SERMON FOR REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY 13.11.16
I started to think about this sermon last Wednesday, after staying up all night and watching the US election results with increasing horror and incredulity, and then getting a couple of hours’ sleep before realizing sadly that it hadn’t all been a dream.
I was glad of the task, however hard it seemed at the time, to have to look for signs of hope in the middle of what felt like a monumental disaster. I quickly realized that being a member of the Christian Church, the Spirit-sustained Body of Christ in the world for the past 2000 years, gave me a perspective that could help me to see things in a different light. And it is the same perspective that can help us face, once again, the sadness of our annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday, a day when the utter scale and waste of human life may make us cynical and even despairing.
I want to pick out something from each of the three readings today that helped to revive my fainting spirit last week, and encourages me today on this solemn occasion.
First of all, today’s gospel reading from Luke. It seems that Jesus was fully aware of the tendency his followers would have to see doom and gloom all around them. He knew that we would search for signs and portents and predict that the End is Nigh whenever life became stormy and turbulent. Remember that just before the turn of the first millennium, in the year 1000, many Christians in Europe were utterly convinced that the world was about to end. And there were quite a few who took the same view when the year 2000 came into view. In between, there have been preachers of the coming of judgement day with great regularity – in the Middle Ages, in early modern times, and perhaps particularly in the 19th century. The Baptist preacher William Miller announced that Jesus’ second Advent on earth would take place on October 22nd, 1844, based on a reading of the 8th chapter of the Book of Daniel. When that event failed to happen, the whole episode became known as the the Great Disappointment. Miller reworked the prophecy to say that the cleansing of the sanctuary invisibly began on that day, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew up as a result, expecting the imminent return of Christ any day now.
Of course it is right to be ready at all times to meet Christ. That is one reason we focus on our mortality in November, including holding conversations about death and bereavement at the Grave Talk café. It is true that we do not know the day or the hour when Christ will return or call us home. And so every day we should be mindful of our sins and our blessings, and leave the future in the hands of God. In the meantime, by our endurance we will gain our souls – or as the British like to say, Keep calm and carry on, and in the immortal advice of Corporal Jones, Don’t panic!
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians gives some practical guidance on how to do this. “Do your work quietly and earn your own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” This may remind you, rather poignantly, of the Methodist saying that Hillary Clinton quoted so often in her campaign: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” We won’t go badly wrong if we keep that instruction in mind.
There is always something to do to shock us out of our paralysis of grief and disbelief, whether it’s an election result or a more personal bereavement. For one thing, there is the great blessing of the Daily Office. Even on the most horrible days, the words of Morning and Evening Prayer are there to be recited, the Bible readings to be pondered, the intercessions to be offered, however little we feel like praying.
Some of us were reminded last week by Rowan Williams, in his lecture on Bonhoeffer’s ethics, that a great deal of ethical life is quite properly boring – most of the time we just have to get on with it, knowing what constitutes constructive life together. Domestic duties may fall into this category. Rather than remaining stuck in a blue funk, we have houses to clean, people to feed, necessities to shop for, children or elderly folks to tend. I often think it’s a good thing that right after a death, the bereaved relatives are kept busy with jobs – death certificates, funeral planning, house clearing, letter writing and phone calling. It would be easy to be paralyzed by numbness. But we get on with what has to be done, and that keeps us going until we are able to cope with the feelings that threaten to overwhelm us. It’s the day of the funeral that allows us the space to really feel the emotions and say goodbye.
That’s what we do on Remembrance Sunday, and that’s why war memorials and wreath laying have always mattered so much to the generations who lost their parents, spouses and children in war. The ritual, enacted not alone but in community, holds us together while we allow ourselves to face our terrible sense of loss. Rather than curl up in a corner in lonely despair, we rejoin the wider community and hold each other in love.
Certainly I felt the need throughout election night and on the following day to contact friends and family on social media, to share my sense of bewilderment, and to get some real-life hugs from people who knew how I was feeling. In the much more devastating circumstances of the death of a loved one, these personal contacts matter enormously. We must never be too shy to speak to a bereaved person and offer them our time and sympathy.
So: do not be terrified, as Jesus says, or don’t panic, keep calm and carry on. Do not be weary of doing what is right, as Paul says, or do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.
And where is God in all this? That’s a question that came up over and over in the conversations around the US election. It may seem like an exaggerated response to a political event, but history shows us that when we start to go down a dangerous route, the outcome can be disastrous for millions. It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask about anything that deeply troubles us.
And here is where Malachi comes to my aid. It’s tempting to reach for the words of vengeance – “all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” It would be really satisfying to hurl those words in the direction of people whose views I profoundly disagree with. BUT, that’s God’s business, not ours. The words for us are these: “unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.” That last phrase is one I had never before noticed. It means we will be protected and sheltered, domesticated cattle rather than wild ones, safe from the storms and predators in the open wilderness. It’s an image of God who takes care of us, sheltering us under healing wings. Remember that Jesus later compared himself to a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings.
In our grief, whether personal or national, whether fresh or historic, we need to be covered by the loving parental wings of God. It’s not a cop-out to crawl under those wings. It is where we need to be, where we will find rest for our souls and courage to face whatever lies ahead. And as always, with the God of surprises, we never know what good new thing may arise out of the sadness and grief that threatens to overwhelm us.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has given us an example of how to respond to the events of last week, writing “my continuing prayers are that the United States of America may find reconciliation after a bitter campaign and that Mr Trump may be given wisdom, insight, and grace as he faces the tasks before him.” As we solemnly remember today the terrible loss of life in wars created by human conflict and hatred, may we also be given wisdom, insight and grace to face all the tasks that lie before us, individually and collectively. Amen.