Vicar's Sermon - Remembrance Sunday 2018
According to the sleep experts we all dream, but do you remember your dreams? Some people do, others don’t. For some, their dreams are so vivid that they wake up startled, still thinking they are in their dream world: they need time to relocate themselves in this world. Chase dreams, dreams of monsters under the bed. Dreams of Daleks from which there is no escape. Dreams can be ‘oh so real.’
There’s a whole field of study associated with dreams. Dreams as a means of understanding our inner selves; the events from our past that have shaped us, the deep wells of emotion or personality that mold our character and personality, shaping the people we are. Dreams and dreaming are important: they allow our minds to process our innermost thoughts, they can be an escape valve that enables pent up mental distress to find some (albeit incomplete and inadequate) release.
Did the troops in the trenches dream? No doubt they did. Some of their dreams we know. Tortured dreams, dreams of the horrors that they had witnessed. Dreams that would never leave them for their rest of their lives, that would cause them to wake gasping for air (‘gas, gas, gas’) or fighting off imagined foes in hand to hand combat. These dreams worked their way out through what we now call ‘PTSD’ (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) – and they were ‘written out’ in the writings of the war poets. These dreams outlived the war by decades.
Did they dream of home? Were there dreams of comfort, of hope? From the Second World War we have expressions of hope for a world beyond the conflict: dreams expressed in popular song, dreams that sustained the morale of the nation – ‘there’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’ or ‘we’ll meet again, don’t know how, don’t know when.’…but what were the dreams back in the heart of the Great War?
Our bible reading this morning expressed a dream that has reached around the world and down through over 2, 500 years. The prophet Isaiah with his dream of nations coming together, of war ended, ‘swords beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks’. This dream as been quoted by any number of politicians. Its words are inscribed on the walls of the United Nations Building. References to this dream appeared in the anti war protest songs of the 1960s, Isaiah’s words crop up in Michael Jackson’s ‘heal the World’ and the finale of the musical Les Miserables: the whole cast on stage singing at the top of their voices
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare, They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken And all men will have their reward.
It’s many years since I saw the stage version of Les Miserables but I can’t have been the only one in the theatre whose spine tingled as the words were sung.
Dreams in the scriptures are important. Dreams present a reality other than the one directly in front of us. Every society needs dreamers – people who can present us with different ways of seeing the world that aren’t stuck in the past, trapped into patterns of living that have failed, that no longer sustain us. These dreamers are frequently artists and songwriters, painters and novelists: peple who tap into another world within us and make new worlds possible.
It would be a stretch to say that Isaiah was a ‘war poet’ but he certainly lived at a time of huge upheaval and change, some of which involved military conflict and the brutal scorched earth policies of those who invaded his land. What he does in his poetry is to offer a piercing critique of the world as he sees it. Isaiah doesn’t shy from hard truths, he is not frightened of rocking the boat. At times he comes across as being judgmental, but he is really trying to express his belief that sticking to the old ways will lead to disaster. ‘Change your ways’ he encourages his people.
‘There must be change’ he insists ‘and this change will feel like loss as old securities are swept away, but we must shape a new future’. And then he dreams. And his dreams bring hope where previously there had been none.
The dream as we heard it was of the peoples of the world streaming towards the Lord’s house on the mountain of the Lord. It is a multi-cultural dream, the nations seeking another way, a higher way. Isaiah frames this in terms of obedience to God’s teaching – for some here that makes sense, for others it is too much. Where we might find common ground across faith traditions or in a wholly secular interpretation would be in the need to seek higher virtues, to reach beyond destructive nationalism, tribalism and violence to reach a place of mutual respect and care for one another.
Isaiah dreams of the Lord judging between the nations: he can see a world where nations ad people recognize and uphold justice and truth. They learn from the Lord and are taught by Him. Isaiah can see a world that is ‘fair’ and openly so: a world in which people feel safe to raise their families and to go about their daily work free from the fear of violence and the abuse of power. There is justice in this dream. His dream world envisages a people able to feed themselves from a land that can be ploughed, a land that yields a harvest from which all can eat: there is work and there is plenty.
What happened to the dreams of those who went to war in the Great War? What happened to the dreams of those who served in the 2nd World War? One hundred years ago there were dreams that were fulfilled and others that faded from view as nations exhausted by war struggled to find new ways to relate to one another. We made a better fist of it after the second conflict: homes fit for heroes, step changes in education, healthcare for all, work for those who wanted it. But it takes effort doesn’t it? Winning the peace is as important as winning the war. The sacrifice of millions on the battlefield and here at home demands that we learn from history, we change, we live differently, we don’t repeat our mistakes. Dreams can offer hope but they have to be acted upon – it’s not enough to ‘dream on’: we must wake and live into their reality. What was once unimaginable can become real and present but only if we commit ourselves to living in new ways.
In this service we remember so many dreams lost, snatched from people in all the conflicts both of the last and this century. But our service also asks us to wake up and commit ourselves afresh to work for a world made whole. The choir will sing of this dream now. The words of their song are in the pews this morning: Once we had dreams.