A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2017

A Sermon for Woodstock
Remembrance Sunday, 12th November 2017

- The Rector

Jesus says ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’

The Military Cross – the MC – is a medal awarded to members of the Armed Forces who have demonstrated acts of extraordinary courage.

One hundred years ago, in 1917, the MC was awarded, not to a soldier, but to a Church of England priest like me.

Well, I say like me – I don’t think this guy was very much like me. I wonder if, in the circumstances, I would have done what he did – this is what the official citation for the medal said 

He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches, which he constantly visited.

Would I have done that? I hope so – but who’s to say? Would you have done that, or something like it, had you found yourself in the trenches of No Man’s Land in Flanders?

You might be wondering what this guy was called. His name was Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy: but he is better known as Woodbine Willie.

I’m sure you know that a Woodbine is a brand of cigarette that was popular at the time, and Studdert-Kennedy used to hand them to soldiers for free. Hence his nickname.

You might imagine that, after the war, he’d be thought of as a hero. By some, yes. But not by others. Courage, cheerfulness and endurance are OK if you don’t cause trouble. But he did cause trouble. His experience of the horrors and tragedy of war turned him into a pacifist, someone who works for peace at all costs, and opposes armed conflict. When he died, aged only 45, utterly exhausted from his experiences, it was suggested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. The request was turned down – because he spoke out against poverty. And because he believed that war was wrong.

He was right – it is. The tragedy is that human beings never seem to learn this truth, and so we go on fighting. The only way we will stop fighting is if we remember the consequences. Which is why we’re all gathered here today, with my good friends from the local British Legion. To remember; to remember those who died in the hope that the world might be a better place; to remember that war costs – and that that cost is truly counted, not in money, but in human beings.

Jesus says ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ He says this at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, as we’ve come to call it. It’s his absolute core teaching – so central that the Bishop of Oxford is inviting every church and chaplaincy in this diocese to study and pray through it in the months ahead. The Beatitudes, which we just heard read to us, are the manifesto for Christian discipleship. You want to know what Christians are like? You want to know what YOU are meant to be like? Read these. They are not advice. Not a guide to moral living. Not a list of vague hopes for the future. They are Gospel: Good News, for then, for now, for always.

Think for a moment, though, about that phrase: Blessed are the Peacemakers. Not the Peaceful. The Peacemakers. Jesus spoke Aramaic, and the Aramaic word for Peace is Shlama; in Hebrew, Shalom.

This word does not mean peace as in ‘peace and quiet’. This peace isn’t just the absence of war, or noise, or anxiety. This peace is not an absence of anything. It is a presence. It means wholeness, justice, fairness, respect, value. It means all of these things, and much more. And it doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be made. Hence: blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’

On Remembrance Sunday, we remember that 60 men of Woodstock made the ultimate sacrifice so that our world would have shalom; so that those left behind them might not be those hungry for war, but makers of peace. To honour their memory, you need to do more than keep silent for two minutes. To honour them, you need to speak.

It was there, in our first reading, the wisdom of the Old Testament as found in the book Ecclesiastes.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

The final verses run:

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Woodbine Willie spoke out. It cost him popularity, and burial in Westminster Abbey. Jesus spoke out – and we know what happened to him.

So – what are you going to say? What are you going to speak about? Homelessness? Poverty? Sexual assault and abuse? What form will your language take? A voice of integrity, and authority? A Gospel voice? A Peacemakers voice?

The world is full of voices. We are deafened by the cacophony. The only voices that are worth hearing are the ones who speak the truth. In love. And in action. For the world needs to hear the voices of the peacemakers. This town needs to hear the voice of peacemakers. We all do. For how else shall we live?

Yesterday, and today, we have kept the silence, and rightly so.

Now that is done, and now it is time to speak.

Now it is time to make for peace.