Summary: A sermon for Remembrance Sunday - the UK’s version of Veteran’s Day, always on the second Sunday in November.
It’s very daunting for me to stand in a pulpit on this day of all days. The closest I’ve come to living through a war is seeing it on the television, and the closest I’ve come to active service was the school cadet force. Yet, today is still desperately important. This year we remember especially sixty years since the end of World War Two, thirty years since the end of the Vietnam war, and, of course, two and a half years of on-going bloodshed in Iraq.
Many of us were not around sixty and more years ago, as others of you were. For many in our Junior Church, the first Gulf War of 1991 is something that they read about in history books, and yet there are still a handful of veterans of the First World War still alive. Remembrance, if it is anything, must be comprehensive. Our remembrance is not just of the two world wars, or of the countless other conflicts that have gone on around the world. Our remembrance goes beyond that, as we also remember emergency services (fire brigades, police, ambulance staff), support services, such as the many chaplains to forces, and not least the millions of civilians who died as a result of war and terrorism. We remember the London Underground and Northern Ireland, as well as Iraq; as we remember Coventry, and it’s forty plus year old cathedral, so too we remember Dresden and it’s re-built Cathedral finished only a few weeks ago. Remembrance is comprehensive.
It has been said that people are the sums of their memories. Today is, in part, the memories that we bring with us. Some of you bring memories of active service. Some of you bring memories of those whom you have loved and lost. Some of you bring memories of civilian life during wartime. Some of you bring a long commitment to peace and working for peace. Each of us brings different memories and thoughts to our act of Remembrance, which helps to make it more comprehensive.
I’d like to share one short memory with you. On February 9th this year, there was a special service in Regent Square United Reformed Church, which is adjacent to our church headquarters in London. Sixty years previously, in February 1945, one of the last V2 rockets of the war - the doodlebugs - destroyed both the original Regent Square Church and the central offices of the then Presbyterian Church of England. The then General Secretary and eight other members of staff, died at their desks. It was such a sad blow for such a small denomination.
Some of you lived through the Blitz. Some of you served in the forces. Some you remember when no-where on mainland Britain was safe from IRA bombs: Guildford Pubs, Harrods, the changing of the guard, the Old Bailey, the House of Commons, Lord Mountbatten’s fishing boat. We all know the closeness of the current terrorist bombs. Whatever your memories of war and conflict we bring them here with us. Today we cannot hide from what we might choose to forget at other times. Today we all bring very different and diverse memories. With those memories, we also bring different and complex emotions.
It is easy to romanticise memories of war, especially for those of us who never lived through it. Many films turn to humour what was devastating. Dad’s Army makes everything look funny and almost something that we would have wanted to be a part of. The nostalgia industry produces cookery books based on the ration. The blitz can make us think of camaraderie and singing songs deep in shelters on tube station platforms. Dame Vera Lynne still sings. We can begin to think people might have enjoyed it. Of course, it wasn’t like that. The horrors of the Blitz led to the destruction of cathedrals, like Coventry and Dresden, and to the destruction of countless ordinary people’s homes. For those of us who never lived through the blitz, it’s impossible to imagine what it was like to emerge from air raid shelters and find whole streets destroyed.
Sadly, many people misunderstand what today is about. We are not here to glorify war or the supremacy of this or any other country. We are not here to defend the cruelty and the agony of warfare and terrorism. We are not here to justify the armed forces or the establishment. We are not here to label deaths as a sacrifice, for sacrifice suggests a degree of choice that was not present for many serving in the forces.
We are here to remember all those people, of whatever country, who have died in the pursuit of freedom and good. We are here to give thanks to God for their lives given for the freedom of many countries around the world. We are here to acknowledge publicly and before God that countless people have given their lives for us, for our freedom and for others and their freedom. We are here to pray for all who suffer and have suffered as a result of war. Particularly those of us who, like me, are too young to remember war, need to remember that these men – and they were men – gave their today for our tomorrow.