Eucharist Sermon - 14 November 2021

Remembrance Sunday
Ecclesiastes 3:1–11; James 3:13–18; Luke 19:41–48
The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, The Archdeacon of Oxford

Installed in Tom Quad are 239 ceramic poppies, representing members of Christ Church who died in the ‘war to end all wars’. Their names are inscribed on the memorial as you enter the Cathedral, alongside 220 members of the House from the Second World War. These ceramic poppies are among the 888,000 first installed at the Tower of London in 2014, each one representing a British and colonial military fatality in the First World War. Memorials capture the imagination, whether art installations, musical compositions or the tradition village cross, as we honour the war dead. Most are uncontroversial but I was present at the dedication of one that highlights the juxtaposition of sacrifice with the moral complexity of conflict: Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park. Constructed only in 2012 due to the pain and confusion of what it represents, it recalls the loss of 55,000 bomber aircrew; it also quietly includes the inscription, ‘alongside those of all nations who lost their lives’. As we consider the scale of suffering caused by human conflict, together with its motives, ambiguities and consequences, we need to address the question: how do we remember in a way that honours the past, informs the present and inspires the future?

What matters most is not what but how we remember. It is absolutely right that we should make our Act of Remembrance, just as the guns fell silent at the 11th hour on 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. I can tell you there is nothing more sobering than to stand on parade square in a far off land, bidding farewell to departed friends and colleagues, listening to the Last Post, saying prayers on behalf of young sailors, soldiers and airmen and women who may not always be able to articulate a faith but deep down are really grateful for spiritual sustenance. Yet if we are to honour those who have courageously served and died in world wars, more recent conflicts or in the fight to maintain civic society against terror and crime we need to do more, to remember with understanding so that we can be peacemakers today. In this context we thank God today for the compassionate remembrance evidenced in the 100 years of the Royal British Legion.

Yet it is difficult. On the one hand I love the abiding wisdom of the Ecclesiastes reading, reminding us of the wisdom required to know what activity is right, physically, morally emotionally, at any given time: 'There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven… a time to plant /uproot, kill & to heal...for war/peace'. But if only it were so easy...! I recall an RAF Regiment gunner in Iraq who shot an insurgent and then patched him up as the team medic. Yes, there comes a point when the choice is so stark, the cause so great, that there is no time left to ponder. Within our corporate memory you might think of the summer of 1940 when an existential threat to our nation demanded decisive action. We pray COP26 might be an effective catalyst for transformative climate action. But so often our moral choices are not binary - whatever politics or contemporary cultural commentary might suggest. The most appropriate course of action can be tricky to fathom with emotions and reason often jumbled together. Just as in our everyday experience when we sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, we should avoid a superficial, one-dimensional view of conflict for it bears a multitude of complexities.

Remembrance is made yet more challenging by the fickleness of the human condition: ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ asks St James. ‘Let them show it by good life, deeds that are underpinned by humility’. Who has not been envious, or harboured selfish agenda and witnessed the disorder that ensues? Leonard Cheshire, who won the VC as a Pathfinder pilot and later founded the Cheshire Homes, highlighted the tension: ‘Ambition is a good thing; but not at the expense of others’. Let’s not be fooled: this is a present reality, the potential for good and ill lies within each of us and it is writ large on the international stage. No wonder Jesus looked over Jerusalem and cried: “If you had only known what would bring you peace – yet it is hidden from your eyes.”  He cries today, whether over the legacy of failed intervention in Afghanistan, over arms proliferation, he cries over inadequate stewardship of his creation, he cries over the weaponizing of gender, water and even migration.

So how do we embrace a remembrance that is not merely rooted in history but can manage ambiguity and make wise choices whilst taking account of our human frailty? 

In his acceptance speech for the Templeton Award in 2016, the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, offered a helpful distinction between history and memory: history describes what happened; memory concerns identity and shapes legacy, making it not their story but our story. He concluded that a truly informed, corporate memory feeds our ability to make wise and morally courageous choices today.

I think we can go further. For the Scriptures reveal that our story is intricately woven into God’s greater story of creation and redemption. God has set eternity in the hearts of humanity, earth entwined with heaven, humanity with God. He understands the complexities that we face. He knows the deep waters of anger and pain in grief, where despair may be more present than hope – because he's been there, supremely in the death of his son. I was just one of countless military chaplains who can testify to the presence of God even where some have tried to make him absent. Jacob Astley got it right when praying at the Civil War Battle of Edgehill: “Lord you know how busy I must be this day; If I forget thee, do not thou forget me”.

The remarkable thing, of course, is not so much that we remember God but that he remembers us. In the Eucharist we remember, we make real for today, the gift of Jesus to journey with us in joys and sorrows, choices and dilemmas, amidst the passions that wage war within us - and in his ultimate reconciliation through his personal sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the grave he brings ultimate redemption and hope. It is as we let his story become our story today and as we offer our lives in compassionate Christian service, that we truly honour the sacrifices of the past, gain lasting hope for the future and become reconcilers today.