A Sermon for the parish of Woodstock Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2016 - The Rector
On Remembrance Sunday, year after year, we gather at the memorial outside this church to remember that 60 men of Woodstock made the ultimate sacrifice so that our world would be different. We do this, every year, on the second Sunday of November.
If we were Canadian – and, for one reason or another, quite a few American friends of mine wish that they were – we would have observed Remembrance Sunday last Sunday. The more keen-eyed of you may notice that I am wearing two poppies. This paper one I bought last week outside Woodstock Post office. But this one other one is not made of paper. It’s made of felt-covered plastic. And I bought it two Sundays ago outside the cathedral in Montreal.
Montreal is, after Paris, the largest French-speaking city in the world. Originally Canada’s capital (which, since 1857, has been Ottawa), Montreal is an extraordinary mixture of French and North American cultures combined. As many of you know, I spent three months on placement there in 2013. Two weeks ago, I returned to visit my old friends at Christ Church Cathedral once more.
As I left Montreal Cathedral two Sundays ago, I was intrigued to find a poppy seller on the steps. I had no idea, until that moment, that there was such a thing as La Légion Royale Canadienne – the Royal Canadian Legion.
Now, as it happens, I know quite a lot about the Royal British Legion. I am proud to be the Chaplain of the Woodstock Branch, and have the honour of wearing this scarf both at this service, and, sadly, all too frequently, at the funerals of its faithful members.
The Legion exists to provide lifelong support for the Armed Forces community - serving men and women, veterans, and their families. Last year the RBL spent over £80m providing welfare support to thousands of veterans and their families: the physically injured; the mentally traumatized; unemployed veterans; veterans who sleep rough; veterans who have ended up in prison, and their rehabilitation. Not to mention pensioners, widows and widowers, the orphaned, the forgotten. The Poppy Appeal last year raised £48m. Quickly, we realize that what is for us a matter of choice – the decision to buy a poppy – has a direct impact on the lives of others. This is not only a badge of remembrance. It is a symbol of intent, of values, of compassion.
The Royal Canadian Legion serves much the same purpose. But, like here, the struggles are many. The man I bought my poppy from was called Fergus. He was a veteran himself. He told me of the problems the Canadian Legion had in finding volunteers and officers to keep the organization going, and I assured him that the situation was much the same here. The profile is high – but the labourers are, relatively, few.
My encounter with Fergus in Montreal set me thinking. For the last 24 years I have officiated or preached at services such as this one. I have officiated at three funerals of soldiers killed in the Second Iraq War. I have visited the horrifically injured survivors of improvised explosive devices in specialist units. I have wept alongside grieving families. Unsurprisingly, all of this has been done here, at home.
But the sacrifices of war are not confined solely to one nation, one commonwealth, one empire. They are global. And the emotions felt by the veterans and the grief-stricken of every human community are the same.
In our Gospel reading today we heard words that are universal in their impact and ought to be global in their application.
My command is this: Love one another other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Not an optional extra. Not a lifestyle choice. Not a box to tick that we understand the terms and conditions without in fact bothering to read them. This is the commandment of Jesus Christ our Lord – to love, and to love sacrificially, to love utterly. To love as he loves us.
Is that how you love? Is that how you choose to be? Listen again to the words: my command is this. We, who claim to be Christians, have no choice if we want to be his friends. For it his friends, he says, who do as he commands.
The implications of this are universal. They apply to political leaders around the world. They apply to institutions and to agencies. They apply to you and to me. They apply to our every gesture, our every thought, our every word. Tough? As one former politician once (not entirely sensibly) remarked ‘hell, yeah’.
The friends of God in Christ are those who obey the commandment to love. And the theatre of war has long been seen to be a place where, paradoxically, the commandment to love sacrificially has found astonishing obedience. We remember them today.
One serviceman has come to my special notice this year. In a wonderful display in the Marlborough Church of England School, there is a tribute to a son of this town. Percy Albert Williams. I read his name out a few minutes ago. Percy served in C Company in the 2nd battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He was born here, grew up here, the son of Thomas and Fanny Williams who lived in Oxford Street. Percy was killed in action exactly 100 years ago today, November 13th 1916. He was 24 years old.
What would Percy make of the free world that he died defending? God only knows. What we know is that we will honour Percy, and the other 59 young men whose names are engraved on the memorial outside this church, when we – all of humanity – change our ways, our hearts, our language, our behaviour, our manner, to that which conforms to the commandment of Christ. Love one another.
When today is over, and the poppies put in drawers, and the flags lowered, we have a choice. The choice is about our remembering. We can go home and say that was a nice service. And forget all about it – especially the sermon – and carry on as before. Or we can choose to remember in a different way.
We can choose to remember Fergus in Montreal. Percy in Woodstock. The homeless veterans and the grieving relatives supported by the Legion. We can choose to remember them beyond this day, and be inspired to live differently.
But even more significantly, we can choose to remember the words of the Gospel, and the commandment that contains them. Words about love, sacrificial love, love unknown, love so amazing, so divine, it demands our soul, our life, our all. Such remembering, day after day, hour after hour, every minute, every moment – such remembering can change us, and our world.
The promise of our other scripture reading was the promise of a new earth and a new heaven, mystically conjoined in a spiritual marriage that will last forever, a state of perfection where fear, and pain, and weeping are no more. If you and I will only heed the commandment of Christ, then that promise can begin to be made true right here, right now. We can change the world.
But only if we remember. We have to remember.