Sermon: Sunday 11 November 2012
The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor
25 years ago on the equivalent Sunday, the porter at my university college, came through to the dining room in order to relay a message that my mother was on the phone and urgently needed to speak to me. My mother told me that as people had gathered by the town cenotaph that a huge bomb had been detonated and that there was carnage. She didn’t know at that stage how many people had died or had been injured and she didn’t know if friends or family were involved. This was the Enniskillen bombing. Much good has come from that dreadful day, not least the establishment of an integrated school where children such as my 18 month year old nephew from Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds have the possibility of being educated together. It is the redemptive fruit of days such as this which have led to a deeply held commitment seen again last week following David Black’s killing, that peace is the only way ahead for Northern Ireland.
Remembrance focuses primarily on the so called great wars of the 20th century but also it focuses on those who have died in the other conflicts of this time. This now includes Iraq and Afghanistan. And such remembrance extends to those who bear the physical and mental scars. Once again we see young women and men who have lost limbs through the violence of war. The new beautiful memorial at County Hall remembers all those who have died as serving people in the armed forces since 1945 – and only in one year since then has such a death not happened.
And so in some ways those who worried about whether our traditions of remembrance might die out need not worry because sadly the stories of 1914-1918 and the stories of 1939-1945 have additional stories which repeat our failures to live peaceably and justly. Poppies have become our symbol for expressing our desire to remember. It is now 90 years since the poppy factory opened in Richmond now producing 36 million poppies every year. But for some time we have recognised that the poppy has become far more for some people than a symbol for remembrance. If you’re a celebrity they have become part of your uniform. For the Peace Pledge Union they have become symbols of a militarised world. For my neighbours in Northern Ireland they were Protestant symbols seen as signs of support for the British. This isn’t entirely new because even the poem In Flanders Field which popularised the poppy shifts from remembrance to encouragement to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’. (See further discussion of these issues in In remembrance of by Paul Vallely, Third Way Vol35, No9, p9)
I know this is potentially controversial but there is a lot at stake if we begin to confuse remembrance with celebrity, partisanship or even patriotism. Remembrance is more important and it transcends all of this. Our act of remembrance has evolved with heavy influence from the Church. Dick Shepherd, who had served as a chaplain in the First World War, knew the horrors and he knew why remembrance mattered. So when our government wanted to make political gain through tying remembrance with patriotism or when they wanted to trivialise it with charity fundraising balls, he resisted and insisted that this had to be a solemn occasion when we faced the reality of war, the extent of human suffering and the setting of all this within the Christian story of Jesus. It was him who created the festival of remembrance.
I think we need to resist the trivialisation of the poppy as a fashion statement and we need to resist its use as a rallying cry for war. To do less than using it as a tool for remembrance means that we do not properly focus on the actual sacrifice made, we do the memory harm of those who have died defending peace and resisting evil, and we do the memory harm of the countless innocents who have died in the conflicts of recent years. The people of Enniskillen and every other little place whose life has been shredded by violence, guns and bombs need to be remembered. Jesus life and death calls into question all our actions and helps us to see that very often we human beings are only able to partially remember.
This week I met up with someone who had been my pastoral supervisor when I was training. He recounted a very potent theological argument we had of which I have no memory. Yet I do remember the day when I preached a sermon and he said it was one of the best he had heard. Our memory is very selective and the process of memory is still little understood. For example, one theory suggests that we hang on to memories which assist us with survival. This function has grown within the human species because we move about and so the environment changes so we need to be able to assess it against previous experience. But the research also shows that the process of remembering actually affects the memory. So work has been done on eye-witness testimony in trials in the courts which reveals wildly different accounts of the same event because each person remembers what is relevant to that person.
The writer to the Hebrews describes the memory of Jesus in terms of his work as a priest. I guess we now hear that word through the filter of our experience so we see a vision of that word through the faces of the priests we know or the bright eyed hopeful new candidate for Canterbury. But the temple at Jerusalem was less like a cathedral and more like an abattoir littered with dead animals and swimming in blood with the heat of a Mediterranean day keeping the smell high! A priest was an agent of blood sacrifice. So Jesus the priest is the one who reinvents the whole idea of sacrifice because up till then sacrifice involved blood and it required repeated offering. But now that repetition ceases and rather than relying on the blood of a victim instead he becomes the victim himself.
His actions call into question the whole system of the temple, the whole assumptions about
priests and the whole assumption about what God really requires of us and how God really deals with our sin and brokenness. So to remember his work as a priest is to consider sacrifice, the offering of blood, the making of peace and the calling into question of every other system whether violent or otherwise which promises peace yet fails time after time to make lasting peace. If you feel only reassured by that, then you have not entirely heard what I said. If you feel completely unsettled by that then equally you have not heard what I have said. The meaning of Jesus calls all our settled assumptions into question.
The fallen of two world wars and the fallen of the conflicts of the last 60 years – those who have served the public good and those who have been deeply affected, caught up as the casualties need to be remembered. Our remembrance of course focuses on our community but our remembrance goes beyond that to every family on whatever side in whichever country. The poppy stripped of its other accretions returns us to its blood red petals, to the human spirit which will blossom in the harshest of human conditions and to the recognition that we still do not learn the lessons of history nor the magnitude of the cross which proclaims that repeated blood sacrifice will not bring us peace which lasts nor peace for every person and every community.
Gordon Wilson, the father of Marie, my school friend who died in the Enniskillen bombing said, ‘I forgive’. The meaning of those words is immense with enormous personal and communal cost. We need to keep on remembering with our poppies until the day when such words no longer are seen to be naïve or offensive but rather the accepted way to fully deal with injustice and to fully walk the path to lasting peace. We will remember them.
© The Revd Canon David Monteith