Taking a “pop” at the Poppy?

12th  November 2017

Parade and Service of Remembrance

Every community has its natural “gossip points” – places where local information is exchanged and where the latest innovations and scandals can be shared and argued over at leisure. Here, depending on our age and personal taste, that may well be The Bear, or one of the many local Coffee Shops, among one of the groups that meet at the Community Centre; it might be on the top deck of the of the bus to school or perhaps even in “Sprinkles”, in town, when you’ve missed the bus home! One way or another, we tend to find our own sources and outlets of local intelligence – reliable or otherwise!

For me, one of those places is Wilton Barber Shop – although, sadly, I don’t need to visit quite so often these days! But when I do, I’m always confident that some interesting snippets will emerge in the conversation and that strong views will be freely expressed!

This week, the talk was about poppies – and the increasing reluctance of many people to wear them. For around 11% of the population, it seems, that reluctance is due to a concern that wearing the poppy – and attending commemorations like this one – actually glorifies war.
Some of those in the Barber’s were quite angry about that suggestion – seeing it just as a selfish excuse for not joining in and honouring those who fought for our freedom.

I have to admit I just feel rather weary with the same circle of arguments that seems to surface every now and then: and, rather than fuelling the conflict of ideas that is buzzing away just now, I think we should all simply get on and observe Remembrance with integrity – with a careful balance of pride and regret.

The Poppy is a symbol like any other – to which we can attach positive associations or negative ones – it’s up to each one of us what we make of that symbol.
The poppy CAN glorify war if want it to, it CAN say more about those who wear it than about those who died, if we let it – but it doesn’t need to.

We know that our national flags – the Union Flag and the St George Cross – have been appropriated by the Far Right as symbols of their distorted nationalist pride. But rather than abandon those emblems, because they CAN be misrepresented, we would surely do better to reclaim them by offering a better interpretation of civic pride and national identity.
The Union flag preceded this morning’s Parade – of youth organisations and Councillors – and, back on St George’s day, as several hundred Scouts made their way into this Parish Church, it was behind both national flags – not as assertions of nationalist aggression, but of solidarity with each other and our patron saint.

Poppies, like national flags, CAN point to a narrow, triumphalist vision of national insularity and nostalgia – or they can represent a broad vision of shared national values and of continuity between the generations.

We should, I think, wear our poppies with pride – as the slogan went – and also with a tinge of regret.

And if we really do need a corrective against the glorification of war, then it’s in the very act of Remembrance – of remembering the grisly reality of past wars and present conflicts that we’re most likely to find it.

It’s a very sobering thought that, among those Scouts who paraded back in April, were young men who, had they lived in 1917, would have been wearing a different uniform and worrying not about A levels and acne, but about the much starker challenges of the trenches.
This year marks the centenary of one of the bloodiest battles of WW1 – the “Third Battle of Ypres” – which raged from July to November 1917, culminating if the capture of the village of “Passchendaele” – the other name often given to this conflict. 1917 was the wettest summer for 40 years – and Passchedaele stands out in the history of WW1 not only for the huge loss of life – around ¼ million casualties on both sides – but also the dreadful conditions in which the men fought – sometimes described as a man-made swamp.

Recalling the loss of so many young lives and the lost potential of that generation is very far from “glorification”.

It is, in fact, a reminder that war really is only a last resort – that war is itself a sign of failure – necessary only when political will and diplomacy have proved inadequate.

The point of Remembrance services, the point of wearing poppies is precisely that – is the regretful admission that war is sometimes necessary, in order to defend what we perceive to be right and good, but never desirable.

If we wear our poppies with pride – it is in recognition and gratitude that when the need did arise – there were so many who were willing to put the needs of their country ahead of their own personal ambitions.

Perhaps not all of them knew what they were letting themselves in for – especially back in 1914 some of those young men may well have marched off with unrealistic expectations of a quick skirmish and a return home as conquering heroes – but they were quickly disabused of that notion and the many who followed them did so with grim determination, not jingoistic enthusiasm.

And it’s for that determination, for that personal sacrifice –that we honour them all each year.

In doing so, we’re called to renew our own determination to ensure that we don’t squander the freedoms that they fought for – that we don’t simply pursue our own personal ambitions at the expense of our neighbours – that we are always prepared to do what is necessary to defend and promote what is good and just in the world of our day.


A final thought from the world of football.
I’m not a great soccer fan, as it happens – but it would be hard for any of us to have missed the protest that greeted FIFA’s attempt, last year, to ban the wearing of poppies by players because, it was said, they were a political symbol.

That ban has been lifted, and on Friday poppies were very much in evidence as the national teams of England and Germany faced each other at Wembley Stadium,
with its new statue commemorating the Christmas Day truce of 1914.

Both teams wore black armbands with poppies on them. And before the match began, representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force of both nations laid wreaths and players and fans of both nations kept a respectful silence in honour of all the war dead.

In that moment the poppy became a symbol, not of division, but of reconciliation – and in that united gesture surely there is hope for the future.

Let us continue to wear our poppies then – let us remember – with pride, with sorrow and with hope.


Table Manners!

15 October 2017

(Readings: Philippians 4: 1 – 9  *  Matthew 22: 1-14)

Next Wednesday, we celebrate the Feat of St Luke the Evangelist – also known as St Luke the Physician. And so I’d thought I might pick up on that, and on this week’s news items about the shortage of family GP’s and/or the use and overuse of antibiotics, and give you a nice topical sermon this week.

And then I read this morning’s Gospel – and thought I’d better take a look at that instead!

St Luke will get a sideways “look in”, however: he also records this parable in his Gospel – but with some notable differences – and I thought it might be worth just noting those discrepancies, to see what if that might help us make sense of this slightly uncomfortable passage.

Whichever version you read, the central message is not going to be a comforting one for the Pharisees and Jewish leaders who seem to be its intended target: the King invites those whom he assumes will come to the feast and honour his son, only to be sorely disappointed – and so he invites a different set of people to take their place.
The account that Luke gives us is a simple analogy for the way that the Jewish leaders had rejected God’s son: those who saw themselves as God’s people had failed to recognise Jesus as the messiah, therefore God would call a new people who would honour him.

That’s a fairly straightforward message – and, for those who see themselves as part of that second group of people, those early Christians for whom the gospels were first written down, perhaps a reassuring one.

But then Mathew goes and complicates it with further details!

In his account, the intended guests aren’t just rude – ignoring the king’s invitation – they make things far worse by mistreating the slaves who bring their invitations.
Perhaps Matthew adds this in as a reflection of the growing hostility that Jewish Christians were facing from non-Christian Jews: when the Jewish Temple was destroyed, in the year 70, some Christians saw this as a sign that the old order had been destroyed. At the same time some Jewish leaders blamed the Jewish-Christians – seeing this destruction as God’s judgement on their false beliefs.
And so, when Matthew sets down his gospel, it’s against a backdrop of division within the Jewish faith – with those who are followers of Jesus finding themselves less welcome, and eventually being expelled from the synagogues altogether by those who rejected Jesus and his teaching.

Is this what Matthew is reflecting when he describes the mistreatment of the King’s slaves? Are we meant to recognise them as the Jewish Christians – offering the invitation to Christ’s banquet and being persecuted for their troubles?

And then the second “extra” in Matthew’s account seems even harsher – and that’s the poor man without the robe.
It’s really not clear what’s going on here and it’s hard not to feel sorry for this man: he had no idea that he would going to a wedding feast – but has responded to the invitation and turned up anyway. So it feels rather unfair to criticise him, then, for not wearing the correct robe.

The king’s initial civility – “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” – can’t disguise the harshness of his punishment he then suffers: “Bind him .. and throw him into the outer darkness.”
So what is that all about? – why couldn’t Matthew just have left things uncomplicated like Luke!?

Presumably the key must lie in the man’s response to the King – or rather his lack of response. It’s almost as if the man doesn’t realise who is speaking to him – that he hasn’t actually bothered to find out whose feast this is, or the reason for it – the marriage of his future king.

He’s simply accepted the offer of free food – without entering into the spirit of the occasion – a gate-crasher rather than a guest. He’s really not that interested in the king’s feelings – or in honouring his son – and it’s for this discourtesy – it seems – that he faces the king’s wrath..
So, with this added twist to the tale, is Matthew perhaps sharpening the divisions within Judaism – emphasising that those who ignore Jesus (the son) will themselves be rejected by his father?

Again, to those early Christians – that would come across more as a message of reassurance – that they WERE on the right track, they were “God’s chosen ones” even if they were facing hostility for their beliefs.

To us that message is rather less immediate and possibly less reassuring – we’re rightly wary of anything that seems to cause even more divisions and religious tension.

And, unusually for me, I found far more solace in the Epistle this week – that far more approachable passage from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians – written before the gospels, and before the destruction of the Temple.

Paul is also focused on Jesus, the Son of God – but his vision here is far more encouraging and far more inclusive: “Stand firm in the Lord, Rejoice in the Lord. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

For Paul, then, Christ is clearly present among his people – among us – not as a scolding, threatening presence but as the way to the Father and as the source of our salvation.

“Do not worry….,
but let your requests be made known to God,
and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
In Paul’s experience, then, Christ is not the spoilt son of the king – sulking because no-one wanted to come to his party. Nor is he here among us to judge our motives – whether we are here for the right reasons, whether we are showing him due respect?

Christ, he suggests, comes among us – as both mediator and friend – taking our deepest concerns straight into the heart of God – protecting us both from ourselves and our own selfish desires and also from those who would wish us harm.

We don’t have to go out and buy an expensive gown before we can come to his feast – we just have to ask, and we will be provided for.

We don’t have to be perfect saints to gather round his table – we just have to come and we will be accepted.

The later wedding guests were invited, not just to eat up all the food, but to rejoice in the good fortune of the king’s son.

Christ calls us to his feast – not just to take bread and wine – but to find and receive true life and true peace.