Vicar's Sermon - Remembrance Day
The story is told of how the great prophet Elijah, fearing for his life, ran from the wicked King Ahab and his cruel wife Jezebel. Given a chance King and Queen would have had Elijah executed for continuing to challenge their rule and undermining their authority ‘in the Name of the Lord.’ Elijah ran for many miles until, utterly exhausted, he lay himself down in a desert place and prayed that he might simply be allowed to give up…to die. He slept but was woken by a stranger who fed him, gave him water to drink and then directed him to travel on further to Mount Sinai: God would meet with Elijah there. From the back of a cave in which he was hiding Elijah heard a great noise – an earthquake, rocks falling and smashing around him: but God was not in the earthquake. The earthquake was followed by a whirlwind, a storm blowing, the mountain it seemed was being blown apart, but God was not in the storm. Then, following after, it seemed as if Mount Sinai was on fire: but God was not in the fire. And after the fire there came….nothing. Nothing but a deep silence that reached into Elijah’s soul: and a still small voice was hear, the voice of God, calling Elijah to head back into public life, calling him to live once more for God and His purposes.
Maybe you know the story. Perhaps you know better the hymn that asks God to ‘speak through the earthquake, wind and fire O still small voice of calm’. The lesson seems to be this: God calls us, God speaks to us, God has a purpose for us but sometimes we need simply to be still and quiet to hear Him.
On this day millions upon millions of people across the country ‘keep silence’. It takes an effort to be still. It takes strength and courage to resist the temptation to be doing, to be getting on with something else. But today, encouraged by one another we stop, we stepp out of our daily lives and paused to reflect and to remember.
The two minutes’ silence is not an empty silence. It is crammed full with our thoughts. For some there are thoughts of relatives whose names now are only known through being engraved on war memorials, through the research of family histories and through our imagining the lives of our forebears 100 years ago. There are memories of family members who served in the 2nd World War: there are veterans of that conflict amongst us today, we honour them and we honour the sacrifice of those who did not make it back from the theatre of war. And, whilst our act of remembrance recalls the sacrifices made by those who lived and fought through the world wars of the last century we remember too that there have been many conflicts since: the war on the Korean peninsular has still not ended; it is 35 years since the Falklands conflict; there were the troubles in Northern Ireland, the years are passing since the two Gulf Wars, there has been our involvement in Afghanistan, and alongside our military engagement in Iraq our planes still carry out operations above Syria in the battle against ISIS. Your remembrance may have spanned these, it may have encompassed thoughts of previous generations from your family but also your concerns for those affected by war – the injured and distressed whose wounds both physical and mental have left lives scarred. No, those 2 minutes are crammed full: they are not empty.
But I wonder too whether our silence each year (and perhaps indeed later this morning at the War memorial in the grounds of the Bowes Museum) might also provide us with the space to hear what God might be wanting to say to us today?
You’ll recall that Elijah was sent to meet with God at Mount Sinai. Sinai, of course, is where Moses had met with God. Sinai is where the people of Israel established their relationship with God, encapsulating their covenant with Him in the 10 commandments and the rest of the Law. By going to Sinai Elijah was being asked to touch base with the history of his people and their deepest values. It seems to me that here, on Remembrance Sunday we do just that. As a nation we present afresh the symbols of who we are, how we see ourselves, the things we value and the price we are prepared to pay to protect them. The Crown (supremely represented by The Queen but also represented by her Lieutenants and their deputies) Parliament (and those who represent us in Civic Life) and we come together in churches and at War memorials across the country. We honour our military personnel because they have protected our freedom, they have defended the weak, upheld justice, We honour them because they have shown, in the stresses of conflict, the power of standing and working together, of reaching beyond that which divides us to achieve common goals and they have shown to us the cost involved in preserving and protecting the common good.
And in amongst all our Remembering we hear a small voice issuing us with an invitation to live differently, to honour and value to uphold and promote, a way of living that could easily slip away from us.
Blessed, says Jesus, are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. These are not just observations that Jesus makes, things he points out to us in others. No, they are an invitation for us to be ‘poor in spirit’, to recognise that we need the life of God, that we are empty without His presence quickening us. Jesus, calls us to grieve, to mourn, to feel the pain of a world that is broken when (of course) naturally we would shy from this, we prefer to cocoon ourselves within the walls of our homes and to turn away from pain and hunger, and homelessness and disease. Feel as God feels, he says.
Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Can we live gentler lives, less judgemental lives, lives that make room for others, lives that seek the best for all people (not just for ourselves) Aren’t these ways of living that we instinctively feel are right: do we not need to hear of them again and again? Do we not need reminding that this is a way that leads to Life in all its fullness?
Blessed are the merciful…in thought, word and deed taking the sting out of hurt and pain, discovering the inner release and power of forgiveness. Blessed are the pure in heart: those who manage to reconcile the inner and outer worlds of our lives, who walk the walk as well as talk the talk, those who seek God and his presence in their lives and the life of their families and community. And blessed, of course, are the peacemakers. Again, remember, Jesus is talking about His followers, about us. Blessed are we when we seek to be reconciled with others, when we acknowledge our part in an argument or a longstanding disagreement that has divided us from a friend or neighbour. Blessed are we when seek to bring people together, honestly addressing difference, tirelessly recreating community within and between nations.
And blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: Jesus recognising here that His way will never be popular. His way will appear weak, ineffectual, not fit for purpose and yet encouraging us to hold true, to be faithful, even to the end.
There is something about Jesus’ words that cuts through the busyness of our lives and strikes home. They ring true, they make sense to us. Remembrance Day looks backwards, it remembers the past but it should also turn us towards the future. Our service today moves us towards an act of commitment that invites us to live differently because of our remembering. Jesus’ words invite us to share His life, to live His way, and we (each in our own way) pray for grace to do just that.
May His blessing rest on us and our community this day and always.