Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 8 November 2020
By Revd Paul Le Sueur
It is 1950 and a twelve-year old boy is standing with others in his school quadrangle on a cold and bleak November morning. It is 11.00 am in the morning and high up on the school tower a bugler is playing The Last Post. A solemn silence falls and for two minutes there is not a sound.
What is that twelve-year old boy thinking? How did he fill those two minutes? I’ll tell you. He thinks,
‘It’s flipping cold out here. Why couldn’t we have had the Service in the Chapel? In any case, isn’t it about time they stopped having Remembrance Sunday? After all, it’s five years since the war ended. Five years! All this gloom and doom about those who died in the war. To tell the truth, I rather enjoyed the war, especially the bombing raids. It was fun being woken up in the middle of the night and being rushed down to the cellar. Often Mum would brew up a cup of tea and a biscuit and we could. listen to the guns going. I’ve still got a collection of shrapnel I collected in the street in the days after. I didn’t much like the doodle bugs though. All that chug chug sound and then when it cut out and came down and there was a big crash. One came down in the High Street and hit the Odeon cinema. A pity that! D-day was great though, all those hundreds of planes flying over. Yes, we won the war, didn’t we? Dad came home all right and so did Uncle Hugh and Uncle Winston. So, let’s get on with life! What’s the point of standing here getting your toes frozen? I mean, what good does it do anyone? Nobody! Nothing! And this week I had to spend 3d of my pocket money on a poppy flower; 3d and I only get a shilling! And then I went and lost the poppy yesterday. Oh Good! The bugler’s getting ready to play again. He must be really frozen up there.’
And Reveille sounds.
That was then. Things change. People change. What that twelve-year-old boy – whoever he was – did not remember or did not know or did not realise was just how great a peril the whole nation had been in and what a great deliverance had been achieved and at what a great cost in lives; some of them of lives that were only a few years older than his own.
The writer of Psalm 70, that we have just heard, knew exactly what great peril he was in. His cry to God for help is heartfelt. He was utterly vulnerable. He was in despair. His enemies were out to kill him, and he didn’t have anything to stop them. ‘O God, come and save me. Hasten to help me.’ is how he begins his lament. And he ends it as he began, ‘I am poor and need,’ he cries. ‘Oh! God, hasten to my aid. O Lord, make no delay.’ How many victims of war, on all sides, will have echoed those sentiments?
This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the ending of World War 2. There have been one or two excellent programmes on television of a ‘What if’ variety. What if Churchill had not become PM, and Britain, under another leader, had sued for an ignoble peace? What if the Battle of Britain had been lost and there had been a successful invasion of our homeland, and the whole of Europe had fallen under the Nazi jackboot? That ‘What if’ was a very real possibility. That needs to be the first part of our remembering.
Like many other people, I have been to the World War 2 military cemeteries in Normandy and to World War 1 cemeteries at Ypres in Belgium. In both places one cannot help but be horrified at the huge number of graves there are; the white gravestones standing in military precision in their tens of thousands; a silent tribute to the sacrifice of so many young lives, and a testimony to the horrors of war. A scrawled note on a tree at the entrance to one cemetery said it all to me: ‘See how many there are. See how young they were.’ That needs to be the second part of our remembering.
What should be the third part of our remembering?
The third element to a proper observance of Remembrance Sunday is a positive remembering, and in the light of that remembering, a carefully thought-through commitment to peace and justice in the future.
You will remember that in today’s Gospel there were five wise and five foolish young ladies. The five of them who got into trouble did so because of their lack of forethought. They simply just didn’t anticipate the likelihood of delay. Yet there must have been other times in their young lives, when there had been unexpected delays. They just hadn’t learnt from them.
Is that not sometimes true of us? Times when we have said, ‘Oh! If only I had thought to bring something,’ or ‘If only I had thought to do something, then I wouldn’t be in this pickle’? That certainly has been true of me. What is true of individuals is also true of nations.
Historians tell us how the nations of Europe drifted into World War 1.
Historians tell us how we drifted into World War 2 by a feeble policy of appeasement. Did we not also drift into the Falklands conflict because of a lack of foresight?
The thing is, God has given us humans the capacity to remember. Where would we be without it? How sad it is when dementia robs previously intelligent people of their memories. Yes. Memory is a very great gift, but it comes with the obligation to remember well; to remember fully; to learn the lessons of the past and to apply them intelligently. In this we all have our own part to ply. Let us remember the past in a way that better equips us for the future.