Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021 from Revd Ian Tattum

Remembrance Day 2021

Just a few weeks ago there was a tragically quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and now a horrific famine is looming. Whatever our perspective on the deployment of NATO in that country, we can’t ignore the role of the most recent American presidents in what is unfolding now. It has been argued that it was an earlier US president – an ailing Franklin D. Roosevelt – who encouraged Stalin to seize what became the Eastern bloc, not because he wanted a quick and populist political fix but because he trusted an ally not to take advantage of a desperate situation. The rights and wrongs of war are complicated and manifold. We can point to bad decisions and bad people. We can examine geopolitics and the failures of diplomacy. By such we can find satisfactory enough explanations and apportion blame. But such strategies are rarely enough.

We can ask, what do we do now?

You may not recall the name Eglantyne Jebb, but she was the main player in the formation of the Save the Children Fund back in 1919. Like climate activists today, she was regarded by many at the time as a public nuisance – handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square with pictures of starving German children, with a headline: ‘Our blockade has done this – millions of children are starving to death.’ She was hated for sticking up for recent enemies. Like the best campaigners, she not only sought to change people’s minds, but was a doer – ensuring aid was delivered to wherever it was needed, and getting the first declaration of the rights of children accepted internationally.

Save the Children are at this moment very active bringing food to the people of Afghanistan.

But I doubt that on Remembrance Sunday itself our minds primarily focus on doing any more than they do on explaining. Feeling, honouring, mourning, praying and committing to heal and to do better are more of our concern. And in a church setting, appropriately, acknowledging the reality of sin – that we are all imperfect flesh and blood human beings who suffer, make mistakes, fail to understand and are capable of cruelties small and immense, but who are not totally responsible, nor absolutely free.

We carry with us an inescapable legacy of the past, which continues to affect how we think and act. The hatreds and terrors, the greed, cruelties and blunders all ripple down through time to affect us still.

No wonder at the heart of it is a solemn silence.

The neglected book from the Apocryphal section of the Bible, Ecclesiasticus, has some amazing descriptions of the human condition. The author contrasts the eternal and mighty nature of God with that of people.

‘When human beings have finished they are just beginning,
And when they stop they are still perplexed.
What are human beings, and of what use are they?
What is good in them, and what is evil?…
Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
So are a few years among the days of eternity.
That is why the Lord is patient with them,
And pours out his mercy upon them.’

Today is a day for facing up to this through the prism of the tragedy and courage of war, which always draws us back to our need for forgiveness and the hope for restoration.

I chose the hymns today before I paid any attention to how they too share this perspective. They have the power to speak to the experience of most of us – those of us who are bystanders for whom war is a thing of history, or something that happens elsewhere, or else has touched our lives through the experiences of people we know or have known.

And yet they have also resonated with those who have had actual experience of conflict and its agonies.

We have just sung ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’, which for many people immediately brings to mind Atlantic convoys and war at sea but was written by a Quaker who was brought up in Clapham and might never have been on a ship. Another Quaker wrote ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, and there are few hymns that better conjure up a space for prayer and calm in the eye of a storm. Whittier knew those, as an anti-slavery campaigner who endured long years of mob hatred for his campaigning. But the words were written after the American Civil War and was, in part, a lament and a plea for mercy to God for its horrors.

‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.’

Later we will hear the tune of ‘I vow to thee, my country’. That hymn manages to praise and honour those who have served their country in war at sacrificial cost and to look for another country, God’s Kingdom, where a

‘…fortress is a faithful heart…
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’

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