Remembrance 3rd before Advent 2014
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
You may have caught the play a couple of weeks ago at the Richmond Theatre, Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s book of the same name about Craiglockhart, a shell-shock hospital outside Edinburgh in the First World War. It was a real place and the story features two characters who were really there, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. In one scene, Sassoon asks Owen what he thinks of his poem The Redeemer, that identifies a solder struggling with planks in a trench with Christ on the cross. Sassoon then apologises…
‘But perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this? I mean for all I know you’re–’
‘I don’t know what I am [says Owen]. But I do know I wouldn’t want a faith that couldn’t face the facts…I don’t think it’s possible to call yourself a Christian and just leave out the awkward bits.’
‘You’ll never make a bishop.’ [A little unfair.]
‘No, well, I think I can live with that.’
The awkward bits Owen mentions usually involve death. When Paul writes to the Christians in what’s now Thessaloniki (this letter might be the earliest piece of writing in the whole New Testament) the awkward bits for him definitely involve death. People in that church thought Jesus would come back soon and sort the world out. But that hasn’t happened yet and now some of their fellow Christians have died. Why? Was their faith in vain? Paul reassures them that even death, whenever it happens, will not get the better of God. They will grieve, but not, he says, as those who have no hope.
For us, the specific anxieties have changed but the awkward bits are still about death. Kristen Ofstad, my Methodist/United Reformed colleague told me last week she met the senior chaplain in the Army, who said that his chaplains needed to be very good theologians, because one of their flock can suddenly put to them the hardest questions: ‘My friend was killed and I wasn’t. Why? What for?’ Like the wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable they need to be equipped and ready, for they don’t know the day or the hour when the awkward question will come. Why? What for? are questions about human destiny – What are we here on earth for? – and also about the particularities of death: Did he or she die in vain? Was the cause just? Was it worth it? And I’m think about how those questions can make Remembrance Sunday itself awkward.
Richmond is a remarkably international place, so for some of us, our homelands were not involved in the great conflicts we remember today. For others, the person remembered today will be someone who was in the German or Italian or Japanese forces in the second world war. Or perhaps the person who stirs your remembering today was an enemy, as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Strange Meeting. What if you remember someone British but killed, say, in the Suez adventure, or in the morally fraught war in Iraq?
These are the awkward bits of Remembrance. Alan Wilkinson, retired parson and church historian, took his first remembrance in the 60s. He writes of medals clinking on pews as their wearers crouched to pray, ‘bringing their baffling mass of experiences to God.’ My – fairly limited – experience of military and ex- military people suggests that they know all about awkwardness and bafflement, and face it – more readily than some of the rest of us, who prefer our history colour-coded, like the white and black cowboys hats in an old-fashioned Western.
Why? What for? Was it in vain? The awkward truth is that the answers to these questions we are still shaping. It is, for instance, wonderful to celebrate this weekend the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that piece of unfinished business of the Second World War, but we need to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev at an event in that very city saying that the West had ‘succumbed to triumphalism’ and that the world was on the brink of a new Cold War.
Why? What for? Was it in vain? The deepest meaning in those questions goes beyond politics of course: can such a world be the child of a loving God. If so, what is God doing? These are Owen’s truly ‘awkward bits’. But a faith that has a cross at its centre knows about awkwardness.
In this service we gather before a cross and remember the night before the cross, and the meal Jesus shared with his friends. It was not a straightforward occasion: the only one there with real backbone handed Jesus over to be killed. The rest, the ‘best’, lacked all conviction. Yet from that compromised night and the death it produced came Easter, and a faith that proved unquenchable. It has travelled, through health and sickness, peace and war, life and death, travelled so far as even to embrace you and me, because it is a faith that can face the facts. And so, even as we remember terrible things, we can rejoice; and if we grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.