What’s in a name?

Address given at (virtual) Remembrance Sunday service 8/11/20

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 44; Romans 8: 18-27

If there were a prize for the most over-used phrase of 2020, two very strong contenders would be “new normal” and “unprecedented times” – both of which have become pet hates of mine!
“New normal” would seem to suggest that we’ve all somehow changed now, and arrived at a settled state of being – whereas in reality things seem to change and keep changing with alarming speed.
And as for “unprecedented times”, that would seem to suggest that there’s never been anything as bad as this before – but I suspect that many of our ancestors would beg to differ.
We ourselves may never have known anything as bad as this, but that doesn’t mean that similar things – and worse things – haven’t happened before.
After all, what is Remembrance Sunday for – if not to call to mind the sufferings of those who lived through the great conflicts of the past AND the strength of the human spirit to endure and overcome those things?

And perhaps our experiences of 2020 bring us closer to understanding that war-time experience which most of us haven’t lived through: the curbing of certain freedoms; separation from our loved ones; the starker reality of death; and the anxiety and uncertainty that flows from all those things.
Those sensations, it seems to me, reflect both past and present realities.
And now, as in the adversities of war, we see both the best and worst aspects of humanity displayed, in the flowering of community-spirit and human compassion, but also in thoughtless or deliberate selfishness.
In World War 2, and the years which followed – many things were subject to rationing, as certain foods and materials were in short supply.
In 2020 we’ve also experienced those shortages – but largely due to panic-buying – individuals taking far more than they need, without any concern for other people.
However “new” our present “normal” may be, human nature is still as complex, and fallible as it ever was.
Of course 2020 has not just been about Covid 19.
It’s been argued this week that the pandemic has provided the perfect smoke screen, behind which terrorist organisations have begun to regroup.
And there’ve been fresh acts of violence in France, Afghanistan and Austria – resulting from a “war of ideas”: the determination of some to impose their own ideology on others, or to destroy those who stand in the way.

In the build up to the American Presidential elections, we’ve witnessed a particularly fierce tribalism – a trait from which our own domestic politics is not immune.
Such tribalism is perhaps inevitable in a time of war – when a defined enemy has to be defeated; and the people emboldened for the long haul. But in a time of peace, manipulating those same tribal instincts is a dangerous game – and in the time of a pandemic, possible a fatal one.

Faced with all those challenges, and more, we may either despair, or we can recognise evil for what it is and refuse to give in to it – to strive for better and determine to change what we can.

The Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, said: “I have learned tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
The suggestion then that, in recognising what is wrong, we can in fact chose to do what is right, with greater clarity and resolve.
In rejecting the intolerance of the religious fanatic; the irresponsible egotism of the populist politician; the selfishness of the panic-bulk-buyer; we may in fact discover what human nature is meant to look like – what we can become when we truly love our neighbours as ourselves.

St Paul speaks of hope – not so much in the things that we see around us, but in the things we do not yet see – not, we might say, in any “new normal”, but in what is constantly being revealed to us about the way ahead.
We can already glimpse that future hope, in the words and actions of the people around us.
Yes, there are those whose sole concern seems to be to “make a name” for themselves – to win power, influence and instant recognition – irrespective of any guiding principle, or concern for the common good.
And yet there are countless others working tirelessly – to do whatever is necessary to keep things going – to get us through this pandemic – to help us reach the “promised land” of a world where new, safe vaccines can free us from our present anxieties.
Like the soldiers of the World Wars, and other battles, we will never know who all those people are – and yet, we can still recognise the value of what they do – of the personal sacrifices that they have made for good of us all. “Their glory will never be blotted out”, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus expressed it.

And from the past, we can learn the lessons of war – that the suffering and hardship of 2020 is neither “normal” nor “unprecedented” – and that, while we are living through them, those things seem all too real and never-ending – in truth life will not always be like this – human societies and organisations can be rebuilt.

Those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ draw hope from his example – of overcoming the worst atrocities of human violence and degradation – and revealing a new life beyond that suffering.
And all of us may draw hope from the power of the human spirit – formed in God’s likeness – that has enabled soldiers to find comradeship in the heat of battle; and sworn enemies to find reconciliation when fighting was done.
All of us may draw hope from the power of nature – which has healed the man-made scars of the battle field.

This year as every other, let us remember all those who have faced the realities of war – and so put into perspective the difficulties we face today (however painful those experiences may be) – and so draw hope for a brighter tomorrow.