Sermon preached at Mattins on Remembrance Sunday (10 November 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
On Remembrance Sunday the Dean reflects on the how we remember those served and work together for peace.
I was walking along the pavement and a car backfired, and I couldn’t stop myself, I just threw myself on the ground and looked for a bush to
I can’t ever forget going into the room where I thought I’d shot an insurgent and finding instead an eight year old girl, and I couldn’t save her.
Someone ran their supermarket trolley into mine and I had to stop myself from trying to kill them.
Three voices of veterans of battle, still battling with their memories. Some veterans are physically scarred; but many more have been mentally scarred by their experiences. The damage that war does is considerable.
We meet this morning surrounded by statues and memorials which have nothing to say about that damage, but rather speak of glory: of men like Nelson, Wellington, Collingwood and Abercrombie who lived or died gloriously for their country, memorials erected at public expense so that their glory will be remembered, exalted heroes who built the Empire or defended the realm, held up as examples of self-sacrifice for the nation, and of the glory to be earned as a result.
But the lives of these heroes were more like ours than their monumental statues suggest: these were men with families, loves and betrayals, pride and anger, courage, vanity and endurance. They killed other people, and were responsible for the deaths of many under their command, as part of the human cost and moral ambiguity of war.
Each one was a human being doing their duty as they understood it – but not peaceful martyrs for their faith, or humanitarians like Florence Nightingale whose memorial is downstairs in the crypt.
These memorials were erected by other men who wanted to avoid revolution against themselves, men for whom gaining glory in the service of the nation was a useful distraction from the question of who and what the nation is for at all.
In our remembrance today in this Christian context, we need to put the nation in its place. Our highest loyalties should be to God and the well-being of all humanity: and that’s not a threat to any nation, but only a threat to nationalism – the creed of those who use national loyalty in order to keep hold of power.
But holding values that are higher than the good of the nation, having a population able to reflect on politics and hold national leaders to account, is a sign of a nation’s maturity, not of disloyalty, recognising that populism and nationalism are perversions of something better.
The Lithuanian and French Jewish novelist Romain Gary wrote: ‘Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate of people other than your own comes first.’ We can patriotically love and support our country without hating or dominating others.
100 years ago the Dean of St Paul’s, Dean Inge, wrote in his diary about a speech he gave in December 1917, in which he warned of the dangers of a post-war international settlement which would create ongoing conflict. His perceptive comments were met with a torrent of abusive news reports and letters; he wrote that ‘one good lady says: I am praying for your death; I have been very successful in two other cases.’ This time the lady was unsuccessful; but Dean Inge ruefully noted at the end of his diary for 1917 that ‘our people, slow and reluctant to enter the war, are now mad with rage and hatred… It is indeed a terrible time.’
So it’s important today that we should see ourselves in perspective. Surrounded by statues extolling human glory, we heard a reading from John’s Gospel (12.23-33) where Jesus speaks about his glory and honour, coming not from victories on behalf of the nation, but as the glory God reveals in Jesus being nailed high on a cross. The glory of God is in self-giving, in loving, in dying that others might live; God’s glory doesn’t mean power for great men, but honour for those whom the world sees as weak and disposable.
The glory of Christ is the cross, where Jesus carries our sorrows and suffers for us. Nations and empires come and go: but God’s love for each one of us lasts far longer than does national glory.
As you look at these statues around us, remember their limitations, and our own, and give glory to those victims and veterans who bear the mental and physical sufferings of war. May we glory not in self or in power, but in loving service and working for the good of all, longing not for glory but for the day when war will be no more and love will be the final word.