Fr Martin's Sermon from Remembrance Sunday

It's not often that it seems appropriate to publish the text of Fr Martin's sermon. But as we remember those who died in the World Wars and other conflicts around the world, it seems appropriate to do so today given the historical context of today's sermon.

Full text of Fr Martin's Sermon from Sunday 11th November at Sung Eucharist:

Today is a day for looking back, for remembering, but also for looking forward.  On Sunday 9th August 1914, the Sunday after war was declared, the Reverend Arthur Simmonds, then Vicar of this Parish, preached from this very pulpit.  He began by quoting from scripture: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place” (Proverbs 15.3) and “Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward” (Exodus 14.13).


He then continued: “We meet here today under circumstances that have no parallel in the memory of any, and we have a future before us, the full nature of which we cannot foresee, but which will call for the best qualities our nature and our Christianity can display.  We can, for our encouragement, feel and declare that we are where we are because we would not play, as a nation, a mean and dishonourable part, because we would carry out our obligations, and do what a great and Christian nation should do, when she is faced with by obligations of promise and friendship.  In the great speeches that have been made in Parliament it has been made clear that our Government did all in its power to preserve the peace and to save our country from the horrors of war, and that it will not look at base proposals which are intended to buy our neutrality by prostituting our national honour, and lead us to slink away in ignominious safety, when an ally is threatened with destruction.  Our cause, therefore, is a just and noble one.  Our country has a great history in a long past, and though we mourn intensely and naturally that war has been forced upon us, we are surely glad that the good name of our country is not to be darkened by any shameful eclipse.”


My predecessor then went on to speak of the teaching of his chosen texts, of the encouragement which may come from the first, and of the suggestion of duty which might come from the second.  “God is everywhere,” he continued.  “We are always in the keeping of God.  We do not get away from him because we leave our ordinary conditions, because we leave even our country, because we are surrounded by special conflict, because we have difficulty in offering even our personal and usual prayers.  Everyone at the front, and everyone at home, should think, with thankfulness and trust, of the Providence of God, and be strengthened and calmed.  And then there is duty.  There is a duty which pertains to the combatants, of determination and courage.  They will have to put forth their bravest efforts; they will have to endure much hardness.  They will have to forget self.  They will have to surrender themselves to their King and their country, for life or for death.  And then we have likewise to go forward in the path of our duty, that path of duty with its new features of self-denial and self-sacrifice, of prayer and trust, and kindness and consideration for others.  Our usual, perhaps comfortable, life will be taken away possibly from us.  We must not repine; our usual pleasures may be banished, and the amenities of our civilised life restricted.  We must not repine, we must be willing to learn our lessons, and seek to come out of our trial stronger and better Christian people, more taught of God, more like our Lord himself.”


Yet Mr Simmonds could not have imagined the immense horrors of the war that would unfold over the following four years and three months.  Such horrors that moved the people of this parish to erect a Memorial to those who had given their lives in war, and this memorial would be completed in time to be dedicated on 24th November 1917, a full year before the end of the war.


But today is also about looking forward.  Our Bible readings, which we have just heard, make no special concessions to Remembrance Sunday, which I believe to be appropriate, because war makes no special concessions to our lives.  We have to make theological sense of the unlikely juxtapositions, just as Arthur Simmonds did in August 1914.


We hear about people called to follow God.  Simon, Andrew, James, and John responded almost instantly, leaving Zebedee to watch his labour force in the family business get up and leave him to it.  Those four men were setting off on a life-changing adventure that would end with their cruel deaths.  On the other hand, Jonah, in the rollicking story that bears his name responded completely differently.  We hear him set off when called, but there is a very different back story, which a map elucidates.


When God had previously sent him to Nineveh, Jonah had set off in the opposite direction entirely – going west to Spain (Tarshish), instead of east to Assyria.  He could hardly have been more disobedient if he had tried.  A fierce storm at sea and a brief encounter with the inside of a large fish did the trick.  So, when God called again, off he went – this time in the right direction.


He complained furiously, however, when God showed mercy to the city as a result of his preaching.  Most people would be thrilled that their preaching had such an instant effect (even the animals repented); but not Jonah.  He would have prayed through gritted teeth the petition in today’s collect about divided nations’ being subject to God’s just and gentle rule.


What were those men thinking, as they set out on these new directions in life under God?  They had dreams that they submitted, more or less readily, to a new direction from God.  What did men and women in the armed services think, when war forced new directions on their lives?  We remember them before God with readings about people whose lives were turned upside down.


We might ask ourselves afresh how we would respond, were our lives similarly disrupted.  Would we dare to be as ready as Peter, Andrew, James, and John to respond, or, like Jonah, be the ultimate reluctant conscript?  This involves our control of our destinies, as well as more domestic questions about the effect on our families.


On Remembrance Sunday, we remember that the call to serve in war is a hard call, to which some respond with their lives.  However wrong the injustice that war is intended to put right, the suffering of war remains antithetical to the fullness of life that God offers his world in love, and to God’s just and gentle rule offered to all the families of the nations.


Remembrance Sunday is also a reminder that not all injustices can be solved by war, and that all of us are called to catch the vision of the world as it might be under God's just and gentle rule.  We are called to emulate the readiness of the disciples to serve God, wherever there are people whose lives are diminished by suffering and sin.