Sermon for Remembrance

Across this country this week the same words will be said over and over again as a prelude to silence in memory of the lost.

They shall not grow old , as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

These loving and gentle words were written by the poet Laurence Binyon.

Or should I say they were written by the keeper of oriental prints and drawings at the British Museum? Because he was that too.

A man who was 45 years old at the time.

Someone who had  seen no kind of military service and certainly had not experienced the brutality and squalor of trench warfare.

In fact, when he wrote it the Great War had hardly begun and he was very far away.

It was early in September in 1914, just after news had broken about the casualties at the battle of the Marne, when he was on holiday in Cornwall- sitting on a cliff- that the poem came to him.

On his 70th birthday, just as World war 2 was about to break upon the world, he said that the first line that came to him, and the whole poem grew around was ‘ They shall not grow old’

It strikes me that these words of immense power and durability were written by a spectator, not a participant.

Most of us who attend such services as this are in the same position as he was. Except we are at a distance through time as well as location.

But that should not stop us grieving and reflecting too.

There are people amongst us today who have seen, experienced and suffered war close at hand. And we should be willing to hear what they have to say, and honour what they have risked and been through.

But we sometimes forget the hidden participants. Due to families finding refuge in Britain there are many people living amongst, and that includes children, who have witnessed bombings and atrocities first hand, but are for all sorts of reasons silent about it.

I met a local bus driver recently who to escape the vicious war in Somalia had worked his way to London 20 years ago.

But for most people now their- our- experience of war is second or third hand.

At the annual Remembrance service we do outside here every year with Southfields Academy , the Lieutenant Colonel who commands the Royal Marines Reserve said a number of moving and wise things.

One was that we should bring to mind the people we have known.

I immediately thought of my great uncle who developed listening devices to spy on the German military during the last war.

And then the ceremony in September 1995 I conducted on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Asia.

The nation had been all street parties and celebrations earlier that summer. That September morning, as the traffic roared obliviously by, a handful of us stood by as one surviving member of the forces which had fought in Burma, trembling from head to toe, laid a wreath to remember all his comrades.

Other memories of people who had been traumatised by experiences of war also came, but  the artist Francis Gower, also came into my mind. He was a great friend of mine, and I have a number of his paintings on my wall at home. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World. He wouldn’t fight but worked in a mental hospital instead, later producing paintings, of compassionate intensity, to communicate to the world what the residents’ invisible suffering looked like.

You will all have different memories and thoughts today. Personal to you. Even if what you know comes from books or school lessons, just think of what you can imagine and feel.

All are ways to show honour to all those who have suffered in war in the past and are suffering today.

Until the time the hopes of the Prophet Micah are fulfilled and weapons of war become instruments for peace.

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