Remembrance - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Remembrance

Matthew 5: 1-12

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1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Remembrance

The graves of R Brockbank & G Merkel, killed on the same day, stand side by side in Merville Cemetery

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On Wednesday, Jeff and I returned from a three-day clergy retreat, organised by the Bishop of London, which (rather surprisingly) was held in northern France, in a former seminary, at a place called Merville.

I hadn't realised until we got there that Merville had been the site of major conflicts during both the First and the Second World War.  The village itself was completely destroyed between October 1914 and August 1918.  It was also the site of a major military hospital.

On our final afternoon in France we had some free time, so Jeff and I went to visit the Merville war graves.  It was there that we made a discovery that certainly took me completely by surprise.

At first sight the military cemetery at Merville looks all-too familiar: it contains row, upon row, upon row, of identical white Purbeck stone memorials, standing in impeccably straight lines.  And the ages of the young men whose tragic loss of life is recorded on those headstones, are equally and distressingly familiar.  They died at the ages of 19, 22, 17, 25, with the occasional 'old soldier' who had managed to make it into his thirties. 

Most poignant of all are the stones marking the final resting places of young men who remain unidentified, headstones that state simply: 'A soldier of the Great War known unto God'.  Each one of them was somebody's son; somebody's brother; somebody's father; somebody's husband, their families denied knowledge even of the final resting place of their beloved.  What a devastating waste of so many young lives; what an unimaginable loss to so many families. 

The headstones in the cemetery at Merville are ordered chronologically, according to the dates at which those young men died - which means that those who died on the same day, or in the same month, are grouped together, regardless of rank, regiment, nationality, or even religious faith.  Senior officers are buried next to privates; Australians next to Welshmen; a Hindu soldier from the Indian Regiment, is next to a Sikh, who is next to a Christian, who is next to a Muslim.  Yes, there were a number of Muslim soldiers buried there.

But then came the realisation that stopped me in my tracks.  Because there amongst the Allied dead, shoulder to shoulder with the Welsh, and the English, and the Scots, and the Punjabis, and the Australians, without any distinction or discrimination whatsoever, are names such as: Franz Jersch; Martin Eberhardt; Gerhard Roebel; Georg Merkel; Wilhelm Wascher, each headstone noting that particular soldier's German Regiment, and bearing the carved outline of an Iron Cross.

I have no idea how unusual that is, but I myself have never before seen Allied and German soldiers' gravestones intermingled side by side in that way - because normally they are interred in separate cemeteries, or at the very least in separate areas within the same cemetery.  But there in Merville, those young men - who in life had been enemies enlisted for the purpose of killing one another - were united in death, powerfully and poignantly.  There is no discrimination between them whatsoever; there is no right or wrong; there is no good or bad; there is no 'us' or 'them'; just the testimony to a terrible loss of young human life. 

Surely there can be few more potent symbols of the folly and the tragedy of war than that cemetery.  After all, at the end of the day, we are all flesh and blood; and we are all beloved children of God, which makes the things that divide us not merely regrettable, but sinful, because they violate God's precious gift of life, and God's intentions for that precious gift.

Having said that, I am not at all naïve about the evil and the wickedness that human beings are capable of inflicting against one another.  Nor must we ever take for granted the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid with their lives for the peace and the freedom that generations such as my own have so easily taken for granted.   We honour their memory here today.  Sometimes the only way to resist brutality and violence is with force.  In the 1930s the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with his conscience in the face of Nazi atrocities, which led to his involvement in the German resistance movement, implicating him in the plot to kill Hitler - but he was also adamant that he was taking guilt upon himself when he did so.    In our fallen world, sometimes we have no option but to choose between the guilt of activity, or the guilt of inactivity.  And sometimes inactivity is worse.

This weekend is particularly significant for our Berlin guests, because yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall - die Mauer.  In recent European history, there have been few more potent and tangible symbols of the things that divide human beings from one another than that wall: miles and miles of solid concrete, secured by spikes, metal railings, 302 guard towers, 55,000 landmines, and legions of armed guards.  Around 140 people lost their lives trying to cross that boundary, or through acts of suicide. 

And there can be few more potent symbols of the power of peaceful protest than the popular movement that led to it being torn down.  It is worth remembering the key role that the Church played in that process - specifically St Nicolas Church in Leipzig.  I was able to visit Nikolaikirche in 2017, where an exhibition tells the whole story of the Monday demonstrations (Montags Demonstrationen) that began there.  It began with prayers for peace, and developed into a protest movement that organised increasingly large demonstrations, demanding amongst other things, an easing of the government restrictions of freedom of the press, and proclaiming the necessity of peaceful change.

Our Gospel reading this morning is the familiar series of teachings by Jesus often called The Beatitudes, part of his Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, one of the speakers that Jeff and I heard during our retreat last week referred to this very passage in one of his addresses.  The gist of what he said was this: it is very easy to hear those words, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, etc.' as referring to a different kind of life in a different kind of future that is in some way remote from the here and now.  The passage reads rather differently if you see it as a charge to us all for how we should live in the here and now - because by living as if those things are already the case, we can, by the grace of God, help to make them a reality: so that the meek really do inherit the earth; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are filled; that the merciful obtain mercy; so that the peacemakers are recognised as children of God

The American scholar and political theorist John H. Schaar once wrote:

The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.

We shape our future, and the future of our society and our world, by how we conduct ourselves in the present.  Which is why perhaps the most chilling feature of the current Brexit debate here in the UK, has nothing to do with the arguments for or against - but rather the levels of violence, threat, and intimidation that have accompanied them.  Are we really so naïve that we cannot see the writing on the wall, in the face of so much tragic history?

As followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are called to do all we can to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer, by living it; by embracing the spirit of the Beatitudes in the here and now.  So, with our brothers and sisters from Berlin, let us not only share our sorrow at the horror and the pity of war, but also rejoice in all that unites us, and commit ourselves anew to transforming the world through striving for peace and justice in how we live now.

Amen

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