A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2020
I was listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago. There was a question – what was your favourite school trip? Lots of people were remembering going to zoos and theme parks and so on. But my mind went straight to a trip to Belgium when I was doing my GCSEs. We went to visit many of the key sites from the First World War.
One day, we went to Passchendaele, where the Third Battle of Ypres took place in late 1917. The battle followed the common pattern of attrition – hundreds of thousands killed and wounded. It was a rare British victory, but at horrendous cost. A pyrrhic victory. After looking at the remains of the trenches and the various ridges, we were left with time to explore. I wondered over to a war cemetery. There were those ordered ranks of white stone – row after row after row, each stone marking the resting place of a Commonwealth soldier. Looking closer, I began to read those stones. So many young men whose lives were cruelly cut short – many only a year or two older than I was. My eyes were then drawn to a certain stone. It was almost blank – a simple cross and the words, ‘a soldier of the Great War known unto God’. Then I noticed another, and another, and another. Dozens of stones marking the graves of unidentified soldiers. Some had regiments. Some even had rank. But they were all unnamed. All known only unto God. I remember feeling completely bowled over by this sight. It was profoundly shocking and brought home the empty tragedy of war.
We often like to refer to those who have died in the wars we have fought as our ‘glorious dead’. In my last parish, there was a rood screen separating the nave from the choir. This was the war memorial – the names of the parish’s war dead inscribed on it in gold. Across the top in huge gold letters were the words, ‘the Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power’. I’m sure that at some point such words were comforting to a grieving, broken nation; that they were a way of seeking to understand. But I would challenge anyone to look at those rows and rows of unnamed graves, think about the stories might that lie behind them, and still say that there is any glory here or that God’s glory is shown through them. Remembrance in recent years has become more than a little tainted with a fervent nationalism – linked to an idea of national pride and national identity rooted in past victories. Remembrance is no such thing. Over-zealous patriotism should never be allowed to paper over the cracks. What we remember first and foremost is the individual human cost and the collective failure of our civilisation to do better.
Remembrance is more about the tragedies behind those nameless gravestones than the flag flying.
We cannot talk of Remembrance this year without thinking of it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Our community would normally be gathering around the Cheam War Memorial later this morning, but that will not happen, probably for the first time since it was commissioned in 1921. Once again, our churches, along with many other parts of our society, are closed to the public – there are only a few of us here. Much rhetoric about the pandemic is couched in war-like terminology.
The virus is often talked about as an enemy that needs beating. We need to marshal all our resources in our bid for victory, to defeat the enemy. It is described as the fight of this generation – driving direct comparisons with the wars of previous generations. Whilst such language isn’t always useful, perhaps it is helpful to think about the pandemic this way today. I want to come back to those numerous unnamed gravestones scattered across Belgium and northern France. This pandemic has so many unnamed victims. The charts of infections and deaths along with projections are rather like those gravestones, each number representing a nameless victim of this virus. And there are the forgotten victims as well – those the charts don’t reveal. Those whose lives are being so badly affected through economic hardship, mental health, loneliness and isolation, grief, domestic violence – a list that could go on. Just as those gravestones of those who are simply known unto God brought the reality of war into focus on my school trip thirty years ago, so these nameless victims behind the statistics of this pandemic should do the same. Just as the remembrance of war reminds of where we got it wrong, so the grim truth of the pandemic is showing us the social fault-lines which undermine our society.
John of Patmos, the supposed writer of the rather eccentric book of Revelation, had a vision of a new way of being. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” he writes. He saw a great, gilded, jewelled city with the river of the water of life flowing through it. He saw the tree of life growing on the banks of the river, providing year-round sustenance and, as John writes, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” For all its wackiness, this is simply a metaphorical vision for the kingdom of God. This new heaven and new earth is a vision of a healed, nourished, united, and beautiful world. For us this same vision for the kingdom is personified in the person of Jesus. Jesus shows us how we need to be, what we need to do to make this distant vision come closer. As we remember the largely forgotten victims of our past, as we remember the nameless victims of our present, as we remember the very real shortcomings of our world, our society, it would be very easy to wallow in despair at what we have done. But as Christian people, we must look to the distant, hopeful glimmer of the jewelled city of which John of Patmos dreamed, the city to which Jesus shows us the way, the city of God in which no one is left unnamed, where everyone has a place, where we all stand as one.