Remembrance Day Service 2017
As part of our Remembrance Sunday service this year, we reflected on how the poppies that many of us saw at the Senedd were part of an original installation of 888 246 individual poppies, each one unique and created to represent each British of Commonwealth life lost in the First World War. We first focused on the story of one such life lost – that of Noel Chavasse.
Noel Chavasse had a short but incredible life. The son of a Bishop, he was an Olympian, representing Great Britain in 1908 Games as a sprinter, and a student at Oxford University where he went to become a surgeon so he might help people. In 1914 he got engaged but very soon after, he was sent as a surgeon-lieutenant on the Western front. Here, he showed great care for those around him, campaigning for a whole range of things from better delousing equipment for his men to better hospital care for those suffering from mental ill health – which was very forward thinking for his day.
In June 1915, his regiment took part in the Battle of Hooge, in Belgium. Although it was the job of medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers to search for the wounded at night, Noel would regularly head into no-man’s land for wounded soldiers, an act of courage and compassion that he repeated throughout the war until, 100 years ago, on the 5th August 1917, a shell entered his aid post and everyone, including Noel, was killed.
In his time in the army, Noel never fired a shot, never harmed another person but was awarded Two Victoria Crosses for his work putting the care of others before his own safety.
Noel, of course, is just one of the thousands of lives lost too soon, just one of many stories which ended too abruptly, which we might reflect on today. For every Noel there are a thousand other wounded soldiers, grieving fiancées, ostracized conscientious objectors and orphaned children whose stories have been ended too quickly or forever changed by the horrors of war. Today, we remember this tragedy. Today we remember the lives that are lost, the stories which are forgotten on Earth. Yet today we also remember that no life is lost, no name is forgotten to the God who declares that spears will be beaten into pruning hooks, that the day is coming when wars will end, tears will be wiped away, and all of creation will be at peace.
Remembrance Day Prayer, adapted from Rev Dr Marjory Maclean,
Minister of Abernyte with Inchture Parish Church, Church of Scotland
In a sea of Flanders mud and a scream of ordnance there is no praise, no worship, no adoration…
… until a determined poppy wriggles through the ooze and splashes primary colour across the grey-brown nightmare…
… until a skylark finds the safe air above the shell-arc and insists on squeezing her song into the fragments of silence.
In the weary dry beige eternity of the Afghan desert there is no praise, no worship, no adoration…
… until a child with a green kite runs across the horizon…
… until the sun catches the veined blueness of a jewel lying on a market stall.
We are in the place of peace and prosperity, where we can bring praise that is due from all the Earth.
We are in the place of recollection and repentance, where we can mourn the decisions that tear apart the nations and destroy peoples God has made and chosen and settled and blessed. We can beg forgiveness for the excesses of cruelty found in the fog of conflict, for mad decisions made in moments of desperation, for things done that surely could never be done anywhere else.
And as we reflect on the sins and terrors committed by other people far away, we ask forgiveness for ourselves when we have benefited from those actions, when we have behaved to those around us as if we were in a battle, as if only our end-desires mattered.
So let each one of us pray instead that we will occupy this world like a Flanders poppy, brave in smallness and bright in promise; like a skylark, refusing to let violence be the last word, the last sound; like a polished gemstone caught by the sun, beautiful even if beauty has been lost around. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, Amen.
Readings: John 14:1-13; Romans 12:9-18
“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” The apparent words of Stalin there – a man whom I don’t often find myself quoting but, as we noted earlier, there is some truth to this notion. When faced with obscene numbers of those injured or killed in the First World War…in any war for that matter…I more keenly feel the tragedy when hearing of the individual lives that were cut short, the individual stories that ended too abruptly. This is why we heard the story of Noel Chavasse. And this is why I thought I’d now share something of two other soldiers who fought in the First World War.
George Llewelyn Davies, born in July 1893, was the eldest child in a family which consisted of 5 boys. Brought up in central London, George was a keen sportsman, an excellent cricketer, and an a fan of amateur dramatics. Tragically, George had to grow up very quickly when the boys lost their father in 1907, and their mother just three years later. In spite of the interruption to George’s schooling that this inevitably had, George was later welcomed to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled in his studies and enjoyed the many delights of university life. When the First World War began, George volunteered for service, alongside his younger brother Peter.
Now Peter was a little less gregarious than George, more of an introvert, though he too displayed much of the family’s creative traits. Peter and George both served as officers in the army, in spite of Peter being just 17 when he enrolled. During the war, both men were sent to the frontline, Peter as a signal officer in France, George as a second lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. George was enduring life in the trenches of Flanders when, on the 15th March 1915, he was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. He was just twenty one.
Peter was one of the so-called lucky ones for he survived his time in the Somme, even receiving the Military Cross for his service, but he was forever changed by the horrors he had witnessed. In the years following the war, Peter’s mental health deteriorated and this worsened with a descent into alcoholism. Then, on April 5th 1960, the nightmares of his wartime experience, combined with other family tragedies and bereavements, led him to step in front of a train in London putting an end to his pain for good.
So that’s the tale of George and Peter. Two brothers whose lives were destroyed by the storm of war. Horrifically, of course, I could have chosen thousands of other siblings who were injured, killed or mentally scarred by human conflict; whose stories could have been told so differently but I chose George and Peter because their story has been told so differently.
Some of you might already know or could take a guess at the story we most often hear told concerning Peter and George – one in which the goodies win over the baddies; thimbles are given as kisses and death is viewed not as a tragedy but as an awfully big adventure. That’s right, Peter and George, along with brothers John, Michael and Nicholas were befriended in their childhood by Scottish author JM Barrie, who went on to create a very different imagining of their lives in the classic tale of Peter Pan.
Growing up, Peter Pan was one of my favourite stories. Whether in the form of pantomime or play, classic Disney film or reimagined ‘Hook’, I loved to hear the story of Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys – of their escapades in Mermaid Lagoon, Cannibal Cove and, of course, with Captain Hook and his pirate friends on The Jolly Roger – and I’m glad that this love of Neverland has been passed on to my nephews here seen with two of their friends and Captain Hook.
And yet, in spite of my love for Pan, when reading the book as an adult, the darker element of Barrie’s creation are clearer to see. There’s the description of children as ‘the most heartless things in the world’, an constant undercurrent of sexism and then there’s the nature of Peter himself. In the book, Peter has no regard for human life at all. We’re told of how he lets Michael almost fall to his death before saving him because, “it was his cleverness that interested [Peter] and not the saving of human life”; there’s his flippancy over death and hatred of adults which is clear when at one point we’re told that he “breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second…because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible.” But perhaps most damning of all is his pride in forgetting those close to him, those he loved and those he killed, as we hear when he returns from Neverland to visit Wendy –
“”Who is Captain Hook?” he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.
“Don’t you remember,” she asked, amazed, “how you killed him and saved all our lives?”
“I forget them after I kill them,” he replied carelessly.
When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, “Who is Tinker Bell?”
“O Peter,” she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.
“There are such a lot of them,” he said.
Far from an ethereal, enigmatic hero, Pan’s wanton disregard for human life is sociopathic.
But what’s the story of Pan and the lost boys of Neverland got to do with Remembrance Sunday and the lost boys and girls, women and men whom we remember today?
Well, I’d suggest that in the contrasting stories of Peter the man, who fought in the Somme, experienced post-traumatic stress and later took his own life, and in Peter the boy, who never grows up, never thinks of others and never remembers – the two dominant outlooks of our current world are symbolized.
The first suggests that remembrance of the past or a truthful look at the present leads to a sense of despair and it’s easy to see why many accept with this worldview. Week by week, we’re bombarded with news of atrocities so horrific, it’s tempting to turn to despair. Just this week, the massacre in a church in Texas, the impending famine in Yemen, plight of the Rohingya refugees, ongoing conflicts across the globe or tragic stories closer to home such as the murder of 18-month old Elsie or the suicide of Carl Sargeant are enough to make the most optimistic of us despondent, let alone remembering the military tragedies of the past. For Peter Llewelyn Davies, as for millions of others today, witnessing the extent of the suffering around us proved too burdensome a task.
With Peter Pan, we’re offered the alternative. When the world is tough, why not fly away to Neverland where happy thoughts can make you fly, no one ever has to grow up and you can forget everything beyond present pleasure. Sure, like Peter, you might lose sight of the value of every human life but as long as you’re happy, what does it matter? So we’re encouraged to find our own personal Neverlands – our own distractions from life’s hardships. For some of us it means buying into the consumerist myth where nicer clothes and fewer wrinkles, a newer car and bigger house can draw us away from the real world. For others, perhaps gated communities and taller walls are enough to keep suffering at bay; whilst still others of us will simply switch off the news or choose to get our information from sources which distract us from the suffering of others by titillating us with gossip or manipulating us with fear. So we fight imagined enemies and think happy thoughts all the while ignoring the ticking of the crocodile’s clock just behind us.
Forget and be happy or remember and despair – these are the stark choices our world today offers.
Thank God, then, for the radical, subversive, good news of the gospel!
In this morning’s reading from John, we meet with Jesus as he gathers his friends for a final meal before his death. Jesus is aware that their idea of a triumphant messiah is soon to be dashed. They are about to see the ugly truth of human violence and their own weakness up close. They are about to witness their hopes and dreams of a fairer, freer world be nailed to a tree. They, too, will be tempted to face the truth and despair or run away and forget but Christ offers them a third path. He tells them –
“Do not let your hearts be troubled but believe in God and also in me. For I am the way and the truth and the life and remember, I have told you that I am going ahead so to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.”
In these parting words to his friends Jesus counters the two worldviews we have so far been faced with. To those who advocate the forgetting of the real world, the ignoring of suffering, the distraction of untruths, Jesus says – “I am the way and the truth and the life’. In Jesus God shows us the truth and that truth takes the form of a human being who welcomed children, healed the sick, partied at weddings, forgave his enemies, spent time with the lonely and wept when his friends died. The truth is that human lives matter – they matter to the God who took on human flesh to redeem us and they should matter to us.
And to those who might look around at the state of the world and despair, Jesus affronts us with the audacity of hope. Do not despair, he tells us, for death is not the end of the story for me or for anyone. Do not despair, for the story will end with divine love, not human violence. Do not despair, for in my Father’s house there is room for Noel Chavasse, for George and Peter Llewelyn Davies, for all those you have loved and lost, and, in time, for you.
The day after he said these words to his friends, Christ took on all our violence, our despair and our death and countered them with grace, hope and new life.
The gospel, then, calls us to neither look around the world and despair, nor to fly off to Neverland and forget. Instead, we are invited to remember the good news of the gospel as we walk the Jesus way in our daily living. It’s a way that begs us to face the truth of human suffering and live lives which seek to alleviate it. It’s a way that means discovering the truth of God’s extravagant love and living lives which seek to share it. It’s a way that might enable us to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice and work for a world where the sound of guns and bombs and the screams of children are heard no more. It’s no easy ask. It’s no quick fix solution. But with the blessing of the Creator, the strength of the Spirit and the encouragement of each other, one thing’s for sure – walking the path of peace with Christ at our side will truly be an awfully big adventure! Amen.
Our service ended by singing a powerful new hymn, written by Rev. John Henson which is sung to the tune ‘Londonderry Air’:
We cannot tell why God, the Ground of Being
Should fall in love with all the human race;
Or why such love should stoop to come among us
And be embodied at a time and place.
But this we know, the darkest gloom was scattered
With beam of light more piercing than the sun;
The poor and outcast recognized the moment,
And spread the news, the Saviour of the World has come.
We cannot tell how God was seen, rejected,
With arms stretched out upon a wooden cross;
Or how the words of pardon were recorded,
Eternal triumph in the hour of loss.
But this we know, the broken hearts were mended;
All fear removed and moaning set aside;
A mighty chorus mounting from a murmur,
‘Rejoice, He lives, He lives again, the one who died.’
We cannot tell how God’s New World will flourish,
How true affection will fill every heart;
Or how the noise of war forever vanish,
And foes be best friends, never more to part.
But this we know, our hope will not be conquered,
The songs we sing will not be sung in vain;
There will be answers given to cries of anguish,
And meaning made of every bitter ache and pain.
We cannot tell what happens in that moment
when we shall reach our life-book’s final page;
and how or whether we shall still be conscious,
or in what form we pass to our next stage.
But this we know, that true love lasts forever,
And no love truer than which has been shown;
With loving arms still tightly wound about us,
Then we shall know as we by love have first been known.
John Henson after W.Y. Fullerton ‘I cannot tell’ (1857-1932)