When I was growing up, I remember my Grandma speaking to me about her experiences of war; she was born a few months before the beginning of the 1st World War and lived through the 2nd World War. These experiences had a deep impact on her along with so many others of her generation. It wasn’t something she spoke of often – there was a tension – as if part of her wanted to forget those times once and for all, and part of her somehow wanted to hold on because it fuelled a deep longing for peace and reconciliation and perhaps encouraged her to live a different life.
She also spoke about one of my ancestors who was a Company Sergeant Major in the West Yorkshire Regiment in the 1st World War. There were times when she showed me some of the medals that he was awarded…the DCM (or Distinguished Conduct Medal) which was awarded to soldiers for ‘distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field’ who risked his own life in rescuing comrades who were stuck on barbed wire; and the Russian Order of St George which was one of the most prestigious military awards in the world, awarded for valour and bravery.
I used to be a member of the British Legion and would spend time with some its local branch members. The British Legion very rightly tells us that “Talking about Remembrance can too often focus on battles and conflicts rather than the men and women affected. Remembering all those involved can be difficult – their names add up to millions.” I hope today through this service and our act of remembrance, we can remember those who have lost their lives and those whose lives have been deeply affected and continue to be affected by conflict throughout the world. We may be momentarily saddened in this remembering but we may at least become wiser and perhaps encouraged to look to what might be in Christ.
It is ironic that humanity has such freedom to cause moments of utter despair, but also moments of poignant and lasting hope. In the Holocaust, although the true figure may never be known, it is reasonably estimated that 11 million people died. 6 million of these were Jewish (close to 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population), up to 250,000 were Roma / Sinti and 1.5 million were children. The total number of casualties in the First World War and the Second World War was even higher. In Jerusalem, there is a museum or memorial called Yad Vashem. As the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations. I don’t know if anyone here has ever been to Yad Vashem, but I know this…if you do go, you will come back changed. No wonder there are signs outside some of the concentration camps that say “Never again”.
These are hard figures to take in, and as a child, war to me seemed something that was somehow distant and remote – it was either something that had happened historically so many years before I was born or was something that happened in some other countries not affecting or involving us. Then things changed….and the conflict broke out over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Within a decade, the Gulf War broke out in 1991. The frequency of conflict escalated with other wars – the Kosovo War (1999), the war in Afghanistan (2001), the war in Iraq (2003), the Libyan crisis (2011) and the more recent and ongoing conflicts in the Middle-East, Ukraine, the Sudan and Syria.
It seems wherever you turn, you encounter war and conflict. Did you know that 1968, the year I was born, was the only year in that century when the British Army lost no soldiers in action? Do you ever grow weary of hearing about war and conflict? Do you feel that weariness in your bones? How far we have come from ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ to ‘I’m not sure when, if ever, it will end’.In all of this it seems that there is an increasing brokenness – brokenness in our humanity, in our spirit – and a brokenness in our relationship with God and one another. As a result of this, in the 21st century, the extent of our spiritual poverty is both alarming and arguably unprecedented. A few years ago, Bishop Toby said words to the effect of we are both rich – richer than we ever have been, and poor – poorer than we can ever really imagine. Wisdom for me is recognising and being thankful for the many ways in which we are rich; and becoming aware of the nature and extent of our poverty, which is not defined by money alone – and then being prepared to do something about it. Part of that awareness is us having the courage to own the issues that we cause, which is something that egocentric power-hungry rulers of nations seem incapable of doing and to strive for justice, peace and reconciliation.
What occurs to me is the frequency with which we might pray the Lord’s prayer and say “your Kingdom come” without realising the significance and implications. When we come face to face with the brokenness of this word, our response is surely to have a deep yearning for God to intervene, for his Kingdom to come?
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany. He emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He is perhaps best remembered for his postwar words,
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Those are challenging words for us today which tell us about the consequences of us not speaking out and in that we have a choice. We can remain silent or we can speak out and speak up against injustice. The Church has always had a calling to be a voice for the voiceless.
I recognise it’s not easy for us to speak out. I also recognise that we may often think that we can’t possibly make a difference. It helps to recognise who we are in Christ. It helps to recognise that we have an eternal destiny; we are not exclusively defined by the here and now. As Christians, we have been chosen by God as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. In the book of James, James calls believers “a kind of firstfruits of all God created” (James 1:18) We are to seek out God’s presence through the long-term trials, and rejoice in that presence knowing that He called us to this through our gospel, that we might share in the glory of our LORD Jesus Christ. We are to expect to receive wisdom from God, and to ask for and act on His guidance. We are to see our identity as rooted in relationship with God, to accept responsibility for our temptations, and to expect God’s good gift of a new nature to enable us to overcome.
Our Bible passages today remind us that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. Following lengthy and profound suffering, Job came to an incredible place of faith and declared “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
I think Mother Theresa recognised this. She shared some really helpful insights:
- “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
- “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
- “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”
- “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
- “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
May our LORD Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage our hearts and strengthen us in every good deed and word. Amen