Sermon:  Remembrance Day

13th November, 2016

This is the evening of Remembrance Day, And so I want to talk about Death; and I want to talk about Sin.   Sin is violence.  It is the violence of high explosives, of well-aimed sniper-fire and the computerised viciousness of unmanned drones. War harnesses the capacity for violence that exists in all individuals, even in those who know they must repress the impulse to squash a mosquito. . But it also stands as a metaphor for at least two other kinds of violence. One such is our unwitting and unwilling involvement in the spider-webs of exploitation, environmental irresponsibility or  acquiescence in the buying of Thailand prawns and tee-shirts produced by slave-labour. 

We should perhaps call this Original Sin. We see the good but, like it or not, we do the worst, communally as well as individually. And one must quickly admit that the Church itself, or its institutional offices, has never been free from this arachnoid taint.

Or else there is tragic violence, where there seems to be no alternative save to meet force with force, even at the risk of being horribly mistaken about what is right and what is wrong.  And then there is Death.  This is the ultimate threat, the ultimate gun-slinger solution.  Or is there more to be said about death?  Don’t death and mourning, too, in recognition of loss, bring us to the sharpest sense of all that we value or love in life – the beauty, the goodness, the irreplaceability of each mortal creature? In that light, this evening’s subject may not be as unrelievedly sombre as at first it may appear.

Now,  I say that I’ll talk ‘about’ sin and death.  But that word ‘about’ is already mistaken.  These are not merely topics for learned discussion, inviting some kind of scholarly analysis.  There is, of course, a fancy academic word for all of this:  eschatology, concerning the ultimate realities in the light of Divine Judgement.  .But there is something silly about any 0logy in this regard. (Just imagine the CV entry: ‘ I was awarded a high 2: 2 in Eschatology at the University of  … X.’)  The realities I’m speaking of are, truly, everyday realities. Sin is the grit beneath every step we take; and death is the diesel-fume that clutches at the throat. So perhaps the only people who should speak on Remembrance Day are military personnel who know these everyday realities, painfully, at first hand.  Indeed, it is often – though not invariably – the case that soldiers speak with more impressive clarity about war than any of us who have never held a gun could ever do. I’ve heard these people say – convincingly – that no one hates war more profoundly than those who have fought in wars. Only these will know what wounds and mutilation are really like, or else what it really means to order the dropping of an incendiary device or a barrel bomb. Likewise, I have heard tell of morally agonising cases where a man who, on Sunday evening had been kicking the hell out of  some supposed terrorist, went forward on Monday to die heroically in defence of his platoon – and perhaps should still, despite yesterday’s cruelty, be considered a hero.

Some of these appalling complications are caught in the words (on the handout) of the scarcely-remembered war-poet, Captain Charles Sorely, who died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.  He was twenty years of age.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dream in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember.  For you need not so …

Say only this, ‘They are dead.’

This evening, however, I shall ask – not at all knowing the answer – what the Christian Church has to offer in this perspective. And, remembering Sorely throughout, I’ll hope to avoid any ‘soft answers’.  I am aware that the theme of this term’s sermons is Grace. I also know that we can no more define grace than we can be, merely, academic about the realities of sin and death. If sin and death are grit and diesel fumes, then grace is the air we breathe and the water in which we wash.  Grace is God’s love for God’s creatures, calling us to live again in those fruitful and free relationships that, otherwise, we so easily violate. One might add that our awareness of what good is is often expressed, certainly, in consolation but, equally, is refreshed by surprise and delight, or stimulated by art, as , for example, this evening, in the music of Faure’s Requiem. For all that, grace can also be as stupendous as a roadside bomb. (Think of St Paul on the way to Damascus.)  So, speaking of grace, one needs to avoid any suggestion of ‘soft words,  and  likewise – following the theologian, martyr and saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer –  to be on  guard against any suggestion of ‘cheap’ grace.  

This, I think, is why the words of Job in the first reading are appropriate to Remembrance Day. (In fact, these verses, until recently, formed a regular part of the funeral ceremony.)  Job was a prosperous man and, at the same time, innocent and righteous.  Yet, unaccountably, he loses everything that he properly possessed and finds himself living as a refugee or scavenger on a dung-heap.  Comforters come to visit him, suggesting among other things that he must have done something wrong to deserve all of this, and that he should, therefore, reconcile himself to the will of God.  Yet this comfort is greeted as ‘soft’ and ‘cheap’.  Job himself vehemently rejects any such call to abject penitence or any fatalistic submission to a mysteriously transcendent power. The words you have heard express outrage at the violence he is suffering and anger at the thought of divine vindictiveness.  Addressing God directly, he cries out ‘Why should you oppress me and treat me with contempt?’  ‘Aren’t you an eternal being?  Why then behave like some bully in the mortal playground?’

But then God speaks to Job directly.  These words are not delivered through a sanctimonious intermediary, and they offer neither moral justification nor tea and sympathy. The God of Job speaks from the very heart of a hurricane, from an apparently destructive swirl that might speak of tragic contradiction, or even of sin and death. This vortex, however, is power not in the sense of violence but of free if incomprehensible creation – a truly stupendous manifestation of art –  as when in Genesis life was born out of absolute nothingness –  demanding that we live  ….  and live again:  Gird up your loins. Pull yourself together, man.  For I will now demand of thee, and answer thou me.  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  [Where were you] when the morning stars danced together and sang for joy?

Job has declared, as early as Chapter 9; ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’.   This phrase is familiar from Handel’s lovely – and gracious – setting, so often played as a smooth classic on Classic FM. But for Job our redeemer is also our creator.  And this conclusion is confirmed and developed by the second reading, from St Mark’s Gospel 4: 35.  Here, as in Job – and indeed in Genesis and at Pentecost – there is a wind moving over chaos.  And then, through the storm, there is the voice of Christ, awakening.  His words, demanding faith, speak as vehemently as Jehovah’s did to Job.  More often, perhaps, than  we care to admit, Christ does speak in anger.  He is, after all, our ultimate Judge.  But above all, he is our Creator. And the faith that he demands of his disciples is that, like Job, we should live through the inconceivable storm of creative life, even through the violence of the Cross, and awake to a redemption which is also, as Job’s words prophesy, the Resurrection. Nor is Resurrection to be understood merely as resuscitation or cryonic revival.  It is re-creation:  Creation – ex nihilo, miraculously –  anew.

Remembrance Day:  I am now six minutes from the end of an address which has been as difficult to write as it must have been to listen to.  And I do, finally, want to modulate from a minor to a major key, hoping and believing that grit and diesel fumes may be cleansed – or even transubstantiated – in the grace and love entrusted to the Church. Yet this conclusion will present difficulties of its own, since grace and love are themselves absolute mysteries.

Remembrance doesn’t mean simply – or ‘softly’ – elegiac nostalgia.  Rather, it means re-member-ing, putting back together the limbs – or members – of a shattered body. And there are certain festivals in the calendar of the Church – and also certain lines in the hymns we are singing tonight – which invite us to speak, through faith and hope, of love as the essential element in all our existence.

November, leading up to Advent, is the month when we remember the dead. This season is inaugurated on November 2nd by the feast of All Souls.  And the significant word here is ‘All’ – as it is likewise in the hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell’. This feast reminds us that all humanity was created to breathe, eat and drink as one.   So ‘Adam’ signifies the whole unity of human creation.  This unity was violated by the Fall. But Christ, as the Second Adam, ensured that, participating in his Incarnate Body, all may – and indeed will – recover our primal unity. We pray for the dead.  The dead pray for the living.  And here again ‘All’ must mean ‘All’.  No One is complete until restored to relationship with every other One. Of course, there are difficulties in that proposition.  What – one might ask – about Genghis Khan, or Hitler or Bashar al-Assad?  Are they to be included in the All and One? Well, I think they are. Heaven knows how, literally. Or better, and less vaguely, one should look, not to Heaven, but to the Resurrection  at the end of time – when, with that New Creation, the divisiveness of sin will yield to unity  - or, again, better, caritas – as realised in the body of Christ  And here the handout may suggest how possible and how needful that reality is. Page Two shows cave paintings produced some 30 or 40,000 years ago. Yet they are immediately recognisable as human hands doing human things – raised in supplication or agony or dance. And perhaps the most human thing about them is the skill with which they were produced – by spitting pigment from the lips onto outstretched fingers. Breath, taste and artistic pride all conspire to reflect what it means – and always has meant – to be truly human. And the most remarkable thing is that the single hand was painted in Borneo and the communal hands in Argentina. There can hardly be a question here of influence.  These paintings, resonating beyond geographical or temporal contact, are an expression of pure, radical humanity, And one prays at All Souls that our hands can be joined with all hands like these.

I’ll conclude with a prayer that is spoken after communion on another November Feast Day.  November 11th is not only Armistice Day. It is also the Feast Day of Saint Martin of Tours.  And who was Saint Martin?  Well, he was an Hungarian officer in the Roman heavy cavalry – or, so to speak, tank regiment – in the decades when Rome had first converted to Christianity. And when he left the army he became a French bishop.  This, briefly, leads us back to the violence and tragic contradictions with which we began. For by the 19th century, St Martin had become something of a mascot for the French military machine – as if there were, absurdly, any religious sense to saying that God and the Saints are on our side in battle. Incidentally, something of the same contradiction arises in singing – as we have done tonight – the hymn Cwm Rhondda.  This hymn, if you are a rugby supporter, can sound like a pugnacious invitation for God to enter the scrum on behalf of the Welsh.  Yet the rousing phrase ‘Bread of Heaven’ acknowledges that – in common with the Israelite refugees of the Old Testament – we are wholly dependent on Manna in the desert, as, likewise, we are dependent, here and now, on the Eucharist, which is the memorial feast that prefigures and promotes the communion of all the saints.

And so we come back to the prayer, as offered at St Martin’s Mass.   In the legend (pictured on the handout by El Greco) St Martin takes his sword and cuts his cloak in two so as to give half to a beggar he has come across.  Why not give him the whole cloak?  Well, surely because halving implies a sharing hand-to-hand of the goods we have.  St Martin is in fact the patron saint of beggars; and on the night after his gift he dreamed of Christ himself wearing the half-cloak he had offered. So El Greco depicts the two young men across the divide as being almost identical twins. It follows that, in the communion prayer for St Martin’s day, the emphasis falls on the offering that we make, all as one, as creatures to our Creator.  That offering – as in this evening’s closing hymn – is praise for the inextinguishable happiness, even – or perhaps especially – in war, of existing all:

Lord, you have renewed us with the sacrament of unity; help us to follow your will in all that we do.  As St Martin gave himself completely to your service, may we rejoice in belonging to you.

Remembrance Sunday 2016

i) 

Captain Charles Sorely 1895-1915

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dream in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember .  For you need not so …

Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ 

ii)

The Book of Job Chapter 38

Gird up now your loins like a man.  For I will now demand of thee, and answer thou me.  Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  … [Where were you] when the morning stars danced together and sang for joy?

iii)

El Greco  (1541-1614)  

St Martin and the Beggar 

Prayer after Communion, St Martin’s Mass

Lord, you have renewed us with the sacrament of unity; help us to follow your will in all that we do.  As St Martin gave himself completely to your service, may we rejoice in belonging to you.

iv) 

Cave Paintings

Borneo 40,000 years bc (?)

Argentina 30,000 bc (?)