November 10, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Dr Brian Rees, using Job 19: 23-27a 2 Thess 2:1-5; 13-end St Lk 20:27-38 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 10th November 2019.
At our cenotaph a few minutes ago the Kohima Epitaph was said:
‘When you go home, tell them of us and say….’
Say what exactly of war and its legacy?
That, like the idealistic early war poet of the First World War, Rupert Brooke, it was patriotic and romantic, good and noble?
‘If I should die, think only this of me, / that there’s some small corner of a foreign field / that is forever England. There shall be / in that rich earth a richer dust concealed / ….
Alas, he never lived to experience the horrors of front-line service first-hand, for he died in April 1915 on board ship, thanks to a mosquito bite that became septicaemia….
More likely, the ‘tell them…’ would reflect the later WW1 war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who in 1917 wrote to his mother: ‘for 12 days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For 12 days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out.’ After this he began to suffer crippling headaches, a sign of shell-shock. Killed in 1918 by machine gun fire, Owen’s poetry is only known to us because his poetic hero, Siegfried Sassoon, wanted the poignant poetry of his friend to be remembered.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!
Sassoon, for his part, is remembered mostly for his shattered illusions about the vaunted glory and honour of warfare. Having experienced first-hand the horrors of trench warfare, and witnessing the death of loved ones, his poetry changed from romantic to a harsh, mocking, cynical appraisal.
‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said / when we met him last week on the way to the line. / Now, the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead, / and we cursing his staff for incompetent swine….’
‘When you go home, tell them of us, and say….
What? …. Well, as a Canadian I would probably quote Dr John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below….’
Yes, well, we all know that life continues, … larks still sing and poppies grow….
The period from All Saints Day through to Remembrance Day is referred to as the ‘season of remembrance’. We are asked to reflect on those who have gone before us, have given us an inheritance, and have ultimately formed us as nations, communities and individuals, what and who we are.
In Flanders Fields continues….
We are the dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields.
The sacrifice of war, given by men and women, military and civilian, in ‘their today’ for ‘our tomorrow’ is simply too harrowing to dwell on for too long.
And we could consider the same in the history of the Church…. The saints and martyrs we remembered on Nov 1, whose blood and deaths laid our foundations. Some known and commemorated, yes, but mostly unknown, but whose sacrifice was just as costly, just as defining.
‘When you go home, tell them….’
As I reflected on this, I found myself thinking anew of the disciples who had witnessed the Ascension of our Lord …. They had recently known the shock of Jesus’ arrest, the trials and flogging, the mockery, the horror of the bloody Crucifixion,… they were now entranced by the Resurrection, and were witnesses to the 40 days of appearances and shared witness stories, and then …. The risen Jesus talking with them, and giving them his ‘great commission’ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, baptising, and living a victorious Christian life. ‘When you go home, tell them….’
The Flanders poem concludes:
Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you with failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high. If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders’ fields.
The early Christians, the Saints and Martyrs, are saying the same to you and me this morning…. ‘To you with failing hands we throw a torch…. If you break faith….
This season of remembrance challenges us anew not to shy away from evil or hardship or disaster, from life and death, from the ugly and the challenging…. but as a response to seek a better world, a more caring community, a richer life. ‘If you break faith with us who die….’
May God give us all enough of his Grace to live the life of the risen Christ, with his love in our hearts and minds. ‘When you go home, tell them….’