Sunday November 11, 2018
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Dr. Paul Beresford-Hill
Homily – Remembrance Sunday
And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is a day to honor Veterans, those who rose, and who continue to rise, in defense of our values, our way of life and, as our constitution tells us ‘those self-evident truths’, such as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Are these things not our birthright, and do we not owe a perpetual debt of gratitude to those who face danger, even death, to preserve this essence of our nationhood? Today is also Remembrance Sunday, one hundred years since peace was signed to end the ‘war to end wars’. Across the Americas, Europe and the Commonwealth today, in countless villages, towns and cities, people have gathered to recall the horrors of August 1914, the inhuman trenches, mustard gas dissolving soldier’s lungs before they could utter a last prayer, a last cry to someone they loved; the endless bombardment of farmland and homes and the pointless carnage, so many dead…. the consequence of inept leadership and twisted ambition.
It was not the war to end wars, it was the war to end an era, the convulsive end of centuries of exploitation of the common man and the striking down of potentates and empires. As WB Yeats wrote of a parallel conflict, ‘and all is changed…changed utterly.’ When America sought her independence she had a roadmap and a set of ideals and principles to fight for. Europe had no such grand design in 1914 and the peace that was signed one hundred years ago today merely postponed yet again the blood-letting of political uncertainties and broken promises. It was an unfinished requiem that did not herald resurrection until a new Europe was born from the ashes of 1945.
If you have read All Quiet on the Western Front or if you have seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, you may understand how easy it is to loose faith when confronted by man’s inhumanity to man. After all, we are taught that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. So when you survey the poppy fields of Flanders or walk through the silence of the killing fields of Cambodia you may well echo the words of Jesus on the cross – ‘Eli Eli lama Sabachthani’, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Or are we humans the problem with our God given free will, frail humanity let loose with a nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ struggling for survival as best we can? The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a controversial article in the New Yorker in 1961. It’s title was ‘The Banality of Evil’, and it centered on her observations of the trial of the Nazi officer, Adolph Eichmann, a man responsible for the transportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews and others to various concentration camps as part of Hitler’s Final Solution. What struck Arendt, and what has struck many others who have been confronted by fellow humans who have done terrible things, was the ordinariness of the perpetrator and his ability to disengage from the reality of his behavior to the point that his cognitive amorality made it almost impossible to determine right from wrong. Arendt’s observation reminds us of the protagonist in Albert Camus’s novel ‘The Stranger’ who randomly and casually kills a man but thereafter feels no remorse. War can make people be like that…didn’t Stalin remark that ‘One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic?’ Have we become so immune to compassion that the clarity between right and wrong has become dimmed? Is it God, or is it us who have forsaken each other?
Today’s second reading, from the Sermon on the Mount, helps us to clarify the issue of morality by giving strong and clear guidance on how to live our lives. Isaiah reminds us forcefully that it is not our lot to surrender to despair. And the Jewish people had plenty of opportunity to taste the bitterness of abandonment, destruction, captivity. They saw their most sacred places defiled and their faith derided by the great powers of the ancient world – Babylon, Assyria and Persia. But they never gave up, never surrendered to their darkest moments of despair. Hope and faith in the goodness of God and his mercy saw them through. Jesus takes us one step further towards our unity with the Father. While Isaiah gives us the vision of the City of God and tells us that the God of Jacob will ‘teach us his ways’ and that we will ultimately ‘walk in his paths’, the Beatitudes is the roadmap, the instruction manual if you like. It is the moral compass that will guide us to salvation. It echoes the principles of the godly life, just as our Founding Fathers echoed God’s promise that ‘all people are created equal’ before Him.
God knows how imperfect our world is, and how imperfect are we who inhabit it. Evil often passes us by and we don’t notice it, not because we don’t care or don’t want to get involved, but simply because it can appear, as Hannah Arendt suggested, so banal when we encounter it. Confronting it, however, is no easy task and is fraught with both problems and consequences. How many times do we hear stories of Veterans, and those who have suffered through conflict, who block out events and emotions, painful and agonizing as they are, invoking a protective amnesia yet leading, as Thoreau said, ‘lives of quiet desperation’.
My grandad, as a young man from North Dublin, enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in 1908. He served in India before being brought back to Ireland and, in 1914 he was sent, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, to the Western Front, a deployment that earned him and his fellow soldiers the nickname ‘Old Contemptibles’. He survived the trenches only to be wounded during a skirmish outside the city of Mons in Belgium and he ended the war toiling in the salt miles. He was the quintessentially Irish ‘Quiet Man’ and, even in his 80’s exuded the strength and stability that had marked his early life. I remember going into his room one evening and seeing him sitting at the table, a small ornate box in front of him. In his hands he held a faded and tattered letter and he was quietly sobbing. I had never seen him weep before. I asked him what he was doing and slowly, almost mechanically he began to recall his younger brother, who was with him in the trenches. He told of how one morning, agitated and sleep deprived, the shells exploding around them and the air alive with anguished cries, his brother climbed over the trench barrier and, in a fit of madness, ran towards the enemy. He was shot and they could not retrieve the body till nightfall. In his pocket was a letter to his mother, the same letter my grandad was holding. He would not let me read it, its secret was too precious, to deeply personal to share with anyone. All he would say was ‘God help him…God help him….I tried but I couldn’t.’ His sorrow was greater than anything I had experienced and, young as I was, I realized at that moment the power and the permanence of love and how deeply it keeps its hold in our hearts. My grandad had never before spoken of his brother, and I never heard of him refer to him again.
No matter where we are from, we all love our country, not always because of its leaders or politicians, but primarily because of the people around us, those who gave us life and those whose life comes from us. When we raise our banners and flags we do so as a sign of respect for the ideals and values these symbols represent and for the sacrifices, the challenges and the pain endured by so many who served and by those who quietly stood and waited. Their suffering is in vain if we do not affirm our commitment to a peaceful world and turn swords into ploughshares. Let us take the Beatitudes of Jesus into our hearts and let its lessons rule our daily lives. And let us remember the millions of women and men who went before us and who paid the ultimate price, facing down both the banality and the seductive power of evil, and sustaining the torch of truth and love for us, for our children and our children’s children.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the Crosses row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
May they Rest in Peace
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.