Remembrance Sunday 2017: Sermon by the Vicar, Fr Kevin Morris

“Our lamps are going out!”

In the Gospel this morning Jesus tells the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, who represent the expectant Christian community as they wait the return of Christ (the Bridegroom) and the day of Judgement. Some are foolish and some are wise, and we hear the cry: “Our lamps are going out!”

For me it is a parable about the resources we need as human beings: What kind of resources allows us to be properly human under God?

Approaching this Remembrance Sunday (and with this basic question in mind), I have been challenged by four things in particular, which have helped me to ‘trim my lamp’ as it were.

First, there is a huge amount of historical work taking place in the study of the First World War, which has helped us to depart from the myths and propaganda, the jingoism and partisanship. It has revealed yet again the extraordinary bravery and sacrifice of so many men and women in the face of terrible odds.

Secondly, I have just returned from a week in Germany as part of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, reflecting on Luther and his significance for the Western Church, and also his impact on so much in Western society. Luther lived at a time when the new printing press was lauded as a communication tool that could bring people together, and much the same is said of social media today, where as, of course, it succeeded in bringing a violent rift between peoples throughout Europe.

Here I was in a country that had been divided after the Second World War as part of the peace arrangements, worshipping with people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who would have been our enemies during the Two World Wars.

Thirdly, Canon Rachel Mann, poet and priest at Manchester Cathedral, has a written a book called ‘Fierce Imaginings’ which I recommend to you. Her point is that even though many died in the Great War, still many more survived and it is the voices of these ordinary men and women who fought in the war, and who continued to suffer after the war, that we still need to hear: they had no voices before the war, she says, and none afterwards.

And fourthly, former President Gaviria of Columbia was once asked by his son, how peace could be achieved in Columbia, after 52 years of hostility between the government and the Farc rebels. ‘In bits and pieces’ he replied. We may pride ourselves on knowing a great deal about war and its suffering and horror, but how much do we really know about what it takes to make peace. What kind of resources allows us to be properly human under God?

This Remembrance Sunday we are remembering especially the Third Battle of Ypres, which ended a hundred years ago.

Despite the large amount of revisionist history taking place now, debunking the various myths and stories of World War 1, Passchendaele, as it is better known, is still regarded as among its most futile massacres. There were half a million casualties so as to allow the British to advance five miles during the heaviest rainfall in thirty years: many men and horses drown in the sludge and tanks became stuck. The German army also unleashed mustard gas, which left many soldiers with chemical burns. The soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in a poem:

‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele); … so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.’ (‘Memorial Tablet’)

“Our lamps are going out!”

In what way does the experience of that kind of hell affect our sense of humanity under God, how do we find the resources to keep going: with our mind in hell (and, for those soldiers, with their bodies too) how do we not despair?

Around the walls of our church this morning, are the biographies of ten of the 128 servicemen named on the parish war memorials who fell in 1917: men such as Lieutenant Nixon who was married in this church just a month before he was killed; a former server and thurifer, Leonard Dunkley, killed at Passchendaele, who served at Mass in the trenches – the thurible we are using today at this Mass was rescued from France during the Great War and brought back here; Walter Sterndale Bennett, the most decorated soldier on our memorials – with two Distinguished Service Medals. He was a grandson of the composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett ( one of whose church anthems was sung after the Gospel, a setting of Abide with me) and it is a privilege to welcome here this morning Walter’s great nephew, Dr Gareth Jones.

The war memorials of 20th century England were erected not to celebrate the triumphs of war but to mourn the dead. This is why on Remembrance Sunday we hold a Requiem – a corporate Eucharistic prayer for the dead. We remember before God those who died in the two Great Wars of the last century and all conflicts since: ordinary men and women who were known and loved and grieved over, who spent their resources trying to bring light to a dark world.

“Our lamps are going out!”

As I said earlier, being in Germany this last week was a challenging experience in preparing for this morning. Worshipping with my brothers and sisters in Christ and hearing a little about the carpet bombing of Dresden and Leipzig by British planes and in Erfurt, where we were staying, of many women and children killed, who had sheltered in a church crypt when a stray British bomb hit the building. Ordinary men and women who were known and loved and grieved over – just like us. Today we remember all who died in war.

“Our Lamps are going out!”

It was also very challenging to hear about life after the Second World War when peace had been declared. Under the Stasi in East Germany, in a divided country, it would have been easy to believe that life would never change, and that the famous wall in Berlin would stand forever as a practical symbol of separation.

However at Leipzig in the 1980’s, a small group of people began to meet at St Nicholas’s church on Monday evenings to pray and to talk politics. . By 1989 there were literally thousands of people gathered in the Nicolaikirche which led to nationwide peaceful protests which in would in turn lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall only a few weeks later.

… but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

Perseverance, hope, faith, the belief that life can be different, can be better, people who dedicated their resources to bring light and peace to a dark world.

Canon Rachel Mann in her book ‘Fierce Imaginings’, wants us to hear, as best we can, some of the lost and never-heard voices of the Great War. She wants us to take seriously the stark truth about the loss that the First World War brought about: the loss of countless young men, whose voices never counted in the first place in our society; the loss of the capacity to talk about their wounded experiences by those who survived; the loss of certain myths about manhood; and the loss of a God who providentially ordered history and protected his own.

Yet Canon Mann emphasises the huge significance of our annual acts of remembrance, as they give space for the affirmation of ‘ordinary’ lives from a century ago in the naming and honouring of the dead, the largely voiceless and powerless dead. As Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it, ‘Remembering them, not as stereotyped victims but as people with agency, emotion, sceptical humour and passionate trust – this is not an empty convention but an act of faith in the fullest sense.’ This is what we have tried to do here these last years as we commemorate the Great War: to contemplate the grace of these ‘ordinary’ lives, dearly loved, who once formed part of our community, who experienced such horrors and who sacrificed so much.

… but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

It is of course much easier to start a war than to stop one, especially when the conflict lasts for longer than many people have been alive and making peace is an unfamiliar prospect.

Last year, the Columbians showed the world that it is possible for this to be done. It is fragile and enormously difficult but after 52 years of hostilities the Columbian government and the Farc rebels brought an end to their war in which over 220,000, mostly non-combatants, have been killed and many, many more displaced or simply ‘disappeared’.

… but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

How do you live life in the face of fear of destruction? How do you breed new hope and initiatives for justice and reconciliation? How do you keep on going struggling for peace?

Like some of the bridesmaids we begin to get frightened, our resources are running low, coming to an end, our lamps are going out. But the parable of Jesus teaches the expectant Christian community of the need of the precious resources of faith, hope and love under God, where even the most unpromising ground can yield fruit. In bleak and discouraging situations it is practical expressions of trust, hope and love that become the very stuff of faith, a defiant faith, of the coming of God amongst us and is ready to receive him with lamps well trimmed. What resources does it take for us to live properly human lives under God, so that when we appear before the judgement seat, we may be known as peacemakers of our Heavenly Father.

… but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.