Remembrance Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Remembrance Sunday

Matthew 25: 1-13

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25 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,

Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,

Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,

Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,

Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,

Waste of youth's most precious years,

Waste of ways the Saints have trod,

Waste of Glory, waste of God.


Those words were written by a man who knew what he was talking about.  During the First World War, he lived through the Battle of the Somme and he was present at Ypres.  He was awarded the Military Cross 'for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.' And he was a clergyman.

Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy was one of the most famous military chaplains of the First World War, better known by the nickname that the troops gave him - Woodbine Willie - due to his habit of carrying cigarettes with him to share with them.  As some of you will be aware, I have a particular and personal interest in his life and poetry, because I knew his family.  During my school days I lived for a time in the parish in which his son, Christopher, was vicar.  I was at theological college with his grandson, Andrew.  Another of his relatives once preached from the pulpit of my church in Edgbaston.  And, interestingly enough, he ended his days, at the untimely age of 44, as Rector of St Edmund's, Lombard Street, not far from here.

Traditionally the British army had kept its padres well away from the fighting.  Studdert-Kennedy was one of a new breed of military chaplain, committed to sharing the lives of the troops to the full.  Despite his ill-health - he was a lifelong asthmatic - he lived with the men in the trenches; he insisted on being with them when they prepared to go over the top; he risked his life in retrieving the wounded under fire.  A total of 172 chaplains lost their lives during WWI - 88 of them Anglican.

I have found myself returning to Studdert-Kennedy's poetry many times over the years, not only because of my personal interest in the man, but also because he really does 'tell it how it is'.  He was unafraid to ask the really difficult questions of faith and belief in the darkest of situations.  When asked what on earth 'the Church' was doing there in the trenches, his short answer was: 'Trying to keep the hope of Heaven alive in the midst of a bloody Hell.'  When he was awarded the Military Cross, the citation stated:

He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire.  He searched shell holes for our own, and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches which he constantly visited.

There is nothing remotely glamorous about the reality that he portrays in his writing, and there is certainly nothing sanctimonious or pious about his faith.  He describes an occasion when he administered communion to a young soldier using the traditional words of the Book of Common Prayer, '... preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life'.  Three days later he buried the same young man, his body horribly mutilated, in a shell hole.  Studdert-Kennedy rejected any notion that faith functions as a kind of supernatural insurance policy, or security blanket - believing that one should not pray for one's own safety, but simply for the courage to endure.

And for him, far from being absent from that arena of terrible suffering and bloodshed, Christ was fully present - not only suffering on the cross, but feeling the shattering pain of all victims of war.  Back in 1914, when he first enlisted, Studdert-Kennedy had been a staunch supporter of the war.  He was to become convinced that war is an unmitigated evil.

After the war, there was mass unemployment, and a severe shortage of housing in this country.  The ex-soldiers, particularly those with severe injuries, suffered particularly acutely.  Studdert-Kennedy dedicated himself to improving the conditions of the poor and the vulnerable, becoming a national spokesman for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, which was advocating radical social change.  A punishing regime of lectures led to his untimely death from pneumonia in March 1929 at the untimely age of 44.

Such was his national profile, that it was proposed that he be buried at Westminster Abbey.  However, the Dean refused, apparently on the grounds that he was a socialist, so his funeral took place instead at Worcester Cathedral.  Thousands lined the route of his funeral cortege, and ex-servicemen showered his casket with Woodbines, as a mark of their love and respect for a courageous and compassionate Christian man, whose commitment to them, and to striving to build a better world, was second to none.

Fast forward to another age and another arena of war.  The day before yesterday I was standing in Frankfurt Cathedral looking at an aerial photograph taken at the end of the Second World War. Although the main structure of the Cathedral was still visible, the area around it was a scene of utter devastation and desolation.  This was the result of the bombing raids by the RAF on the 18th and 24th March 1944.  Of the 2000 half-timbered buildings in the old city of Frankfurt, all but one were completely destroyed by fire, and the majority of stone buildings, including almost all the city's churches, were razed to the ground.  There is nothing glamorous about war, regardless of who is dishing it out.

On the evening before that, last Thursday, 9th November, in the German town of Erfurt, I stood with my companions in silent vigil to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht - when on that night in 1938 a savage attack was launched upon the Jewish community in Germany, destroying over 1,000 synagogues, and 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, as well as homes, hospitals and schools.  More than 90 Jews were murdered that night, and thousands more died as a result of their subsequent incarceration: 30,000 were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the wake of that incident. The following day, the Times wrote this:

No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.

Last Wednesday I was in the town of Weimar.  Five miles northwest of Weimar is Buchenwald concentration camp.  10,000 Jews were sent there in the wake of Kristallnacht alone, along with thousands of political prisoners, Roma and Sinti peoples, homosexuals, and the unemployed who were deemed 'work shy'.  At least 56,000 people died at Buchenwald, in the most horrific of circumstances.

War must never ever be glamorised because there is nothing remotely glamorous about war.  But the tragic reality is that for all our horror and outrage at its waste and destruction, in the face of the worst excesses of human evil, sometimes doing nothing is simply not an option.

Today's gospel reading reminds us of the dangers of complacency; of the imperative to keep alert at all times; to make the very best use of the gift of life which is ours while we have it.  Many have paid with their lives for the peace and freedom that generations such as my own have come to take so readily for granted.  Not only do we owe it to them to do our remembering but, as Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy astutely observed in another very short but devastatingly insightful poem - if we do not do our remembering, then it is our children who will pay the price for that.  The poem is called 'If ye forget'.

Let me forget - Let me forget

I am weary of remembrance,

And my brow is ever wet,

With tears of my remembrance,

With the tears and bloody sweat, - let me forget.

If ye forget - if ye forget,

Then your children must remember,

And their brow be ever wet,

With the tears of their remembrance,

With the tears and bloody sweat, -

If ye forget.                                                                                                 


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