We will remember….

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.

A man’s world?

Sermon preached 21 October 2018

Amongst the burning issues of the day, it was reported this week that, after 60 years, Kleenex is changing the name of their “Man-size tissues” to avoid the charge of sexism. How many women will want to be associated with the new term “extra, extra-large”, I’m not sure, however.

It’s funny how certain names or descriptions do rankle with some people, however. I can remember hearing a different objection to the term “man-size” when I was at school. “Surely”, someone said, “a “man-size” tissue should be the same size as a man!”

Words are funny things – and once you’ve got a certain image or interpretation stuck in your mind – it stays lodges there – for good or ill!

Kleenex is only one of a number of advertisers who’ve opted to “mind their language” in this way: most of us will remember the launch of the Yorkie chocolate bar – a chunkier alternative to the Dairy Milk bar than that ruled supreme until then. Yorkie came with the strap-line“not for girls”.
That strap-line disappeared a long time ago – but I wonder, in retrospect, if it wasn’t actually very clever bit of reverse psychology: telling chocolate-loving women that it wasn’t for them – they couldn’t have it – probably resulted in increased sales as many went out and bought the bar out of sheer spite!

Another related piece of earth-shattering news this week was that strongman actor Daniel Craig – who plays 007, James Bond – had been seen abut town wearing a papoose – a soft pouch – in which he carried his baby daughter. This was deemed inappropriate by commentator Piers Morgan – but quite who asked his opinion was less clear! And soon there was a back-lash from young fathers posting online images of themselves carrying their children and comments criticising Morgan’s own attitude to male roles and role models.

The question of what is and is not appropriate for men or women is, of course, one that has vexed the Church at various stages in its development.

In the 1980s and 90s, when Yorkie bars were still advertised by chunky male truck drivers with the strap-line not for girls, some in the church felt similarly excluded by the phrase “equal but different” – which was bandied around with some frequency by those arguing against the ordination of women as priests.

On the one hand it was pretty innocuous – reflecting the statement in Genesis that God created all humankind – male and female – in God’s own image.

The problem was that, like most sentences with the word “but” in the middle of it, it’s the second half that really mattered – “different”. And so the implication was that, while it was rather nice that so many women were feeling called by God to serve the church – there are certain things that just “aren’t for girls”.

Quite rightly the question has continued to be asked as to who defines such roles – are there differences implanted by God – or just role-descriptions defined by a man-made institution?
25 years on, I wonder how we react to the statement that women and men are “equal but different”.
Behind much of the discussion and rebranding exercises of recent decades has been an issue of power – or the perception of power.

The question of whether men and women have equal access to certain professions, whether they can ever achieve the same levels of influence or receive the same reward for their labours has been picked over in the public arena – not least because TV and Radio presenters were among those professions where the “equal” part of the equation was seen to be somewhat lacking!

And the presumption that certain roles are only for men or only for women has been increasingly challenged of late – when it appears that one group is actually trying to keep hold of their own power and influence at the expense of the other. “Oh, it’s not really suitable for you, Dear” really meaning “I want to keep this job for myself, thanks.”
The issue of power is there, I think, in today’s readings: the writer of the letter to the Hebrews recognises some mortals as being called out by God to exercise a specific role – ultimately leading to Christ’s extra- extra-special status.
And Mark’s Gospel illustrates the tension between the disciples: James and John clearly recognise Jesus’ own importance and want to be there alongside him in glory. The others react angrily, perhaps seeing in this a “power-grab” – these two seeking to make themselves important, basking in the reflected glory of the leader.

In both cases, the ground-rules are rewritten, however: In Hebrews, Jesus the high priest “learns obedience”.
In the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that to follow his example means a life of service and sacrifice, not glory and power. Whether or not James and John, or the other grumbling 10 really understood that point, is not clear.

Switch back to our own times, and increasing calls for strong leadership – in both Church and political life – and we have cause to wary: the “strong man” is definitely on the rise just now – Putin and Trump being only the 2 noisiest examples. And there are plenty who would cling to their coat-tails, basking in perceived glory rather than questioning their leadership, or speaking up for those who become increasingly power-less.

Again, the leadership exemplified by Christ the High priest – Christ the anointed one – is rather different.

Christ “the source of eternal salvation for those who obey him” will always be there, bridging the gap between God and humanity – ensuring that all have access to the true source of power and life, God’s own self.

The strength of any community, any society, any Christian denomination – depends not on the robustness of its leaders, but on the ability of all its members to work together for the greater good.

Whatever power structures are in operation – every organisation depends almost entirely on the army of people who quietly get on with keeping things running – some up front, some behind the scenes. And, if anything, that’s even more true for the Church than any other.

I really don’t think most people in England could care less who is the Archbishop of Canterbury, or whether he or she is a “strong leader” – but they DO notice when local congregations take an interest in their community and when those congregations are seen to be truly open and inclusive communities of love.
Perhaps the message that we ought to proclaim today, then, is not that men and women are “equal but different” but that all of us – irrespective of gender – are “different but equal”.

We are each unique – with difference far more complex than just male or female – each seeking to respond to God’s individual call to us.
We are all equal in God’s service –
all equally loved by God.

The power to save ourselves,
the power to save humanity from its own weaknesses,
is not man-sized at all, but God-sized!