Armistice Day 2018 - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Armistice Day 2018

Armistice Day 2018

Alison with Gabriele, senior Pastor at St Paul's. The sermon was delivered in German which was reportedly "entirely comprehensible" (thanks to language coach, Gaby at St Bride's)

This sermon was delivered in the Ev. Paulus-Kirchengemeinde, Lichterfelde, Berlin as part of a pulpit exchange to mark the centenary of the Armistice.

My brothers and sisters, it is a great privilege for me to have been invited to speak to you here today on this very significant anniversary.  And for me, its importance is not merely symbolic, but personal.

The First World War was the cause of such unimaginable destruction, devastation, and loss of human life, that those who write about it are, understandably, quick to reach for statistics when attempting to describe it.  However, the true impact of war is to be found in ways that are often hidden - in its effect upon individual human lives; which is why I would like to take that as my starting point today.  Because I would like to begin by telling you a little bit about the story of my own family - not because there is anything special about it (there isn't!), but precisely because my family is very ordinary.  Many of you, I am sure, will be able to tell equivalent stories of your own.

When war broke out in nineteen eighteen, my grandfather, whose name was Harry, was the nineteen year old son of a farmer.  He had hardly ever been out of his village.  He enlisted in the British army, in the Royal Garrison Artillery, and was sent to the front.  He survived some horrific battles, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and had some very narrow escapes from death. 

The army rations that British soldiers were given included biscuits that were baked very hard, and one day my grandfather broke a tooth on one of them.  He was given permission to leave his 'position' and visit the army dentist.  Army dentistry at the front was very primitive: there was a bell-tent in a clearing, with a chair inside it, two men to hold you down, and a man who pulled out teeth!  But my grandfather went through with it and, having had his tooth extracted, he returned to his unit - to find that, while he had been away a shell had exploded in his trench and all the men that he had been with only thirty minutes earlier lay dead.  I sometimes tell people that I owe my existence to an army biscuit ...

Many of the young men who had enlisted with my grandfather were little more than children: some were only fourteen and fifteen years old, having lied about their age in their enthusiasm to join up and get to the fighting.  And my grandfather once described to me how, in the trenches, they were sometimes so frightened and so lost that they would cry.  They would cry for their mothers.

My grandfather was very lucky.  Remarkably he survived the war without serious injury. Yet he bore the psychological scars of that experience for the rest of his life.  In a war with such catastrophic loss of life (and here are some statistics: eight hundred and eighty five thousand British soldiers dead; two million German soldiers killed - possibly forty million dead in total, if civilians are included) - it makes little sense to me to speak of 'winners' or 'losers'.  Because we are all losers.

My grandparents met after the war was over, and they were married for over fifty years.  One day, after my grandfather had died, my elderly grandmother produced a small photograph of a soldier and a ring.  Unbeknown to any of us, including my grandfather, she had once been engaged to another young man, who had gone to war but had not returned.  She had never spoken about him, but she had nursed that grief silently for more than half a century.  In war we are all losers.

Today, the centenary of the Armistice, marking the end of the First World War, is a significant but also quite a complex anniversary.  It was the cessation of the most devastating war in history - and yet it was also the start of another sequence of events that was to bring further horrors in its wake.

When the Second World War broke out in nineteen thirty-nine, my father, whose name was Alec, was a sixteen year old farmer's son, who had hardly ever been out of his village.  As soon as he was old enough, he enlisted in the Royal Navy.  On the tenth of March nineteen forty three, just after one o'clock in the morning, the motor torpedo boat on which my father was a young naval officer took a direct hit.  My dad spent forty-five minutes in the water, amongst the dead and the injured, before a passing German 'Vorpostenboot' pulled him out of the water. He was to spend the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War in 'Marlag' (Marinelager) near Bremen.  So I owe my existence, not only to an army biscuit, but also to the German navy! 

My father, too, was very lucky.  He survived the war largely uninjured.  But his scars were most certainly there - they were just not the kinds of scars that are visible to the eye. 

In war, we are all losers - but in the broken and troubled world that is ours, in which violence and brutality are ever around us, how does our faith inform our response to such events?  In our Gospel reading, we heard how a crowd of armed men came to arrest Jesus.  One of his followers immediately reached for his sword and struck out, injuring the slave of the high priest.  But Jesus stopped him, declaring: 'Those who live by the sword, perish by the sword.' 

And he was of course absolutely right.   Because violence breeds violence; and human beings so easily fall into cycles of aggression, retaliation, and revenge that can seem endless - until, that is, someone comes along who is prepared to receive the full force of that violence, and instead of retaliating, absorbs it; breaking the cycle; meeting aggression with love. 

And Jesus, the one who, on behalf of us all, broke that cycle, taking the brutality of a violent world to himself, and bearing its cost, surely asks something of us, too, if we would call ourselves his disciples.  But that is a hard, hard calling. 

The American Pastor and Civil Rights campaigner Martin Luther King was himself the victim of violence and repeated attempts on his life - and yet his response to those who would do him harm was to say this:

'Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you... But be ye assured, that we shall wear you down by our capacity to suffer... One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'

I am not naïve about the true costliness of all this.  It is indeed a hard, hard calling.  And it is not without its complexity.  As a student I spent time with some Christians from Chile who had been imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime. They listened patiently to my rather self-righteous pronouncements on this subject before one of them said to me:  'And when it is your son, or your daughter, or your mother, or your brother who is the victim of brutality, will you really stand by and do nothing?'  I remain profoundly challenged by that question.

Personally, I am very fortunate: I have never been put in that position.  And I have been spared the terrible experience of living through war.  But acts of remembrance such as this service today remain important even for the post-war generations.  Indeed, as in our reading from Jeremiah, they remind us that the time to commit ourselves to building for a future in which violence does not and cannot prevail, is now.  In Jeremiah, the message of God to his people in exile is: 'Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'  In other words, work for the good in whatever place you find yourselves - because just as 'sword leads to sword', so 'welfare leads to welfare'.

Recently I saw a television documentary in which a very diverse group of British Jews, drawn from all sections of the Jewish community (ranging from the orthodox to the liberal), were taken to Israel.  There they visited a range of different communities, both Israeli and Palestinian.  The divisions within the British group, who held very differing views on the State of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, were obvious from the outset, and at times there was real tension and anger within the group.

But there was one incident at the very end of the documentary that affected everyone in the group so profoundly that it really did begin to enable them to transcend their differences.  They were introduced to an Israeli man called Rami, and a Palestinian man called Bassam (who had once been jailed for terrorist offences), both of whom had lost young daughters: one as a result of a Palestinian suicide bombing, the other had been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.  Those two men had every reason to hate each other.  And yet the Israeli man introduced the Palestinian as his 'brother', as the person who was 'closest to him on earth' - and their mutual respect and affection was tangible.  They had learned to respond to the heartrending effects of violence, not with more violence, but with love and peace.  And the healing power of their reconciliation was so profound that it touched everyone else around them.

And in the same way, I cannot tell you how much it would have meant to my grandfather, and to my father, for them to know that I am here today, in Berlin, on this very special anniversary, addressing you as friends; addressing you as my brothers and sisters.

Therein lies the hope of our calling.  Therein lies the future. And thanks be to God for that.

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