Sermon for Cotham
10 November 2019 3 bef Advent Yr C
2 Thessalonians 2: 13-end
It’s Remembrance Sunday, and today’s service is a healing service.
An interesting combination. What does healing have to say about remembrance Sunday. When I think about healing my first thoughts are about the healing of individuals: ourselves or people we are concerned about. But there is much more to healing than that. It’s also about reconciliation, about healing of long standing conflicts, about resolving age-long misunderstandings and differences, about challenging and unpicking prejudices.
So I have to wonder does the way that we do Remembrance Sunday promote this wider process of healing between nations? Does it make it less likely that at some time there will be a whole lot more names to add the list of those young men (and now young women) who have been killed in wars? Does it promote peace?
In the chapel of New College, Oxford where I was a student years ago there is a memorial tablet, which reads “In memory of the men of this college who coming from a foreign land entered into the inheritance of this place and returning fought and died for their country in the war 1914-1919. There follows the names of three German men who had studied at the college. The warden of the college in the early 1920s insisted that this memorial was set up against the objections of at least some of the fellows. That warden was warden Spooner –the warden Spooner who was known for spoonerisms like “here beginneth the first verse of the first chapter of the Duke of Booteronomy” I think it was brave of him to do that in the early 1920s when anti-German feeling was still very strong and memories of the first world war were still very raw. But it was a sign that some people recognized that when we remember those who were killed in wars we need to remember all the many people who have been killed– not just the ones from our side. A quick aside: if you were watching the first instalment of His Dark Materials – New College was used as the setting for Jordan College.
But now back to my concern about whether or not the way we do Remembrance Sunday promotes peace. When do you think white poppies were first distributed? I thought it was quite recently: they were actually first distributed in 1933 as part of a movement led by the Co-operative women’s guild. Now they are distributed by the Peace Pledge Union – the PPU. The PPU’s aims include “The white poppy challenges attempts to glorify or celebrate war, as well as nationalist narratives of remembrance that focus mainly on military victims on one side. By encouraging us to resist the normalisation and promotion of military values at remembrance time, the white poppy helps build a culture of peace.”
That seems to me to be a very good summary of what I would like remembrance Sunday to be about. It’s quite dense – so let me read it again: “The white poppy challenges attempts to glorify or celebrate war, as well as nationalist narratives of remembrance that focus mainly on military victims on one side. By encouraging us to resist the normalisation and promotion of military values at remembrance time, the white poppy helps build a culture of peace.”
The PPU do organize an alternative Remembrance Day event in London. There are a few others around the country but not so far in Bristol.
I don’t know what happens at these events but I expect they do remember everybody who has been killed in wars and military conflicts of all sorts. I expect they remember all the men and women who were not killed or physically wounded but carry and carried the emotional scars for the rest of their lives. I expect they remember how these emotional scars affect the next generations. I expect there are people there from the many different nationalities, who have at one time been at war with each other. I expect they include some recognition of how in war terrible things are done on all sides. That people and nations do not split neatly into the good and the bad.
As an example antisemitism was (and still is) widespread. The extreme horror of the holocaust can make it look as if antisemitism was just a problem among Germans.
But it seems that the British government was told about what was going on in the concentration camps – but decided that any intervention was too difficult and too risky. But one has to wonder if antisemitism influenced that decision. It’s easy to forget how hard it was for Jewish refugees to be allowed to come to Britain in the late 1930s.
What I am trying to get at is the way that wartime propaganda continues to have its effect. The propaganda that set out to show how bad the other side was. We continue to hear about the blitz but much less is said about the firestorms that destroyed Dresden and Hamburg.
Now going back to the PPU. It’s a secular organization devoted to promoting peace. Christian churches tend to be in an ambivalent position. It goes back to the Roman emperor Constantine who legalized Christianity and began a process of making it into a state religion. Those who had power in the church became more interested in getting people to believe the right theological formulations than in taking notice of what Jesus taught. And there can still be a tendency for churches to have an interest in supporting governments and nationalism. Of course this is a generalization with many exceptions. You may remember how after the Falklands war, Archbishop Runcie upset Mrs Thatcher’s plans for making the service in St Paul’s cathedral into a nationalistic victory parade. He did so by calling on everybody to pray for the Argentinian soldiers killed in the conflict – as well as the British; to pray or the Argentinian mothers who had lost their sons as well the British mothers. Mrs Thatcher is said to have been incandescent.
And there have always been people who are more attracted to Jesus than they are to the church and its power. The obvious example is St Francis. Remember his attempt to end the crusades by going to visit the Moslem ruler. They seem to have been impressed with each other and Francis came away with a deep respect for Islam. But there are many more including his namesake, the current pope. Many of those who oppose this pope do so because they want to restore the power and control of the church.
So the institutional church has been in an ambivalent position when it comes to being committed to working for peace. But as the power of the church ebbs away many of those that remain have become more committed to the work of reconciliation. And have become more aware of how important the poor, the outcasts and the people on the edge were to Jesus. And if I were to hazard a guess and if Jesus was walking around now I would expect to find him with the PPU event in Tavistock square rather than the official ceremony in Whitehall. Or maybe I might him on the edge of the event sitting on a bench and talking to a homeless person.