Sermon for Remembrance Sunday
As a kind of preparation for Remembrance Day earlier this week I watched the film Saving Private Ryan.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that it’s the story of a group of American soldiers who are sent into the front line just after the D-Day landings to pluck out a certain Private Ryan and return him to safety. His three brothers have all recently been killed and the hierarchy want to spare his mother the death of her last son.
Two things stood out for me:
- Firstly, it portrays the brutality of war, the sheer horror of it, with graphic realism. That’s pretty standard with films these days but it’s all too easy to think of war in a bloodless, abstract kind of way. Perhaps that’s what politicians are prone to do. So it’s always useful to be reminded just how repulsive war is.
- And, secondly, the key to the film seems to lie in two quite brief sequences at the beginning and end. Some decades later Private Ryan comes back to visit the graves of some of those who came to rescue him. Their captain had said to Ryan just before he died: ‘Earn it’ – referring to the life that he (Ryan) was being enabled to lead by being rescued. And Ryan, as he visits the graves all those years later, says to his wife (almost in despair): ‘Tell me I’ve been a good man’.
He needs to feel he has justified the sacrifice that others made on his behalf.
That’s the response of one individual who survived the war (albeit a fictional one) but in a way that could be the response a whole society after it survives a war. A society too feels a need, or at least should feel a need, to strive to create a better world. Only that can justify the sacrifices of so many.
The best way to show our gratitude and respect for those who died in the service of our country is, in the words of William Blake that we just sang, to buildJerusalemin our green and pleasant land.
It’s unlikely that we will ever succeed in building the perfectJerusalemin this or any other land. We will disagree even about what would constitute success. Some will say that things have gone down hill since, say, 1945 and some will say that things have improved. Perhaps it’s a mixture of the two but there’s n
o common yardstick. There never was and never will be.
The truth is that to build a perfect society is very difficult, very possibly impossible for us human beings. But, after the sacrifice of so many, our task is to try.
But our task is also remembrance. And just as our actions are imperfect, so also is our remembrance. Sometimes, when we remember those who have died, we even find it difficult to picture the person in our minds. We may have a photo on the mantelpiece but the essence of the person evades us. That’s why we miss them.
But if God is God – timeless, omniscient, perfect in love – then he is the one whose remembrance is perfect.
You will probably recall that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, died a few weeks ago. Some of you will no doubt have Apple products about your person as I speak. Back in 2005 he gave a speech to some students atStanfordUniversity.
“Death”, he said, “is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you, but some day, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old, and be cleared away.”
What he seemed to be saying is that people are disposable. They have their moment, like the latest Apple gadget, and then they move on, presumably into oblivion according to Mr Jobs. Now it’s undeniably true that physically we have a certain built-in obsolescence.
But the Christian view does not regard people as disposable. They are loved by God – and not just for a few brief years. When we die, we are not as it were erased from God’s memory, erased from his mind. If our conception of God is correct then to be erased from his memory would simply not be possible. God does not cease to love us simply because we die. We are forever present in the mind of God. The essence of a person does not evade him.
That means that those we remember today have not been erased from God’s memory either. They may have died in their millions. They may be dying still. They may appear to have been mere disposable units in the great machine of war but they were, and are still, loved by God. That’s why, however imperfect our human remembrance may be, they can never pass into oblivion. It is impossible to cease being loved by God.