Reflection – 14 November 2021 – Remembrance Sunday

Here’s my reflection for our Remembrance Sunday on Sunday 14 November.

If you’d like to join in our Zoom sessions follow this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84890359132

The service starts at 11.00 British Summer Time.

Mark

Before worship

A song by Eric Bogle – No Man’s Land

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Chorus: Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fir o’er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some thankful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Chorus

The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plough;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

Chorus

And I can’t help but wonder,  Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you ‘The Cause?’
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Chorus

Call to Worship

In days to come
    the mountain where the Temple stands
    will be the highest one of all,
    towering above all the hills.
Many nations will come streaming to it,
and their people will say,
“Let us go up the hill of the Lord,
    to the Temple of Israel’s God.
He will teach us what he wants us to do;
    we will walk in the paths he has chosen.
For the Lord’s teaching comes from Jerusalem;
    from Zion he speaks to his people.”

He will settle disputes among great nations.
They will hammer their swords into plows
    and their spears into pruning knives.
Nations will never again go to war,
    never prepare for battle again.

The silence from the Cenotaph

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/live/bbcone

Mary is now going to read a list of people from this church that died in the First and Second World Wars. It’s something Mary’s dad Stan used to do on Remembrance Sunday and I think it’s a good way of reminding us that remembering the fallen isn’t an abstract thing but that every one of them was an individual person.

Our first hymn this morning is O Valiant Hearts

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved
your memory hallowed in the land you loved…

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war

as who had heard God’s message from afar;

all you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,

to save mankind – yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
into the light that nevermore shall fade;
deep your contentment in that blest abode,
who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
while in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
like some bright star above the dark abyss;
still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were his servants, in His steps they trod,

following through death the martyred Son of God:

Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise

they who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead
Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led,
in glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
commits her children to Thy gracious hand.

Prayer

Gracious God, remember your holy promise, and look with love on all your people, living and departed.


On this day we especially ask that you would hold forever all who have suffered during war, those who returned scarred by warfare, those who waited anxiously at home, and those who returned wounded, and disillusioned; those who mourned, and those communities that were diminished and suffered loss.


Remember too those who acted with kindly compassion, those who bravely risked their own lives for their comrades, and those who in the aftermath of war, worked tirelessly for a more peaceful world.


And as you remember them, remember us, O Lord; grant us peace in our time and a longing for the day when people of every language, race, and nation will be brought into the unity of Christ’s kingdom.


This we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

I always find myself somewhat conflicted on Remembrance Sunday. It’s absolutely right that we remember those who fought and died in war. It’s entirely reasonable that we take some national pride in those who fought for our own country.

My problems are in making sure that this doesn’t translate into the glorification of war, because war isn’t glorious – it’s dreadful. And the only time that war can be justified is when the alternative is worse. I think you can make a good case for the Second Woorld War being justifiable on that basis, but as for some of the others I’m not so sure.

So we’ve remembered the fallen but at this stage I want us to hear a story from Richard. It’s in two parts, and in between we’re going to hear a song.

Part 1

My first ever holiday abroad was with my then girlfriend, visiting her penfriend, Sylvie, at a little village in Normandy called St Pierre de Nids. One evening our penfriend’s father offered to take us to the site of a WW2 battle, during the visit I plucked up courage to do what I had been told never to do, I asked what it had been like in the village, living under occupation.

We were told that the village had had no serious problems, no one was executed, no one was sent to work in the mines or factories in Germany, they were just made to continue to be farmers supplying food for the German army. The villagers were often hungry, but they did have food to eat so they got by. Eventually the American army came to liberate the village and using several young men from the village sent word to the German commander that they would be coming into St Pierre at 7am the next day, If the Germans surrendered all would be peaceful, if not the Americans would come in fighting. The Germans agreed to surrender but insisted that the night curfew would remain as usual.

The young men who had delivered the message went home, but two of them, buoyed up by the freedom that would come next day, decided to walk around the outskirts of the village again, one of them went as far as digging up his father’s hunting rifle and carrying it with him. As they passed near to the village café a shout went out to halt. One boy successfully ran away, the other was not so quick, a shot rang out and the young man, aged just 17 died against the café wall. Our French family took us to the spot where it had happened and showed us the plaque on the wall in memory of the village’s lost son.

Here are the lyrics to the song. Its called Ladies in Waiting.

Ladies in Waiting – Waz!

A cold winter’s day at the railway station,

village folk waiting for their men to come home:

the council, the clergy, friends and relations

prayed together though each was alone.

Five long months since victory bells sounded,

six long years since she last saw him smile:

steam whistle blew and she was surrounded

by children intent on waving flags for a while.

How many more times must ladies stand waiting?

How many more times must they wave from the shore?

How many more time must they pick up the pieces

of heartbroken men returning from war.

The train rode into the windswept station,

the flowers had folded beneath the rain:

Love and confusion, steam and celebration,

the children too young to witness the pain.

As the weeks went by she tried hard to heal him,

to claw back the love and the light in his eyes:

She’d wake late at night and she’d find him staring

at battlefields, comrades and unsaid goodbyes.

Chorus

Part 2

I was lucky enough to visit Sylvie and her family many times over the years and I each time I visited stood in silent witness thinking of this young life so cruelly taken. Then on one occasion I saw not one plaque but two and the new plaque had a German flag etched into it. There was a second chapter to the story. A year before my visit a large German car arrived in the village and the two elderly occupants took a room at the local “B n B” where they asked if the parents of the young man who was shot were still alive and if so, would it be possible to meet them. The German couple were told that indeed they were alive and that it may be possible to meet them.

The meeting took place that evening, and the Germans told the other parents that it had been their son who had shot the young French boy. They then produced a letter from their son which they had eventually received some 30 years after he had written it, and this is a summery of what he wrote.

He was just 14 years old when he fired his gun for the first time and took a life. Taken from the Hitler Youth at 13 years old, he was given basic training and sent to France where he ended up in St Pierre de Nids. He knew the Americans were coming and he was scared to death because he had been told that the Yanks shot every German out right.

He was on his last patrol, walking around the village when he saw two people, he called halt, brought up his rifle and it went off with devastating results.

The German commander knowing that the Americans would indeed execute the young soldier outright for firing the shot, smuggled him out of the village into a retreating army unit.  

In his letter the young man spoke of his abject shame and sorrow at taking a life, of his fear and total unhappiness, of his hatred of himself and he begged his parents for forgiveness.

 He never fired his gun again, and eventually he ended up in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was killed aged 14.

The conversation between the two sets of grieving parents went on into the night. Next day they met, along with other village members, at the site of the fatal shooting and laid flowers for both boys. A year later at another gathering took place at the café wall, and a plaque to the young German boy was unveiled.

My understanding is that both sets of parents became lifelong friends and ambassadors for reconciliation and peace. To me they still are genuinely great and amazing people, an example to us all. I am sure that all four are no longer with us in the world however, they set a standard for life that if we all followed would serve humanity better than they could have ever believed.   Readings

1 Samuel 15:1-9

15 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one whom the Lord sent to anoint you king of his people Israel. Now listen to what the Lord Almighty says. He is going to punish the people of Amalek because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming from Egypt. Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children, and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys.”

Saul called his forces together and inspected them at Telem: there were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 from Judah. Then he and his men went to the city of Amalek and waited in ambush in a dry riverbed. He sent a warning to the Kenites, a people whose ancestors had been kind to the Israelites when they came from Egypt: “Go away and leave the Amalekites, so that I won’t kill you along with them.” So the Kenites left.

Saul defeated the Amalekites, fighting all the way from Havilah to Shur, east of Egypt; he captured King Agag of Amalek alive and killed all the people. But Saul and his men spared Agag’s life and did not kill the best sheep and cattle, the best calves and lambs or anything else that was good; they destroyed only what was useless or worthless

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace

Talk

It’s been a bits and pieces sort of service today.

I want to very briefly try and pull a few things together.

We’ve just heard two readings from the Old Testament. Let’s start with the one from Ecclesiastes and in particular the last verse –

a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace

Sadly I think that is true. We should strive always for peace, Jesus did say that the peacemakers would be blessed after all, but it is sadly the case that war sometimes becomes inevitable and that continued peace becomes impossible. As I said before I think that was the case in 1939. The attempts to reach a peace with Hitler, the appeasement process by Neville Chamberlain, although no doubt well intentioned failed to work and the Nazis despicable regime had to be confronted. The war did not stop one of the most appalling atrocities in human history, the holocaust, but much worse would have undoubtedly happened if we had not gone to war.

But as for why the First World War was necessary – well I’m far less clear on that. And when it comes to things like the Iraq war – well lets be charitable and say that the justification for that left something to be desired.

But the time for war needs to be much less frequent that it currently is. Do you know that Britain has been involved in over 20 military actions since 1945? Was it really time for war every time? Was there really no alternative?

Let’s turn to the other reading that Julia read from 1 Samuel.

This appears to be God being in favour of war. Indeed not only in favour but instructing Israel to go to war and telling them to kill every single Amalekite – every man, woman, child and baby. A genocide worse even than the Nazis. Can that be right?

Well that’s not the God I believe in, the God of love, justice and peace, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. So this is one of those bible passages that need to be thought about very carefully. We must always remember that the books of the bible were written by human beings. They weren’t dictated by God. So I think what was happening here is that the leaders of Israel wanted to go to war and it suited their purposes to let the people believe that God was right behind them. What could be better for Saul’s purposes than to be able to get Samuel to say that the Lord had instructed him to do what he fully intended to do anyway?

This brings me on to another trap that we can get close to falling into. Which is that our justifiable act of remembrance can step over into nationalism. I once saw this on a war memorial in Cornwall:

“Thanks be to God who has given us the victory.”

Really? Is God always on the side of the United Kingdom and whoever we throw our hat in with to make sure we always win? Is God an Englishman?

I think we need to be much more inclusive in our remembrance. To make it clear that we are remembering all those who have suffered and died in war. Those that were on our side – and in passing I looked up the World War 1 casualty figures for another country that fought with us. Britain lost 750,000 soldiers from a population of around 46 million at the time. This other country lost ‘only’ 250,000 – but it’s population was just 7 million. Proportionately that twice the casualty rate we had. Which country – Romania the country of our friends Rudolf and Maria.

We should remember, too, the soldiers on the other side who no doubt thought they were fighting for a just cause too.

Above all we should seek to work with those in other countries, seeking mutual understanding and working together to meet mutual goals. We should turn down the nationalism and posturing. We should seek reconciliation. And then, like the families in Richard’s story, people of different nationalities could be brought together in love and friendship.

Time for Prayer

Where swords are turned to ploughshares

and spears to pruning hooks

where the guns fall silent

and the rumours of war cease

We see the love of God

written on the hearts of men and women

And offer our thanksgiving to God

Where man says’ I am my brother’s keeper’

and the guardian of his days

Where mothers’ sons grow old

in lands free from strife

We see the love of God

written on the hearts of men and women

And offer our thanksgiving to God

Where enemies destroy the barriers that divide

and no man’s land becomes home to each and all

Where colour, creed and nation

unite not stand apart

We see the love of God

written on the hearts of men and women

And offer our thanksgiving to God.

Where silent remembering inspires songs of freedom, justice, truth

and the sacrifice of old shapes the passion for our future

Where those who gave their lives and youth

let us age in years and wisdom

We see the love of God

written on the hearts of men and women

And offer our thanksgiving to God.

Where courage never fades in the battle for the right

and power is given to the weak, the least, the last

Where compassion finds a home

to root out fear, mistrust or pride

We see the love of God

written on the hearts of men and women

And offer our thanksgiving to God.

For the love of Father, Son and Spirit

is the source of human love

the fire of God within us

shedding light upon our path

write this love upon our hearts God

as we offer you our thanks

through Jesus Christ our saviour

who offers life to us.  Amen  

Our final hymn today is For the Healing of the Nations by Fred Kaan. It’s number 377 in the hymnbook, but the words will appear on the screen

For the healing of the nations,

       Lord, we pray with one accord;

for a just and equal sharing

       of the things that earth affords.

To a life of love in action

       help us rise and pledge our word.

Lead us forward into freedom,

       from despair your world release,

that, redeemed from war and hatred,

       all may come and go in peace.

Show us how, through care and goodness,

       fear will die and hope increase.

All that kills abundant living,

       let it from the earth be banned:

pride of status, race or schooling,

       dogmas that obscure your plan.

In our common quest for justice

       may we hallow life’s brief span.

You, Creator-God, have written

       your great name on humankind;

for our growing in your likeness,

       bring the life of Christ to mind;

that by our response and service

       earth its destiny may find.

Finally we will close by saying the grace:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

and the love of God

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit

be with us all

evermore.

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