A sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday
The main reading was Luke 10:25-37 (The Good Samaritan)
Most weeks I spend a couple of hours at Swavesey Village College as part of an initiative called Faith and Belief. It’s a lunchtime spot where pupils can engage with ethical, moral or religious questions, and the deal is that if they do it thoughtfully, they get a sweet.
Normally there are lots of questions posted up on our board, but this week there was only one – “what is the point of Remembrance Day?”
It was very striking how every single pupil who came started off in the same way “It’s when we remember the people who died in the war”. Our rejoinder to that was “Yes, that’s what we do, but why do we do it?”
Why do we do it? Why do we assemble each year, read out the names from the memorial, lay the wreaths, stand in silence, wear our poppies?
Some of the youngsters, thwarted in their original hope of an easy sweet, went away, but others began to dig a little deeper.
The idea of gratitude began to emerge – gratitude that people had been prepared to risk and lose their lives. Honour was mentioned next – beyond gratitude, those people deserve our honour for what they did.
Some youngsters talked about sorrow, particularly for those whose loved ones were among the dead. Some of them mentioned great-grandparents.
For most of them, we stopped being mean and let them have their sweet.
Just one or two, with some leading question to help, began to inch towards our final reason and to really earn their sweet.
Those were the ones who got close to the idea that we remember so that we will be on our guard, because as writer George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
As I mentioned, for those young people, as for most people today, it’s the Second World War which comes to mind most readily at Remembrance, and it’s not their parent or even their grandparents who fought then. As that particular conflict slips ever further into the past, and out of living memory, it becomes more and more important that we as a society should hold it in remembrance.
Part of the reason for that is the ongoing conflicts in which members of our armed forces are risking and losing their lives this very day, but there is a deeper reason – a reason which would apply even if the entire world were at peace – we don’t want it to happen again.
Faced with the enormity of war, and the seemingly intractable social, political and economic situations which give rise to it, it’s easy to feel helpless, but we are not! Jesus tells us what we must do in his parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard earlier.
Let’s make no bones about this, Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and Jesus deliberately chose the hero of his parable to be the person most likely to offend his questioner. Not, of course, because offence is good, but because it was the way most likely to puncture that self-justifying bubble, and bring about a rethink.
The point of the parable is that our neighbour is anyone we encounter, even our enemy. The command of Scripture is to love our neighbour, and the command of Christ is to exclude no-one from our neighbourliness.
War shows what happens when that breaks down – when we draw a line and say these are neighbour, those aren’t.
When we stop behaving considerately to another, even in the smallest of ways, they stop being neighbour. And we all do it!
The real horror of Nazi Germany was not the bloodshed of conflict, or the things that happened in the concentration camps, evil and abhorrent though they were.
The real horror was that perfectly ordinary people could be so manipulated, could have their world-views so utterly warped by an evil few, that the most degraded of acts could come to be seen as normal and good.
The real horror is that it could have been me, or you, not as victims, but as perpetrators.
If we lose sight of our common humanity, if we allow the words of vote-hungry politicians, pandering to the worst of human instincts, to twist our perceptions, so that we see any others –
be they Muslims, asylum-seekers, benefit claimants, disabled people, food-bank users, eastern-European migrant workers, Roma, unemployed people, or anyone else –
as one whit less important, or less worthy of respect, than ourselves, then we have stepped into the shadow of Auschwitz.
Instead we can and we must fight and fight and fight against anything which demeans another human being. We can and must speak up for those disadvantaged by the distortions, and occasionally outright lies, of those with vested political and economic interest. That will not win us friends, but it is what it means to love our neighbour.
We must not allow anything to excuse taking the humanity away from anyone, even the pressure of armed conflict, which is why shooting a captured and unarmed enemy is never excusable.
The poppy is a symbol of our remembrance, a symbol that we are holding on to gratitude, honour, sorrow, and the determination that, as far as lies within our own power, we will work for the end of war, and the love of neighbour. We must resist letting the poppy become diluted into a fashion statement, or, worse, twisted into merely a demonstration of conformity.
Remembrance must never become merely an occasion for pomp, a time for the great and the good to demonstrate their patriotic credentials. Until the line drawn to define the neighbour whom we must love is drawn widely enough to contain everyone, the work of Remembrance is not yet done, and it’s the task of each of us to bring that about.
We owe this to those who died in conflicts, and to those who are at risk in conflict now. We owe this to the young people of Swavesey Village College, and to our children, and to their children. We owe this to our neighbour, and to our God.