REMEMBRANCE DAY – 9th November 2014
SERMON AT THE REMEMBRANCE DAY SERVICE
I love taking photographs – as anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook knows. I will photograph all manner of things, from plates of food served in a restaurant, to scenes of local colour in a distant country, and I have been known to assume some unusual positions to get just the right angle for a photograph, perching precariously on a ledge, or lying on the floor to get a photograph of the tallest building in the world.
But the one shot I always love to take is the rising of the sun over the sea, or over a mountain range, or some spectacular scenery. I will even pay the high price of rising at stupid o’clock to get the perfect sunrise photo – and I have a few of these photos of which I am very proud. The sunset doesn’t quite have the same magical effect – it is that transition from darkness to light which is completely entrancing, and I can watch it, completely enraptured – apart from the occasional click to try and capture the moment – though it is never, of course wholly captured – just a hint to jog the memory of that spectacular colour with which God washes the horizon with shades of red and orange and white, leading to a clear cerulean blue. To enjoy the peace of dawn and the rising of the sun is a true joy to behold.
But we never truly know what each new dawn will bring. It could bring another glorious day of happiness in peacetime – but in time of war and danger, dawn could signal the complete opposite.
Dawn in the trenches of the First World War was a time of the greatest danger. The 400 mile corridor from the Swiss border to the Channel ports were lined with trenches dug by enemy forces in a deadly war of attrition as they faced each other in a waiting game in which no one knew if they would live to see another day dawn.
An hour before dawn came the morning ‘stand to’ when those who had been fortunate to catch a few hours of sleep were woken to fix bayonets, and stand guard in case of a dawn raid. This was the most dangerous time, as the light grew, and soldiers would often steady themselves with the “morning hate” firing machine guns indiscriminately towards the enemy lines, with shelling and small arms fire. Snipers were constantly on the lookout for an unguarded moment when a head was raised over the parapet to become an easy target. To survive until breakfast was in itself a challenge.
Isaac Rosenberg was a Private in the trenches of the First World War. Born in London in 1890 into a family of orthodox Jews who had fled from the Russian anti-Semitic pogroms in what is now Lithuania he was an artist and a poet. He studied painting at the Slade School of Art in London, and was championed by Laurence Binyon in his pursuit of poetry. He enlisted in the British army in 1915, and was assigned first to the Suffolk Regiment, and then later to a “bantam regiment” for those under the 5’3” minimum height, the 11th Service Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. In June 1916 he was sent to the trenches of the Western Front, where he and his fellows endured the unspeakable horrors of brutal warfare. In his poetry, written in pencil on scraps of paper from the trenches, he does not mince his words. Of his poems from the trenches, “Dead man’s dump” is an excruciating portrait of the sights and sounds which traumatised many a soldier, and “Returning we hear larks” is a painful negative impression of Shelley’s “To a skylark” in which the song of the larks dropping from the skies is a moment of joy as a respite from the customary death-bearing shells which fell from the skies. The honesty of his poetry takes us to the trenches of the Western Front in a way more subtle, yet more penetrating than any pencil sketch he, a graduate of the Slade, could have drawn of the sights of the front line.
“Break of dawn in the trenches” is the poem we heard read earlier in the service. There is no bright new day which follows the dawn in his poem – the darkness crumbling away leads just to time ticking slowly onwards to its inevitable end. The rat, so hated by the soldiers is almost envied by the poet for its freedom, its cosmopolitan tendencies, its life itself – when so many of the army’s haughty athletes had perished in the mud of no man’s land. And the poppy – blood red and rooted in men’s veins, now covered in the dust of the trenches, the only symbol of life and beauty, cockily placed behind the soldier’s ear, perhaps some slight optimism may lurk there?
Alas for Rosenberg that optimism was ill-placed, for it was another dawn in the trenches when, returning from a night patrol, a sniper’s bullet took his life. He had served 20 months in the trenches, and was buried in a mass grave until in 1926 his remains were identified and moved to a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
He wrote of break of day in the trenches, and he died at break of day. But here in this church, and in churches across the globe, we speak and proclaim another break of day: the break of day we heard of in our Gospel reading from Matthew 28.
That break of day in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem is the true antidote to the death and decay of the trenches. For as the Marys at break of day visited the tomb of Jesus, what they found was not the death and decay they had steeled themselves to see – but if they were surprised by the emptiness of the tomb, they were yet more surprised by the sight of the angel which told them that their Lord was not dead, as they supposed, but that he had been raised as he had told them. And then their third and greatest surprise was to see the risen Lord himself, when he came to greet them, and to tell them “not to fear”.
On that Sunday morning at dawn, from the depths of their grief, the women had experienced a glorious transformation from bereaved and forlorn mourners, to the first people to hear the greatest news in the history of the word – The Lord is risen! News that would radiate throughout the world, and throughout time itself – that death has been conquered, and eternal life is God’s greatest gift to the world. A message of light and hope, joy and peace, which should have permeated every age, every land, and every people.
But as we know, the last two thousand years have not always reflected that peace, but have instead seen countless wars and conflicts which have scarred humanity, and there is a real need for a true sense of repentance for the damage which we, as a species, have inflicted on those with whom we share our fragile planet.
Here in Lancaster, the City’s four Church of England parishes are exploring a partnership relationship with four churches in the City of Goslar in Germany. For our sisters and brothers in Christ in Germany, remembering the two World Wars is, with very good reason, a very different event to our own Remembrance season. One new element of our service today is the inclusion of a prayer which comes from our partner church in Germany: and they will be including in their services today a prayer which we have sent them. We hope that by prayer, as well as developing deep links of friendship between our churches, we will be able to promote in the local community the virtues of peace and reconciliation.
The Goslar prayer includes the very telling bidding: “We bring before you our shame that twice in the last century, war has broken out from German soil. And that we have misused your name, O God, for racial hatred and the blindness of nationalism.”
That admission of corporate penitence on behalf of their nation is a major step towards reconciliation between our two nations and our two sister churches. I hope that we are able to reach out in fellowship towards them and build a relationship based on fellowship and an admission of deeds past within our own which have not covered us in glory. We, too, need to repent of many episodes in the history of our nation when we too, have been less than what God has called us to be: love-bearing, peace-making, and joy-bringing.
For our German friends, this date in history, 9th November, is full of meaning. The Germans know it as Schicksalstag – the fateful day. The overthrow of Kaiser Wilhelm took place on this day in 1918, and Hitler’s first putsch was on this day in 1923, and most infamously of all, 9th November saw the Kristallnacht of 1938 when the shops and homes of Jews in Germany and Austria were smashed – 1,000 synagogues were burnt to the ground, 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 people arrested and sent to concentration camps. This was an event of which all humanity should be ashamed, that people could act with such savagery against their fellow human beings.
For Germans, the day is only partly redeemed by the events of 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall – for so long the symbol of Communist oppression for so many East Germans – at last fell, and the road to reunification was begun. We continue to struggle to live our lives as God’s people in God’s world today, seeking to live our lives as His holy people, saved by the death of Christ on the cross on that first Good Friday, and raised with Christ by the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus delivered to those women at dawn on that first Easter morning.
So, as we give thanks for the peace we have enjoyed in Western Europe for the last 70 years, may we also commit ourselves to reach out to our neighbours near and far, in mutual love and understanding as fellow members of Christ’s body in the world today, that we may be reconciled to one another in a spirit of repentance for past wrongs, and a firm resolution to build peace in our own communities, our own nations, seeking to extend that peace throughout the whole world until that true peace – God’s peace – may be known and shared by all his people in the world today.