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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Remembrance Sunday Choral Eucharist 11 November 2018
Hebrews 9.24-end & Mark 1.14-20
Memory can play tricks on us and sometimes it is good that is does. Something very interesting happens around childbirth for example – at the time of the birth of a child most women cannot countenance the idea of going through the same experience again, it is so painful and exhausting. After a few weeks or months, however, the joy of having a baby begins to cloud the memories of childbirth and, for most, the idea of having another baby becomes something to look forward to. It is, of course, very good that our memories sometimes work like this, but we have to be wary of the way memory can be selective.
Today is Remembrance Sunday – we remember those in the armed forces who have died in war. On this Remembrance Sunday in particular we are remembering those who died in the First World War as this is the 100th anniversary of the end of that conflict. In York we have the great Kings Book of Fallen Heroes to help us with our remembering. In this great book, we have the names of 1,477 people from York who died in the First World War. This book and the names in it have rightly been the centrepiece of our city’s acts of remembrance on this important anniversary.
Part of the challenge we have with our remembering on this day, is that we won! This means that we have a tendency towards concentrating on the victory. We rejoice in the freedoms we have today which are due, in part, to the sacrifice made by those whose names are in our Book of Heroes and hundreds of thousands of others who also fought. Those who died in another war speak to us words that could be said by everyone named in our book, ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’. All of this means that we are able to stand upright and proud, we can march about with military bands, members of the armed forces and local dignitaries dressed in their finest and rightly remember and honour all those who died. But if that is all we do, then we are not remembering properly.
To explain what I mean I am going to say something I rarely say, let’s do some maths! Let’s suppose that, on average, each of the 1,477 people named in our Book of Heroes came from a family of 4 and that, on average, each of the 1,477 had 4 close friends, those they went to school with, mates from work. These are, I think, conservative estimates, but if they are even roughly right that means that the deaths of our 1,477 heroes broke the hearts and shattered the lives of around 12,000 other people.
If we are going to remember properly, we have to remember and honour the glorious sacrifice of so many and also remember the pain, devastation, broken hearts and sheer human misery that accompanied those sacrifices.
Of course, another major challenge with remembering properly is perspective. I can remember walking around a German war cemetery in Normandy with one of my young sons and him surveying the sea of dark grey granite crosses marking the graves of thousands of dead German soldiers and asking, ‘Daddy, were all these people baddies?’ That made me think – of course they were not all baddies, they were ordinary people doing their patriotic duty, like our own soldiers, sailors and airman. It’s all a question of perspective.
A while ago I read a book called The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is about an 8 year old boy whose father was a high ranking soldier. The family moved a long way from home to the countryside to live beside what the boy assumed to be a huge farm. There were lots of wooden buildings behind a seemingly endless high, barbed wire fence. The little boy, disobeying his mother, went to explore and began to walk around the perimeter of the fence. As he did he saw a boy, about his age, on the other side of the fence, wearing what he thought were striped pyjamas. They sat, and began to communicate, without words, through the fence which separated them. They met often in the same place, without anyone else knowing and a friendship developed.
That’s the beginning of a beautiful and tragic story which has now been made into a film. Those of you who have read the book or seen the film will know, and others may well have worked out, that the first little boy is German and his family move because his father is put in charge of a Concentration Camp. The boy behind the fence is a prisoner in the camp. This story illustrates the importance of perspective – the father of the German boy, looked at the Jews and other ethnic groups in his Concentration Camp and, like most of his contemporaries at the time, believed that they were the cause of a great deal of wrong in the world and so needed to be destroyed. The man’s son, the young German boy, knowing nothing of the politics and propaganda of the time, looked at the same Concentration Camp and saw only another young boy, very different from himself, but someone with whom he could be friends.
We can’t allow ourselves to remember only the winning and the brave sacrifices and we cannot allow ourselves to be so lazy as to remember only in terms of the goodies beating the baddies.
Jesus, who is the way the truth and the life, calls us to remember properly and fully on days like today, we have to remember and honour the bravery and the sacrifices and we have to remember and mourn the devastation and the agony. Jesus also shows us the importance of perspective, of never demonising those who are different from ourselves. Jesus sat and ate with tax collectors and sinners. He befriended a prostitute. He embraced lepers and mad people. He sat and drank water at a well with a Samaritan woman. He healed the servant of a Roman soldier. He talked late into the night with a Pharisee. All the people he should have hated, all the people he should have steered clear of, all the people who were thought to be unclean, dangerous and cause trouble, all the people categorised by many in his day as ‘baddies’, he sought out, befriended and loved.
The way to ensure that we do not get caught up in conflict or war again is to make sure that we remember past conflicts and wars properly and to take the trouble to see all people as essentially people like us, people with whom we could potentially be friends. The reason why the officers put a stop to that football match that started in no-mans-land one Christmas in the First World War is because they knew that if the soldiers got to know each other and see each other as essentially the same, they wouldn’t be able to kill each other.
Today it is important to remember the past properly, not just the 1,477 people who died, many of them heroically, but the 12,000, whose hearts were broken and lives shattered by their deaths and never to generalise about anyone, even potential enemies, but always be prepared, like Jesus, to make relationships of friendship with anyone, even the most unlikely people. This is the best way to honour the memory of the 1,477 people named in York’s Book of Heroes is to be people, a city and a nation of peace.
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