Address given on 11th November 2018 – the Centenary of the Armistice
I’ve been surprised, over the past few weeks, at the number of messages that have “pinged” onto my phone and across my computer screen – all headed up with just three, short, words.
Sadly, those three words have NOT been “I love you” – which might have been rather nice! What I’ve been seeing are the familiar, and starker, ones which appear at the bottom of the children’s banner: “Lest we forget”.
Of course it isn’t surprising that that motto is popping up around us at this time of year – it would be strange if it didn’t. What surprised were is the images that have appeared with it.
More often than not, it seems, those images are of veterans – of soldiers who are alive – who fought in wars and survived.
And there is certainly nothing wrong with that – it’s just that, when I was at Primary School, and we learned about the poppy and what it stood for, we were taught very clearly that they were to remember the people who had died in the world wars.
And that was it – that’s what poppies are for – that’s who we mustn’t ever forget.
That was, of course, before the Falklands war and more recent conflicts involving British Forces and which have changed our perception even of what it means to remember the fallen.
But still I have that strong sense, instilled in me as a child, that Remembrance is about the dead.
Now, after seeing “lest we forget” in all those messages with veterans in them, I realise I might need to think again.
We shouldn’t forget those who fought in and survived any conflict. Even if they were physically unharmed – they still faced the same traumas and the horror of war, and many faced the very real possibility of death, day by day.
And shouldn’t we also remember those who serve in our armed forces today?
They live with the possibility that they may yet face the grim reality of war: even if the technology and means of fighting have changed somewhat, human fear and bravery have not.
Today I want to push our Remembrance even further.
The more observant among you may have noticed that our first reading was given by a 13 year old boy wearing medals from the First World War – so, clearly not his!
Those medals belonged to Henry’s Great-Great-Uncle, Captain Gilbert Norris, of the 13th Battalion King’s Regiment Rifle Corps – who was killed in action just months before the armistice in March 1918, at the age of 31.
Perhaps, then, we also ought to remember that – even a century after the Great War – there are still families who are affected by it, and by every conflict since. Those families are incomplete – not only because of the lives that were lost, but also the lives which might have been – those who may have been born if circumstances had been different.
The make-up those families,
the make-up of their communities,
the make-up of our society is different than it would have been without war – different than it should have been.
And so I think that it is right to remember – the fallen, and their comrades and successors, and also their loved ones and neighbours – lest we forget the full cost of war.
The author of Ecclesiastes – from which that first reading was taken – speaks of “a time for war, and a time for peace”.
And within that one phrase, is contained the twin-reality – that war IS sometimes necessary if we are going to prevent an even greater evil from succeeding and overpowering us, even if we recognise that war is never “a good thing” – that there are never really any winners.
And, secondly, that peace is to be prized – to be protected and not simply taken for granted – that peace demands just as much effort and self-sacrifice as war.
Today, thank God, our young people are not being slaughtered on the battle fields of France – but we do hear far too many reports of random acts of violence on our streets.
Today our old people no longer live in fear of the air raid siren – but many do live in fear and in isolation.
Today there is no single aggressor seeking to destroy our nation, but there are worrying signs of extreme nationalism and other forms of extremism in many nations.
Is this the “land fit for heroes” which was promised after the Great War?
Is the world of today a fitting legacy to all those who fought and died in two world wars?
Unless and until we can answer “yes” to both of those questions, then we must keep on remembering and working to establish the peace for which so many have fought and died.
To borrow the language of Ecclesiastes:
Now is a time to heal divisions;
now is a time to build up society;
now is a time to speak up for what is right.
Peace doesn’t just happen by accident;
communities and nations don’t flourish by accident.
If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past,
then young and old must work together
to grasp the reality of the world we live in today – undistorted by either the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia or the carefully filtered news-feeds of social media;
and young and old must work together to shape a more just and stable society – both here and elsewhere:
lest we forget the experiences of our ancestors and sacrifice our future on the altar of human selfishness and pride.
Truth is complex;
human society is complex;
peace is complex;
but all three are worth fighting for – one way or another.