Sermon: Remembrance Sunday
Sunday 13 November 2016
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean of Leicester
The birds they sang at the break of day. Start again I heard them say. Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be. Ah the wars they will be fought again.
Depressing words from the poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died on Friday. That might seem a strange place to start a sermon for Remembrance, not least since Cohen was a pacifist. But there is an integrity about Cohen’s writing which still resonates today and which draws us, outside of formal religion, into honest spiritual reflection on the state of things. Cohen paints no rosy picture, but neither abandons the possibility of a different reality in breaking into this world. The song goes on:-
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Today’s Gospel is uncompromising: wars, insurrections, terrible happenings and persecutions. Jesus doesn’t mince words in graphically describing what lies ahead. And he was right. In the centuries immediately following his death, Christians were not safe. They had a compelling need to anticipate something different in the afterlife. And our outlook?
Malachi’s backdrop was the return from exile and the Temple rebuilding, that huge symbol of Hebrew identity. Note the tie up with the Gospel reading. However the hopeful renewal of society had degenerated into the same old corruption and oppression. Ordinary folk longed for something different and pinned their hopes on an alternative vision. Disenfranchisement and cynicism, with an arrogant and remote elite leadership. Familiar? Small wonder the prophet talks about ‘them’ and ‘you’, promising retribution for the wicked. But ‘how long, O Lord’, is the cry.
Our faith story is not, in this life, happy ever after. There are spectacular successes, but also the annihilation of dreams. God does not necessarily wave a magic wand to intervene and sort things out. But God understands the pain and walks alongside us through it. We have to live by hope, wait and tell the stories in the darkness. Like the prophets did in exile. Amid the prayers of thanksgiving for victory in 1945 were thanks for the maintenance of faith and hope in the darkest days.
This is no cop-out. God’s time is different from ours. Because he has physically walked this earth and passed through appalling darkness of suffering, he knows our world from the inside. And because he knows, he wisely understands there are no neat solutions to the world’s problems. He sharply criticised societal evils but knew change would not be instant. That we have to want to change, truly to grasp what is wrong. Throughout, though, he would stand firmly with the outsider, the oppressed and the vulnerable. Whose voice is least heard.
There are many parallels with today’s world. Suspicion, xenophobia, hatred even are openly voiced, often unchecked. Hard-line views are held – little desire for dialogue, let alone compromise. Empathy in short supply. And much of this is confirmed, if not affirmed by political systems which uphold confrontation, applaud shallow certainty and tear apart those who suggest that we might better reflect before action. Let alone admit we have no neat solutions. The wisdom of Scripture is not the quick fix knowledge of our economics and politics but about a different rhythm for our globe. And we may, at this time, merely be lighting a very small candle in the darkness, but cupping our hands around it so it doesn’t blow out.
Do I sound depressing and cynical? Yes, probably. I would prefer to call it honesty and suggest that it is only from that place of reflection that we may pray with integrity, beginning to discern what God would have us do. Exile in Babylon is an apt metaphor for our time: golden idols, faith destroyed, people living too comfortably. How shall we sing the Lord’s song?
Today we remember those who gave their lives in conflicts of the last 100 years. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and others dying in trying to make the world better. So many lives taken in war, in places we hardly remember. Nationally we have difficulty in acknowledging all of these: take the Gulf Wars for example, whose legitimacy has been questioned – highlighting those deaths is far less straightforward than remembering people who died fighting the Nazis. For example. Yet, if we are to enable peace to grow and take root, it is only through brutal honesty about the false turns and sacrifices of the past that we might envision a different future. Then they will not have died in vain.
Tonight I represent the Diocese at a Remembrance ceremony at a Sikh gurdwara. Over 83 thousand Sikhs died in either WW1 or WW2, alongside people of other faiths and nations. It is good to gather as a multi-faith community jointly to honour the fallen, and to remember that we live together in community today because of their collective gift to us. On Friday at 11.00 schoolchildren laid a wreath here. A multi-ethnic group, they chose to be here. Such is our city, our nation and our future. Here are forward-looking narratives which, while honouring the veterans, recognise a different phase of remembering.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Cohen’s words. The imagery of that! A cracked, imperfect vessel which, despite or because of its flaws allows the light of hope to shine through. Hopeful words, making clear that we need not first seek perfection, either in structures, systems or even ourselves, before eternal light begins to seep in. Indeed, the imperfection might be the gateway towards light. Difficult to imagine right now in Syria, the USA or among the tensions in Europe, for example, but who knows in years to come. I’m not in any way suggesting that Donald Trump is God’s messenger, however much some of his supporters might like to claim. But who knows what inadvertent consequences might emerge through the crevices of his administration? The light of God, God’s Spirit, is irrepressible and uncontainable: it will escape and creep into unexpected situations and places.
I therefore – despite recognising immeasurable suffering and apparently intractable issues within world politics – I retain hope, alongside our Biblical ancestors and more recent great souls. God is, and God is with us. Our task is to work with God in pursuing wholesome change: he won’t do it without us. Here is counter culture in need of oxygen: tell the story differently, live with an alternative vision so to nurse it into being. Don’t accept we are trapped into unjust systems- we can change the financial systems of our world, we can feed everyone, we can arrest global warming. ‘I Daniel Blake’ does not need to happen. We may not be able, single handedly to change things, but it is possible. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation – really, one day.
RING the bells that still can ring. There IS a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.