Sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2016
Today, as every Remembrance Sunday, we think about past events, and also about those men and women who are on active service today.
And I think it’s especially important that we do so this year – not JUST because we mark the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme – but because of more recent events.
Many of us will have had more than a belly full of politics this year – perhaps even this week! – and I don’t intend to delve too deeply into any of that just now.
There are, however, some worrying trends emerging around us – with echoes of the past: an increasing sense of nationalism and national self-interest, the erosion of those organisations that came into being as a result of the two World Wars to foster international harmony.
Now, it seems to me, the need to remember is more pressing than ever.
If we try to imagine ourselves back, then, to the world of 1916 we find ourselves in a very unfamiliar place – a world where there is little talk of individual freedom or of a person’s rights. Instead the language is of duty and service.
It’s no accident that when Baden Powell formed the Scouting Movement, 8 years earlier, he required each Scout to promise to do his duty to God and the King: something much bigger and broader than either self-belief or personal fulfilment.
In 1916 – Britons were very clearly “subjects” of the crown, not “citizens”; and duty to others, and the common bond of allegiance were the greatest guarantors of personal security and wellbeing.
Today we attempt to teach “British Values” in our schools, partly as a means of strengthening our sense of national identity. By contrast, the British Values of 1916 were NOT those just of the British Isles but of an Empire.
As such, those underlying principles were “multicultural” and “multiracial” long before either of those terms had been coined – and they held in check both the more ruthless instincts of acquisitive businessmen and the unrealistic goals of over-zealous Christian missionaries.
The British Values of 1916 – based on a very broad and tolerant Christianity – could live with “diversity”, but would not permit extremism, of any kind, to destabilise the whole.
There may just be something for us to learn there.
Across the Empire there were great differences in local culture and tradition, but there were also common features: a commitment to free trade, a universal legal system – based on Common Law, and a readiness to invest in poorer, developing nations.
And it’s worth noting that last point, I think – partly because it seems to have been a peculiarly British trait.
It has been calculated that in the early years of the last century, average income per head, among those living here, was around 6% lower than it would have been if Britain had not maintained her Empire.
That financial burden was accepted because it seemed to produce a global stability: domestic and personal wealth was less important than a stable world order.
In 2016 it seems that the popular rhetoric is pushing strongly in the opposite direction – self-interest before the common good.
At which point we may do well to remember also the mood of the 1930s and the slide towards hostility at that time.
I promised not to bore you with yet more politics, and so I want to end with a story – quoted on Radio 4 by the Welsh novelist Rhidian Brook – whose own grandfather served in the First World War.
It’s a story about a wealthy art collector, who fills his house with fine art – paintings by Cezannes and the still young Picasso.
It’s a pleasure he shares with his only son who, he naturally assumes, will one day inherit them and, he is sure, will cherish them as much as he does.
But then events rarely turn out as we expect – and his son marched off to war along with most of the other young men from the village.
After training he found himself adjusting to the hardships of trench warfare – and in the grim reality of the battlefield strong friendship grew between those who faced it together. And, in the periods of waiting for action, the man’s son was soon sharing his love of painting with anyone who cared to notice.
Then, one hot summer’s day, the man’s son was killed by a direct hit on the trench – but his body shielded his friend from the blast, saving his life.
Injured but very much alive, this friend was taken to a field hospital and eventually returned to his home to recover.
And he made sense of his shock and grief by painting – painting a picture of the man’s son.
Months later he came to see the father, bringing with him the portrait he’d painted of the son.
‘It’s not great art,’ he said ‘But I thought you might like it.’
The father shook him warmly by the hand and he went on his way again.
After the old man’s wife died, he stayed in the family home, surrounded by his precious art, and with the portrait of his son in pride of place.
When he died there was no one to inherit his belongings.
And so an auction was arranged – attracting art collectors from far and wide.
The auction began with the picture of the son.
The experts complained that this wasn’t real art
and when the auctioneer asked for bids nobody responded.
So he asked again: “The son”, ladies and gentlemen,
“Who will take the son?”
Eventually one frail old man – the family’s gardener –
offered a bid of £20. Not much for a painting – but it was all he had. And nobody raised the bid, so the painting was his.
Suddenly, the auctioneer brought down his hammer again and declared the auction over.
First there was stunned silence and then there were angry voices. What about the real paintings that they’d all come for?
It was then that the auctioneer made known the rich man’s will. He’d stipulated that the person who bought the portrait of his son would inherit the entire estate – paintings and all.
To the father this was the most precious painting of all – painted by a friend, in love and gratitude, and kept by him all these years in love and gratitude.
His faithful old gardener simply couldn’t bear for any of them to be forgotten and so, in love and gratitude, had determined to save the portrait – and the memories attached to it.
As we look back to 1916, then, we measure the cost of war -not in terms of damaged treasures or architectural gems destroyed, nor even in the loss of an Empire.
In love and gratitude, we remember the human lives that were lost – and the human lives that were shattered by that loss.
War is sometimes unavoidable –
is sometimes the least worst option, if nothing more.
But if we approach each Remembrance Sunday in love and gratitude, then, at least, we can never take that option lightly, and we can never forget the very real sacrifices that have been made, and are being made, for us.