It`s just over five years since Harry Patch died. Harry was the last surviving British soldier who fought in World War One and his death was something of a milestone. Because we`re beginning to realise that the more these kinds of anniversaries come and go “Remembering” becomes more difficult.
Of course we may remember and hold in deep affection those like Harry and members of our families who experienced the trauma of war first hand. We knew them and in some cases heard their stories. In fact some of us here have vivid memories of conflicts in which we have taken part. But what time goes by and it may be harder for younger generations to remember the particular conflicts that we have in mind today when all we have to rely on are faded photographs and newsreels.
But in fairness I`m not sure that`s what`s really being asked of us anyway. You see today I can remember a number of people whose courage and sacrifice I deeply value; but what I really want to do is Honour them. To me that`s a much richer notion and something which I really would invite the younger people here today to consider; When you hear those names read out and when you see them on War Memorials, please “Honour these people”- or perhaps, respect them for what they did. Honour them because when you think about it there are two important things going on.
Firstly, these were people who through no particular fault of their own were caught up in the great movement of nations; the folly, pride and downright evil which convulsed the world and brought about so much pain and destruction. But in the midst of this they asked the big Questions. They were everyday men –boys even- who tried to think about life and death; country and duty; is it right to kill? and what values does a civilised nation live by?
And then secondly, they engaged with all of this. They were people who nailed their colours to the mast at great personal cost and sacrifice. We don`t sit in judgement over the rights and wrongs of what they eventually decided to do we (I think appropriately) just keep silence and simply honour them and the humanity that wrestled and responded. You see that`s what I see them doing. Firstly, asking the Big Questions… and secondly, committing themselves to do something; to get involved.
But there`s another group of people that Christians honour at this time of year. And we see the same thing going on. They`re represented by these Banners you see hanging in Church this morning. These are the names of some of those we call the Saints. This time of year is called All Saints tide. And these are the names of Christians whose stories continue to inspire and encourage us today; and each year we honour them for the same sorts of reasons we honour those who died in time of war.
You see these are also people who were caught up in the stream of history. They also lived in troubled times and because of their loyalty to Jesus they faced particular challenges. They understood themselves as the servants of Jesus (this is what it means to be a Christian) and that shaped how they thought and acted. It meant that they had an understanding of the world and of human life which people didn`t and in many cases still don`t want to hear. But they stood by it. They had a very particular understanding of how the world came to be – as created by a God who called it all “very good”. And they were brutally honest about how spoiled that world had become through folly and evil. But they didn`t fall into despair or cynicism; they were inspired beyond measure by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus which convinced them that God had acted to put this troubled world to rights.
This new vision of the world is what Jesus called `the kingdom of God`. And again this was no pious theory. Many if not all of the names you see here paid for their loyalty to Jesus with their lives. Just as Jesus had told them- and as he tells us- “If you`re going to get involved in God`s great rescue mission it will cost you… it`s like taking up a cross”.
For me perhaps the most unsatisfactory thing about Remembrance Day is our well-meaning statement that we`ll do our best to see that wars don`t happen again. You can`t really argue with this except to say that resolutions like this would be a lot easier if we recognised where the real problem lies. For generations now we have lived with the myth that human kind will one day rid itself and the world of all causes of disharmony.
We`ve clung on to the naïve notion that given time we`re capable of ultimately improving ourselves. And what`s absurd is that we continue to believe this when the contrary evidence is staring us in the face from every newspaper and television bulletin. But I like the story of how many years ago The Times Newspaper sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking them the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” and G.K. Chesterton responded simply,“ Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” “I am what`s wrong with the world”. It`s an interesting place to start; to realise that the source of the world`s discord is there in the human heart- and our refusal to accept God`s picture of what it means to be a human being.
I say again, those who fell in the wars are today remembered by us- and quite rightly. But far more importantly we `honour` them because they reflected on the Big Questions of life and then responded with commitment and sacrifice. They strove and fought and died to try to bring about the peace we enjoy and are humbly grateful for. But of course it`s an uneasy and somewhat `flexible` definition of peace isn`t it? Because we know that their efforts were unable to bring about the `end to all wars` that has so often been naively promised.
This, as I say, is because the diagnosis is wrong. When you wrestle with the Big Questions of life –as I hope you will- you need to follow the example of the saints. They saw the world though God`s eyes and against the backdrop of his purposes. They saw what he was doing in Jesus in trying to put the world to rights and –as I hope you will- they enlisted in his service. It`s a costly thing to do, this being a Christian but that`s what you need to do if you want to really change the world.