Readings: Jonah 3.1-5,10, Mark 1.14-20
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
Two stories of calling. The gospel reading shows Jesus calling four disciples, but I want to start with the call of Jonah. The vivid and funny story told by the book of Jonah reaches a kind of climax in the short reading this morning. Jonah has done all he can to avoid being conscripted into God’s cause, and has found – thanks to a great storm and a giant fish – that he can’t get away from God. So he gives in and does what God wants. He preaches to the people of Nineveh (according to the schools’ favourite Jonah Man Jazz, ‘a city of sin’ where ‘the jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din’), and he tells them that that God will soon overthrow the city. The citizens repent so thoroughly, however, that God changes his mind and Nineveh is spared.
In the world this story comes from, it is assumed that God’s hand is to be found in the catastrophes of life, such as that which might come upon a city and its people. When Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians and God’s promises of protection seem to be proved false, the prophets say, No, this is God’s work: this is punishment for our wrongdoing. And Jesus warns about the fall of that great city in his own day. But cities are complicated places. What about the innocents, what about the good people who are there among the bad. What is their fate to be? At one point in the book of Genesis, the writer describes Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of some other cities God has said he will destroy because of their wickedness. Surely, argues Abraham, you aren’t going to destroy the innocent with the wicked? What if there are – fifty righteous people there? ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’
On this day we remember so many – and in so many conflicts, near and far, recent and distant – and there is a particular poignancy today in keeping Remembrance Sunday on the very day the firing ceased 94 years ago in 1918. At the Requiem for Remembrance Sunday this evening, we shall hear Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, ‘Everyone Sang’, expressing the relief and release of that first Armistice Day. Most of those who made up the hideous arithmetic of death in the Great War wore uniforms, but these passages about the destruction of cities make us think also of the civilians, and lead us to the indiscriminate killing of World War 2. Tonight we shall also hear an extract from Edith Sitwell’s air raid poem, ‘Still Falls the Rain’. She refers to a story of Jesus about Lazarus and Dives, one a poor man pocked with sores, the other rich and indifferent, and the very different fates they had in life and in death. Not so in London in 1940 (nor in dozens of cities in Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Viet Nam):
…have mercy on us –
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.
Often in war there is indifference or worse towards the innocent, but even when people try, as Abraham says, to do right, still the wrong people can get hurt. We can be more precise now, yet still, the guilty and the innocent often suffer together.
Each of us will do our remembering differently today. For one it will be a matter of calling to mind things known at first-hand, for another it will be the reports of others; and then there will be the differences created by our various ages, patterns of life, histories and nationalities. But for each of us there will be a piece of remembering that will be about someone whose death or whose scars – even by the standards of warfare – seem particularly unjust. And what of God in all this? Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?
This is the place to bring all these things. It is the place of remembering, the place where it can be done best. Every Sunday is a remembrance Sunday, as we obey the command of Jesus: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Each season of the church calendar – Advent, Lent, Easter – invites us to remember particular moments and themes in the Christian story, and we also follow another calendar, and each year with its anniversaries presents us with other things to remember. This year brings a string of seventieth anniversaries: crucial victories at Alamein and Midway, the obliteration of Dusseldorf; and two pieces of hopeful defiance in all the destruction: the publication of the Beveridge Report for a future welfare state, and the foundation of Oxfam.
Millions remember today, but we remember in the presence of God. We call to mind things past, and we do not believe that the past can be undone, but we do believe that with God it can be redeemed, that it need not enslave us; that in the end all shall see that the judge of all the earth has done right. And we believe that God, who has given us the gift of memory, calls us to remember the past truthfully in order to live in the present more faithfully.
That is how it was for the Disciples. Jesus ate and drank with them the night before he died. Do this in remembrance of me, he said; bread and wine will for ever remind you of who I am, and who you are, and how you should be, for you are my body.
As we break bread today, remembering those fallen in war, or wounded by it, we can remember passively (in sorrow at the waste, in gratitude at the sacrifice), but we are also called to active remembering, called to act for God in the present because of what we are calling to mind from the past. What we are to do now? What piece of hopeful defiance might be ours? These are questions to take to God in prayer this morning. There is a particular meaning to discover for you, for me, in the command that the Lord God gives to us all: Do this, in remembrance.
Fall of Jerusalem eg Jeremiah 25.8-16; 40.1-6; Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem: eg Matthew 23.32-24.3.
‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ Genesis 18.23-25.