14.11.09, Remembrance – A, Easton, Bramdean, 8am, 10.45am, John 15.09-17, The Old Man and the Young (see below)
This year we are commemorating the start of the First World War. During the war, where artillery barrages had reduced the earth to bare soil poppies still managed to grow. In the midst of death new life grew. So the poppy soon came to symbolise the sacrifice of service men who died in armed conflict and their hope of new life in the resurrection. Today we all wear our poppies to show we are remembering them.
This year marks another turning point for our Armed Forces. We have now completed our involvement in what is for the British our 3rd or possibly 4th Afghan War. I wonder what symbol comes to your mind for this war. For me it is again the poppy but in a very different way (hold up syringe). There is a serious shortage of opium and its derivatives heroin and morphine in the Itchen/Upper Itchen Valley but this syringe represents them. One of the hoped for outcomes of this latest Afghan war was to stop poppy growing in Afghanistan and the subsequent flow of heroin into the West. Of course the opium poppy also gives sleep which is often a euphemism for death so there are strong symbolic links between the two.
There is another factor that links these two wars that we remember today. That factor is whether or not the sacrifice of so many men and now some women was worth it. In World War 1 888,476 British men died in combat. In the latest Afghan war 450 British men and 3 British women died in combat. Were their deaths worthwhile?
Earlier you heard a poem by Wilfred Owen (see below) one of the great War poets. Owen was no pacifist or conscientious objector. He fought through much of the war, was awarded an MC and died exactly one week before the Armistice. Yet, as we heard in that poem, at the same time he clearly questioned the rightness of that war. Modern day commentators give very opposing views as to whether or not the UK should have been involved in that war. As one of the generation that grew up with the show and film “O what a lovely war” I am inclined to think not although I am less certain about that than I was.
Whether this latest Afghan war was worth it in terms of lives lost it is too early to judge. Clearly there has been no outright victory but many would be hard pressed to describe what victory would have looked like. My big concern from the start was our apparent inability to learn from our past. The Afghans have drove us out twice in the 19th century. This time they did not drive us out but our young men and women have paid a very high price.
I wonder who all those fighting those two wars died for. Was it for the men and women back home so that the world would be a safer place? Well that’s what the politicians who sent them to war will tell us. From what I know of soldiers, and I do know quite a bit although I never served myself, I would say they did not die for us civilians. The reality is that they died for their mates, the men and women they were fighting with. They died out on patrol or going over the top as part of a unit. If anyone failed then there was real risk that everyone would fail. So when they were killed they were laying down their lives for their friends. They were loving their friends to the end.
In our gospel reading Jesus tells us to love one another and that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. When Jesus said that it was during the last supper. He knew that that following day he would be doing precisely that – laying down his life for his friends – all of us.
Sadly that phrase has been used over the centuries to create moral pressure on others to serve their country by fighting its wars. When we look on the context of those words, it is clear that that is a total twisting of Jesus’ meaning. It is worth looking closely at these words of Jesus. The main message in this passage is not about dying but about being chosen and called. There are three things to which we are chosen or called.
The first is to have a deeply personal relationship with God in Jesus. We are no longer servants who just do what God tells us to do never questioning or approaching God. Instead we are God’s friends who, through Jesus’ teaching, know God’s loving purposes for us. As God’s friends we are close to him and can call on him at any time. The second is our response to being God’s friend. We are called to go out and live out Christianity. We certainly come together to worship and gain strength from that and each other’s company. However, we cannot stay in a holy huddle. We have to go out into the world and preach, not through words, but through how we live. The third is that as part of God’s family we can pray to God as we would talk to a loving parent. If we pray through faith for that which Jesus would approve of and which is for the good of many not ourselves, then we will be heard. All such prayer is rooted in the Lord’s Prayer with its opening words “Our Father, …” affirming our personal relationship with God.
A personal relationship with God, living that relationship in the world and praying are the key points in these words of Jesus. They are all rooted in love and without love they are impossible. The passage starts with Jesus telling us to abide in his love and finishes with the words “love one another”.
Hopefully none of us will face circumstances where to love another means physically dying for the other. For us, to love one another means one small act of kindness or thoughtfulness at a time. Actually at times that will mean dying. Not a bodily death but a death of selfishness in ourselves when the act of kindness is something we would not naturally choose to do. The service men and women did not die for a big cause, they died for each other. If we obey Jesus and love one another unselfishly little act by little act then we will have remembered our dead with true meaning not just today but throughout the year.
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And buildèd parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.