13 Nov 22, Remembrance Sunday
It’s striking how much comedy and good television is focused around warfare. It’s surprising that war, such a terrible thing, is not seen as off-bounds for attempts to entertain and to make people giggle. We might think of two series set in World War II (Dad’s Army and ‘Allo, ‘Allo); M.A.S.H. set during the Korean War in the 1950s or even the Blackadder series in World War I. Indeed, arguably the birth of modern Western comedy was Charlie Chaplain, whose career was propelled on to the international stage during World War I. In Chaplain’s instance it was because people needed entertaining despite, no, because of the War. In the earlier examples, it was that changes in society were accelerated because of the War: the way people behaved seemed farcical because it harkened back to a pre-War era or seemed ludicrous in the context of so much potential danger. It’s with similar mindset I think that we are fascinated by instances like the infamous ceasing of hostilities on Christmas Day during World War I, where it is said some soldiers played football with each other in the trenches.
These things remind us of some of the key themes around warfare that I just want to explore today as we celebrate Remembrance Sunday, commemorating all those who have died in defence of others and praying for their souls that they may know the peace Christ came to bring.
First, human beings are capable of doing great things, some wonderfully kind, others horrendous. This is because we are made in the image of God, capable of rational and deliberate choice. We have strength too, physical and mental, to mock emotionally and to hurt physically, as well as to build up and survive ordeals in the service of others. C S Lewis reminds us in his work, Mere Christianity, that the reason we human beings are capable of such amazing acts of love and kindness is the same that we are also capable of such spite and deceit. In that first reading from the prophet Malachi, we are reminded that we await the coming of the Lord and for that time when good will be finally separated from evil, the wheat from the chaff. The burning furnace will consume all that is not good and leave only that which is refined, until then we have to cope with kindness and selfishness alike.
We will be aware in our words, thoughts and actions and in those of others, that things are not always simply good or simply bad. They could be misconstrued or sometimes we’re kind only with an ulterior motive of wanting something in return and sometimes we have the bets ion intentions but just get it wrong. The temptation with War is to say that all those on the other side are pure evil - be they Russians as in the war in Ukraine today - or the Germans as in the World Wars of the previous centuries. And if we know that this is not true in wars we also should remember that people who are thoughtless at work, people who cut us up in the car, those with whom we disagree politically these are also at root good people, made in the image of God.
Part of the realisation that even those who do wicked things are capable of good comes when we accept that most people, if not all people, most of the time think they are doing the right thing: very rarely do people set out and do something just because they think it is wrong. Even those whom we might think beyond the pale are I believe at root thinking they are doing what is right or what they think they have no alternative but to do.
Given this we might ask ourselves why in our second reading from St Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians he is confronted by a group of people who are sitting around doing nothing. We might think also of when Mary and Martha are welcoming the Lord in to their home: Mary is sitting and listening and Martha is worrying and fretting, getting on with things (St Luke 10:38-42). In that instance our Lord says Mary has chosen the better part, ie. listening to Him. In our second reading today, St Paul’s message seems to be focused rather on the indolent getting up and doing something, as we heard, “We gave you a rule when we were with you: do not let anyone have any food if he refuses to do any work.” It’s a reading read once every four weeks on Mondays at Morning Prayer, indeed it will be read tomorrow at 9am at St Mary’s. It is assumed that some of the Thessalonians had taken Paul’s exhortation to be on their guard for the day of the Lord so literally that they just weren’t doing anything other than waiting. The problem with this approach to life, of course, no matter its good intentions, is that we become dependent on others to be doing work so we can exist. It defeats the object of the exercise really, if our pious waiting can only be done at the expense of others. But again, it is wise to assume that it is with the best of intentions that these folk in Thessalonica were not doing much.
So that’s the first theme I think war should teach us: the distinction between good people and bad people is never quite so clear cut as might be said.
Another observation we might make about war is how it is very good at tearing down monoliths, be they social expectations or political systems. The Austro-Hungarian Empire that was a significant force before World War I no longer existed by the end of 1918. The British Empire was really already on its last legs by the end of World War II and could not survive the devastation wrought on the Allies. These things will come and go, as Jesus says of the Temple in today’s Gospel: “All these things you are staring at now - the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.”
Jesus is speaking here, not of a local library or Herod’s palace or a local supermarket, but of the Temple, the Temple in Jerusalem. This had been rebuilt following its destruction and it had taken decades to achieve this. On another occasion, remember, Jesus had said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up,” with the response coming from the Jews, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” (St John 2:20). It had taken a long time to build. But remember too that this Temple which Jesus was saying would be destroyed one day was indeed destroyed some forty years after his own death in the year 70. It was ransacked by a Roman army sent because there had been a revolt by the Jews when a Roman official had required the payment of Temple tax to be redirected to Rome. The Temple was burned down and that is largely how it is seen today in Jerusalem, even most of the ruins have gone, and much focus is placed on the Western or Wailing Wall of these ruins.
So, we must’t put our trust in the things we make: that leads to idolatry, of course, where the worship which should be offered to God alone is offered to something we have created ourselves. While it is marvellous through our creativity that we share in God’s creating power and recognise the beauty of the world He has made, in reality we know these things are “here today and gone tomorrow.” We can even end up creating our own religion which is how we think people can approach God, we might call it Christianity but there is a danger that it is simply a set of assumptions and good intentions which we have forged to suit ourselves. The word of the Lord endures for ever but we can end up thinking our own priorities and habits can be put on a par with them. Thus is Christ betrayed not only with a kiss, as by Judas, but with a smile as by us because we think we are serving God amply well with the paucity of that which we offer.
So, war reminds us of the passing nature of what we make, and we might ask what needs tearing down in our own life, especially as we approach Advent in two weeks’ time. What needs to go before we celebrate the birth of the Lord?
The third and final observation of what war teaches us is the importance of community life. We see this in the noble pageantry associated with today’s memorialising with military personnel marching smartly to majestic tunes. The nobility of the individual is here expressed when coordinated with others. We might also think how war so often brings out expressions of kindness we would normally not think possible, be it refugees from Ukraine welcomed in to this country or the children from cities such as London evacuated and put up in homes during the 1939-1945 War. People pull together.
In contrast, so often the problems of the modern era are given individualistic solutions where the problems are caused really by the absence of community. So, we see people lonely and suggest they see a counsellor. We see someone hungry and suggest they go to a food bank. Now, don’t get me wrong, counsellors and food banks do fantastic jobs, but they strike me only as sticking plasters, not really preventing the problems from happening the first place. What would stop being lonely and enable the hungry to be fed would be flourishing communities which take serious hospitality and conversation. For this to happen we ought not just to suck dry community life when we need it or when it is convenient but enable it flourish that all might partake of the abundant living Christ came to give us.
So, as we give thanks for those who died that others might be free, let us ponder three lessons from war: the importance of community life, that so much of our assumptions and priorities come and go like puffs of wind and that human beings can’t be divided up in to good and evil. Amen.