to talk about death in any way that they wish. She did point out that tea and cakes and talking about death are two things that the Church of England should be rather good at. And so a new initiative called Grave Talk is being set up and resources, currently being road-tested in just a few dioceses, will be nationally available next summer. I would like to look into taking part in this project.
Death is inevitable, but many other things we remember sadly in November are not. Bonfire Night should not just be an excuse for fireworks and sparklers, but a wake-up call about homegrown terrorism. The programme last week made me think about the parallels between the situation of Roman Catholics in 16th century England and Muslims in 21st century Britain. In both cases, nearly all of the members of these religious minorities want nothing more than to live as good citizens and good neighbours while practising their faith according to their conscience. But in both cases, a number of young people become radicalized. They feel the prophetic call to turn the world upside down in accordance with what they think God demands. Missing all the references to the mercy and love of God for all of humanity, they decide they alone are right and everyone who disagrees with them is deserving of death. They want to remake the political as well as the religious landscape in accordance with their own extreme understanding of their faith.
And how do we react? The threat in both cases is real and serious. In Tudor England, an extensive network of spymasters kept a close eye on the suspects and successfully foiled the major plot. They then treated the conspirators with unremitting brutality, torturing them for information and executing them in the most barbaric fashion imaginable. In today’s Britain we no longer have the option of hanging, drawing and quartering traitors. But we know only too well that some very unpleasant forms of interrogation are excused on the grounds of national security. And plenty of voices call for radicalized young people to be stripped of their citizenship and in other ways cast out of the British community. We need to hear the churches and others saying that what is needed, wherever possible, is re-education and re-integration of young people who have become alienated, and serious attention to be paid to the question of WHY so many young people become so angry in the first place.
And so back once again to our solemn remembrance of the First World War. Like most people, I can’t begin to understand the complex web of causes that resulted in this conflict. I know that militarism, imperialism and complicated alliances among European nations all played their part. But I can’t help remembering that it was a hot-headed young nationalist who fired the shot that brought the uneasy peace to an end. Another angry young person thinking he could change the world through violence lit the touchpaper that started a conflagration ending in millions of deaths. We all know the shameful fact that churches on both sides of that conflict confidently claimed that God approved their righteous warfare.
The prophet Amos cries out in the name of God, “I hate, I despise your feast days … Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Prophets remind us that God calls us to change the world. We can decide to act collectively to establish fairer structures and justice for the poor. This is the principal concern that runs throughout the Bible. Nothing else comes near in importance. And it’s not a call to be charitable, to share our wealth with those in need, but a call for justice, to remake the structures that oppress the poor.
We read in all of the lessons today about the day of the Lord, the coming of the Bridegroom. These prophecies and parables are not speaking about a world that will be destroyed but a world that will be remade, a beloved creation in which wrong things will be put right. Paul’s image of Jesus meeting his disciples in the clouds has given rise to a lot of nonsense about people being raptured out of this life and whisked away to heaven. That is not what Paul is describing at all.
He is telling us that when Christ returns, his disciples will go out to meet him and escort him back to the earth he came to save, like citizens going out of the city gate to welcome a triumphant king or general. We may or may not take this picture literally. But its message is profoundly important. God’s purpose is not to save us from the world but to save the world in us. God loves the world, and God will put right the wrongs that have spoiled his creation through our selfishness and greed. Our fellow human beings matter to God and they should matter to us. We are sisters and brothers in one family.
The remembrance of millions who died in world wars should be an occasion not only for thankfulness but also for the deepest repentance. How little we have cared for one another. How many chances God has given us. How urgent is the task to let righteousness roll down as a mighty stream, to replace the rivers of blood.