This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church on Remembrance Sunday. The set texts were Micah 4:1-7 and Matthew 5:43-48.
Remembrance is a theme that runs through the whole of scripture. Indeed, arguably the Bible was written precisely so that people should remember. And as with our service today, the purpose of remembrance in scripture is always two-fold:
First, remembrance is commanded in order that we should look back with thanks. In the Old Testament, the people of God are continually being called to look back and remember the events of the past and see how God had delivered them. Most importantly, numerous passages in Psalms and elsewhere encourage God’s people to remember how he delivered them from slavery in Egypt and led them to freedom over the parted Red Sea. (See Psalm 77, for example.) However bad things are or seem now, the people are called to remember what God has done for them in the past, and to take courage and confidence from that remembrance.
The Israelite festivals that we read about so often in the Old and New Testaments were specifically designed to encourage such remembrance. Most importantly of course the festival of Passover, with its unleavened bread, encouraged the faithful to re-enact their story of redemption. And in our church today, our worship centres round an act of remembrance, holy communion, where we are called to remember what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. In all of these cases, and many others, we are meant to tell the tale to each other and very importantly to the next generation, so that the story should not be forgotten. And, of course, this is a vital part of what we are doing across the nation and Commonwealth today with the countless acts of remembrance that are taking place: encouraging people to look back with thanks for all the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf.
There is another reason for Biblical remembrance, though, which is that we should be changed as a result of our remembrance. In preparation for today, I looked up the word ‘remember’ in my concordance, and one of the most regular uses of the word comes in the prophets and the Law, when God’s people are called to ‘remember’ that they were slaves and foreigners in Egypt. (See for example, Deuteronomy 15:15.) They are called to remember what it was like to taste the bitterness of that experience. And crucially this remembrance was meant to change their ways and specifically to change the way they treated their own slaves and the foreigners in their land. Each year, they would celebrate the Festival of Booths, something that faithful Jews still celebrate in the festival of Sukkoth today. Essentially, it was, and is, a harvest festival but the people were also commanded to erect temporary booths – or tabernacles – in the streets and live in them for the week of the festival, to remind them of what it was like to sleep under the stars during the Exile. It was meant to remind them of being homeless and, at least in part, to encourage them to be more compassionate to those who suffered similar exile. And as Christians, we come to the table of our Lord not just to enjoy a rather insubstantial lunch but to be changed. We come to become better people, more Christ-like because we have remembered how God loved us. To be more willing to hear God’s Word and to follow his example – loving even our enemies, for example, as we heard in our lesson today.
One of my concerns about the way we sometimes mark Remembrance Sunday in this country is that we are arguably very good at the first but often struggle with the latter. Whenever I have had foreign friends in the country at this time of year, they often comment on how well we observe this annual time of remembrance. They will often remark on the beautifully-kept war memorials that we find in practically every village and town, on the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Flanders and across the world, on the number of poppies sold and the solemnity of our ceremonies. We are very good now at teaching children about the sacrifices made by countless British and Commonwealth families during the first and second world wars, and of conjuring up the horrors of war both on the battlefield and the home front. My parents recently visited the Menin Gate in Ypres and were astounded by the huge numbers of British people there, the young children laying wreaths and the absolute silence that was observed during the Last Post ceremony. We are good at remembering and saying thank you.
But are we so good at changing our ways? Do we really heed the lessons of the past and turn our swords into ploughshares? If you look at the number of village war memorials that were obviously built to commemorate the dead of WW1 and then had to squeeze in the extra names for WW2, then perhaps not. And sometimes our remembrance itself is even limited, and we remember only those bits of the past that we want to.
One good example of what I am talking about comes from my home town, Maidenhead. If you alight at Maidenhead train station now, you are greeted by the statue of a friendly-looking man on a railway bench. The statue was unveiled a few years ago by the local MP, Theresa May, and is of Sir Nicholas Winton. He is rightly famous for his part in initiating and organising the Czech Kindertransport: the series of trains that managed to bring 669 Jewish children from Central Europe to safety in Britain in the months before the Second World War. Visiting Switzerland in 1938, he volunteered to help a friend working for the International Committee for Refugees. Remarkably, he never really spoke about what he did afterwards. It was only much, much later, when his wife was searching for something in the attic and came across some documents relating to this remarkable
episode that the truth finally came to light. Without telling him what she knew, she arranged for Nicholas to join her at a recording of the television programme That’s Life. At a certain moment, though, the presenter related his story and invited anyone in the audience who had been saved by the Kindertransport to stand up. Every man and woman around him stood up. It is an incredibly powerful moment as grown women and men weep and hug this bespectacled elderly man, many proudly showing him photographs of their own children – the families that he had effectively spared from the gas chambers.
That is a wonderful story and one we should remember. But what about the bits of the story we don’t choose to remember? Why don’t we remember that even after the horrific events of Kristallnacht in Nazi-ruled Germany, the House of Commons still only allowed the entry into Britain of Jewish refugees younger than 17, provided they had a place to stay and a warranty of £50 was deposited for their eventual return to their own country? Why don’t we talk about the headlines and editorials in British newspapers that condemned proposals to accept Jewish refugees in the years before the war, often declaring the country was already ‘full up’, and who expressed often barely veiled sympathy for Hitler’s policies? Why don’t we remember the anti-Semitism and coldness that so many of the children encountered upon arrival? Why don’t we remember the parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends of these children, whom Britain and the other western nations refused to accept and left to the terror of Nazi rule and certain death?
At this time and in this place, I feel it more important than ever for me as a Christian minister to call us back to the true Biblical meaning of remembrance: a remembrance that truly changes us for the better. A remembrance that reminds us of the call for forgiveness, even in the face of death. A remembrance that calls us all to pursue and protect peace in Christ’s name, with every fibre of our being. A remembrance that continually calls to mind the teachings and most importantly the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, more than ever, I believe we need to remember what it is that causes war and suffering in our world, and what is required for the peace of which Christ spoke so eloquently to come about. When I was a child, one of my favourite films was the ‘Indiana Jones’ series. Amidst the many characters and plot lines we encountered there, there were nearly always nasty Nazis ready to take over the world with some diabolical plot or another. And it’s so tempting to think that that is how wars come about – with arch-villains plotting in underground bunkers, surrounded by secret maps and armies of henchmen.
More recently, though, I was reading a non-fiction book about a small town in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. It wasn’t really about the war or the Nazis, it was about a family that lived in that town, with the momentous events of history merely as a background. It spoke about the lives of individual people, local tradesmen, the mayor, the doctor, the pastor, and their struggles to carry on with life in that incredibly difficult period. It was primarily concerned with the minutiae of life in a town like any other. It reminded me that war and terror don’t start with secret plans and underground bunkers. They begin with people forgetting the basic commandments of Christian life: forgetting to love, forgetting to break down barriers instead of building them up, forgetting to prefer truth to lies. It begins with people saying, “Well, of course, I never really liked Jews.” Or Muslims, or refugees, or Poles. It begins with people preferring to keep their heads down and say nothing about the injustice and the lies they see around them, because they want an easy life. It begins with people believing that the foundations of our society – democracy, the rule of law and human rights – can be treated as optional rather than absolute: “I believe in justice, provided it does what I want it to do.” “I believe in human rights for the humans I like, but not for others.” “I believe in democracy when the vote goes my way.”
Today, of all days, we must remember that war and peace begin, not in parliaments or command bunkers, but in our hearts. This is where terror, hatred and avarice come from – the building blocks of war. But it is also where love, compassion and mercy come from – the foundations of peace.
Today of all days, we must learn the lessons of the past and change our ways accordingly. We must not accept an edited version of history that edits out all the bits we don’t like and superimposes on it the gloss of contemporary dogmas and creeds.
Today of all days, we must recall the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. For the sake of our world and his Kingdom, we must follow his example of selfless love, of forgiveness and of a complete rejection of all that leads to hatred. On this Remembrance Sunday, let us not just remember, but let us be changed through our remembering too. Amen.