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Peace in our Hearts

Remembrance Day - November 11th 2018

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On August 4th 1918 King George V and Queen Mary gathered in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, with members of the Lords and the Common, to prayer for peace. One hundred days later-- one hundred years today--the Armistice of Campiègne began, and aggression ceased.

Churches and Christian people throughout the land have echoed King George’s example, and spent the last one hundred days praying for peace and reconciliation throughout the world. We have a moment now, together, to do the same.

That is our burden and our privilege today.

I emphasize that because the theme of remembrance could in fact distract us from that important task.

Up and down the nation we see commemorative signage placed in civic flower beds or leant against walls and houses: the silhouette of a helmeted soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder or held low in both hands. The message is simple, well-known: “We will remember”.

But remembering can be a problem as well as a privilege on a day and on an anniversary like this. Memory can be selective, especially a century later. There are, of course, in Abingdon, as in cities, towns and villages across this land, through Europe, and in dominions far and wide, public memorials listing names of the fallen; a little while from now we’ll gather ‘round Abingdon’s memorial to this town’s ‘gallant dead’.

There are similar memorials in churches, as there are at St Helen’s, to remind worshippers like us of those who, as we say each year, gave their tomorrow for our today.

There are exhibitions about the Great War in our Museum and at St Nicolas’ Church. There are documentaries carefully re-presenting footage related to the conflict, none more vivid than Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ (perhaps you’ve seen it). Concerts of the songs and tunes that filled the air across the wide stage of a world at war.

There’s been a lot to help us remember. And no one can do ‘the way it was’ better than the British.

But we know that even at its best memory is selective. Those commemorative silhouettes I mentioned a moment ago poised so publically around the nation in this season which (in the Church of England at least) we now call ‘Remembrancetide’—those silhouetted soldiers, are all pictured alive, hail ‘n’ hearty, able-bodied.

I’ve seen no silhouetted figures prone on stretchers hustled from a killing field or ‘no man’s land’. We look in vain for a silhouetted figure beheaded by flying shrapnel, or a young man’s body blown open by the rapid fire of a Maxim Gun, or a bug-eyed, lice-infested, tommy palsied with fear. No silhouettes of the hundreds of thousands of warhorses mown down or blown to bits in the service of King or Kaiser or Tzar. No. I suppose that would be reckoned as tasteless, a potential risk to the well-being of the public psyche. It might ‘upset’ passers-by.

But we could indeed remember such things, since that was very much part of the war whose end—thank God--we mark today. ‘We Will Remember.’ Yes. Let’s remember. But let’s remember as thoroughly, as honestly, as fixed-gazedly as we can into the full reality of that bloody awful war and the cost of what we perhaps too assuredly call ‘victory’.

Yet however well or badly, however fantastically or accurately we remember, we mustn’t only remember. As Christians, anyway, we’re never simply people with a past. We’re also people with a fleeting present, and most importantly, we’re people with a future, people who believe in the future.[1] For Christians, I mean, what lies ahead isn’t a mere repetition of what’s been before, as if we were caught in a rodent’s running wheel; for us the future has a direction, it extends a call toward an end, a purpose, a goal. So this Remembrance Day compels us, I think, to recall years past for the sake of the years ahead.

That’s what the hundred days of prayer leading to today are about: new resolves, new labours toward peace and reconciliation. ‘There are no words foul and filthy enough to describe war’—words of the most popular and famous padre of the Great War, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Yes, we need to remember such words again and again so that our resolves and our efforts for peace and reconciliation don’t flag and fade. And it must be the concern of all of us; for if the Great War teaches us anything it teaches us how those who inhabit the corridors of political power can be so easily misled and dubiously motivated, with such devastating consequences on so many bodies and consciences.

A wounded soldier of the Great War muses on what he’s done as he waits for the doctor’s attention:

 

Well, I’ve done my bit o’ scrappin’
And I’ve done it quite a lot;
Nicked ‘em neatly wiv my bayonet
So I needn’t waste a shot.
‘Twas my duty, and I’ve done it,
But I ‘opes the doctor’s quick,
For I wish I ‘adn’t done it:
Gawd! It turns me shamed and sick.[2]     
  

But however that may be, we need more than resolve, outward efforts, the mettle of endurance. For the peace which is more than a cessation of violence, more than an absence, has to be a positive peace, peace lived and shared by peace-filled people.

A saint of the Christian tradition once declared: ‘Have peace in your heart and around you will be saved’. “Oh”, you might think, “a simplistic, pious platitude. That will never fly in the real world, and certainly not in the world of politics and international relations!”. But that reaction supposes that you already know the impact of such a deep peace within yourself. It supposes too that you know what kind of world God wants our world to be. It might just be that God yearns for us to have a world that looks very different from the one we’ve created for ourselves, a world shaped by a profound submission to a peace ‘which passes understanding’ because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are, alas, not our ways.

“Have peace in your heart...”

It was, after all, much the same thing that Jesus said both before and after his resurrection: “Be not anxious!”, “Fear not!”, “Peace be with you!”. “Love one another as I have loved you”. “Peter, do you love me?”.

I hope you get the message.

And that Christian message requires the deep and hard inner work of conversion day by day. To that Jesus called those who heard him. To that he still invites anyone who calls him- or herself a Christian.

So today, as the hundred days of prayer end, we too have a chance to hear St Paul’s words of assurance and encouragement, that “..nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.39). In other words, the “essential self” is safe in God whatever a person might experience, or face, or suffer.[3] We too can tuck ourselves into that firm assurance that all will be well; we can prayer for the peace that such an assurance can give, and can discover how such a peace casts out fear. And when fear is cast out love, as St Paul describes it in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, can germinate, grow, blossom. Then the peace within can become a true peace without, a true peace round ‘n’ about us. That’s a future worth stepping into.

“Find peace in your heart and all around you will be saved.”

My time’s run out. But another hundred years lies ahead. Don’t be content with remembering. Each of us must pray and strive for peace in our hearts. Let’s get on with it!

In the name of the Prince of Peace,

Amen.

~

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Remembrance Day and centenary of the Armistice of Campiègne

November 11th 2018

 

[1] ‘To be precise, the present is merely the extensionless point of division between the past and the future’ (J. Ratzinger, Faith and the Future (English translation, 1971), p. 77. He is commenting on an insight in St. Augustine’s Confessions.

[2] From Studdert Kennedy’s Rough Rhymes, quoted by Purcell, ibid., pp. 132-3.

[3] So Purcell rendering the insight of G A Studdert Kennedy in Woodbine Willie, p. 148.