The Bible does a lot of remembering- God said ‘I will remember my Covenant with you’, remember that you were slaves in Egypt; remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness, remember Lot’s wife, remember that while Jesus was still alive he said … remember how he told you what would happen, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. Remembering is important, and acts of remembrance draw us together, and put us in touch with the realities of war. This morning we give thanks for those who died serving their country, remembering that they fought in the hope of bringing long lasting justice and peace.
As people draw together here in Rowsley, at the Cenotaph in London, at the National Memorial arboretum, and at war memorials throughout the land, some have personal experience of active service, others wartime memories of life at home and there are those of us who can only imagine what it is like to be caught up in war. We gather to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, and also to remember those who through war were forced to sacrifice their youth or their physical or mental health.
The war memorial in the churchyard records the names of 12 men who were killed whilst serving in the forces; nine died in the 1st world war, three lost their lives during the second world war, maybe some of you knew them personally or were told about the much-loved son, brother, or father who never came home.
The men from Rowsley who died during World war II were Francis Wilson who lost his life aged 28, helping to liberate Italy, John Wain, a young pilot in the RAF only 21 years old when he died, and Herbert Ricketts, 26, also in the RAF who served as a navigator. Those of us who never knew them join with those whose lives they touched and give thanks for their bravery and their willingness to fight against fascism in the defence of freedom.
A generation earlier many men were caught up in the First World War. It led to the deaths of Joseph Barber and Charles Brookfield in Turkey, who endured the carnage of the Gallipoli campaign, whilst on the western front Charles Hyde and George Skinner may have seen the earlist fighting in the trenches, they died in Belgium and France in the spring of 1915. John Boden, Thomas Pugh, Herbert Stone, George Clifford Pope and Herbert Wain experienced the horrors of trench warfare at its very worst. They were in the midst of the shelling, the mud, the rats and the lice, the noise and the stench of the trenches around Arras, Thiepval, Passchendaele and Tyne Cot. How they must have longed to be home.
Another young man who was born in Rowsley was George Holmes whose name is recorded on the war memorial in Derby. As a lad he lived at Midland Cottages with his Mum and dad and his sister. A few years ago the family gave the letters that George had written at the front to Lady Manners where he had gone to school, wanting today’s youngsters to have a better understanding of what the war was really like. Before war broke out George had worked on the railway in Rowsley and then in Derby. He made sketches of French locomotives to send home in his letters and he also drew cartoons which reflected the general lack of respect among the troops for the more senior officers who knew little of life behind the lines. As with many other soldiers his letters home put a brave face on the conditions that he had to endure in the trenches. George did not survive the war; his obituary in the local paper spoke warmly of his integrity, his popularity and of his strong faith. The newspaper reported that during training, undeterred by the initial taunts of those around him in the mess, George would read his Bible every night and that soon others came to join him as he knelt to say his prayers. His trust in God was a constant feature in his letters from the frontline, it gave him comforted and the strength to cope with all he had to face.
Lucy Withmell’s poem Christ in Flanders reminds that wherever we are and whatever we face, God is there for us, loving us despite our failures and our weakness, for Jesus shares our pain, knowing what it is to suffer, to be let down, to be humiliated and to be surrounded by those who want to hurt us. In most wars troops on both sides claim that God is with them, and he is, but not in the way that national propaganda suggests. God comforts and forgives all of us, if we ask, he draws us back to him when we have drifted away, but he doesn’t fight under any flag other than his own.
The first world war helped to dispel the myth of war being glorious, and today as journalists broadcast directly from the front line and provide us with instantaneous pictures on our TV screens we see the suffering and pain of warfare unfolding for civilians as well as the troops. As we watch in horror people ask ‘how can you believe there is a God, a loving God who lets this happen?’ The answer is that this is not what God wants for us but because of our sinful nature we misuse our freedom of action, we could choose to behave differently. We could be more mindful of the needs of others, we could try to build bridges and to work harder for peace but there are times when we have to take a stand against power wrongly used, when words alone are just not enough to push back against evil.
Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the kingdom of God’ and much of his teaching was about bringing peace, about encouraging us to see things differently and to do things differently. He would not support the Zionists who wanted to use force against the Roman army but he did take direct action against the money changers in the Temple, overthrowing their tables to force them out.
Jesus worked tirelessly for peace but he never condemned those who served in the army. When a Roman centurian came to him asking for his daughter to be healed, Jesus didn’t tell him to go away, instead he saw the man and not the uniform and commended him for his faith promising that by the time the centurian returned home his daughter would be healed. Jesus recognised that soldiers have a job to do. Likewise when John the Baptist was preaching repentance and baptising people in the river Jordan among those who flocked to hear him were soldiers, they asked what they should do. He didn’t say that they should stop being soldiers but told them they to be better soldiers and to use their power justly. Wars are started by governments for different motives, some better than others but they are fought by ordinary men and women who are precious to their families, to their countries and to God.
The question ‘where are you God’ is a cry to be found throughout history, even in the Bible. And God’s answer is often you know I’m here, look back, remember all the things I have done for you. Remember the battles I won for you when all seemed hopeless, trust me, stay with me, remember your own shortcoming and come back to me.
Jesus understood the importance of remembering and how it can help to bring about change. At the Last Supper he broke the bread and poured out the wine and told his disciples that they should ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ In the ancient world remembering wasn’t only about recalling something and retaining the information, remembering required subsequent action. We don’t remember Christ’s death on the cross in order to dwell in the past but to help us live in the present and to be given the strength to change ourselves and the world around us. For remembrance shows us that nothing is greater than the power of God’s love, God’s love cannot be destroyed.
If we look on history as the Spanish philosopher Santana suggested -as a means of learning lessons from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes- what emerges most clearly is that there are few winners in war. Although young men no longer jump out of trenches to be blasted and butchered in no man’s land, young men and women are still dying and coming home disabled in body and mind; war now causes far more civilian casualties than ever before. In the war of 1914-18 just 15% of casualties were civilians, in the 1990s the figure had risen to 90%. Once war starts Christian values of gentleness, forgiveness, loving the enemy are forgotten and soldiers and citizens pay the price.
We owe it to all who have sacrificed their own lives to work for peace today. We owe it to those whose lives have been utterly changed by injury to aspire to a more just society. We owe it to those who have lost those they love to work for the breaking down of every sort of barrier that separates and divides us from one another. When we remember the men and women who have served and are currently serving in the army, navy or air-force, we do it not to glorify warfare but to recognise the sacrifices that they made. Besides the soldiers, sailors and airmen were those serving in the merchant navy, the police, the fire brigade and other civilian forces and occupations, they are not forgotten either. Although much is being made of the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele with the British Legion banners showing pictures of soldiers from the Great War as well as red poppies, we should not forget those who have been called to fight at other times and in other places including Korea, the Falklands, Bosnia, Ireland, Afghanistan, the Gulf and elsewhere, nor the men drawn from all over the commonwealth who suffered great hardships and heavy losses in doing their bit.
Although Remembrance Sunday is a day for the nation to unite together, Jesus’ call for us to love one another goes beyond national boundaries, his love for all calls us to seek reconciliation and to keep working and praying for the healing of the nations.