Remembrance Sunday

Sermon presented on the 11th November, 2018

On the 11th of November 1918 Private Arthur Wrench of the Seaforth Highlanders wrote in his diary: “I think it is quite hopeless to describe what today means to us. We who will return to tell people what war really is surely hope that 11 am this day will be of great significance to generations to come. Surely this is the last war that will ever be between civilised nations.” From our perspective what a terribly tragic irony.

We have come here today to remember all those who have fallen in wars present and past. Some of you will have a personal memory of losing a member of your own family or friend, but for many of us it will be an inherited memory, passed on from one generation to the next.

It is 100 years since the Armistice was signed at the end of the First World War, and 98 years since the Cenotaph was unveiled and the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey.

These things are part of history, but for millions of people since then war has not been history but a part of their lives.

How do we define a war? So often we hear and read about the number of deaths and injured; the length of campaigns, the number of guns and missiles and the size of the armed forces. Perhaps the numbers suggest the scale of a conflict, but I suggest that statistics have little, if any, relevance to those who have lost a son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother.

Several years ago I accompanied a group of Yr 9 girls on their annual history trip to the Belgian battlefields. On one evening we all went to the Menin Gate at Ypres for the ceremony of the last post. This is performed every evening at 8.00pm and shows the gratitude of the Belgian people to those who fought and died in protecting their country. It was a very moving ceremony and had a profound effect on the girls.  We had brought a wreath with us and two of the girls laid this beside the others. 

It is eternally important that we remind ourselves of the dreadful cost of war if we are ever to live in peace. The most compelling outward sign of our remembrance is the simple red flower, the Flanders Poppy. It has become the symbol of the Royal British Legion, but more than that, across the world, it has come to represent the sacrifice made by all those men, women and children who have given their lives in conflict.

From early history flowers have become symbols; Clover leaf for the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Lilies for purity, Roses for love and for England, Daffodils for the Marie Curie charity and for Wales, Thistle for Scotland and the Shamrock for Ireland. But, how was the poppy chosen as the universal symbol of remembrance?

As you might expect, it began with a death, the death of a friend of a man called John McCrae in 1915 in Belgium. John McCrae was kneeling at the grave of his friend and was moved to write a poem reflecting the scene around him. He wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow                                                                

Between the crosses, row on row                                                                          

That mark our place; and in the sky                                                                      

The larks, still bravely singing,  fly                                                                   

Scarce heard among the guns below.                                                                     

We are the dead. Short days ago                                                                             

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,                                                                 

Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields

McCrae himself was unhappy with the poem and he threw it aside, but one of McCrae’s fellow officers found it and was so touched that he sent the poem to England where it was published in the magazine Punch.

As a result, the scarlet poppy quickly became the symbol for soldiers who died in battle.

In 1921, the British Legion began the Poppy Day Appeal to raise money for poor and disabled veterans, and now the Poppy campaign is the Royal British Legion’s most important activity.

The appeal continues to raise the funding needed to help all service-men and women and their families in the most practical way. However, critically, the appeal serves to maintain our awareness of our past, and present, in order that our prayers for peace, and the future of our families, our children and grandchildren, will be fulfilled.

The bible records much violence, many wars and countless deaths, especially in the Old Testament, and it is a heartbreaking reflection that there has probably never been a time when conflict has not existed somewhere in the world.

The book of the prophet Micah was written around 700 years before Christ, and in it he prophesied a future of hope, an ideal world, a world when nations come together in peace instead of war. His words came against a background of violence with the fall of Samaria in the North and instability in the region created by the aggressive superpower of Assyria. However, he never lost faith for the future. His vision saw a time when the arms of war would be turned into farming tools and people would live in peaceful community.

Jesus was born into an occupied land and he lived and died in that land. The Jews were waiting for their king, the Messiah, and they expected him to overthrow the Roman invaders by the traditional, violent, means. Peace was not on the agenda in those New Testament times. Jesus came and taught peace to the disciples and anyone who would hear him, he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

The message that Jesus carried did not suit the Pharisees and religious leaders because he threatened the status quo, and anyway he did not fit their idea of the anticipated mighty and all-conquering Messiah. The local Roman authorities were worried that any unrest would reflect badly on them.

They wanted a quiet life; peace on their terms was just fine. So Jesus, the light of the world, died for us in an act of darkest violence. Three days later, as the Son of God, he rose again in light for us.

Peace is a precious commodity; it comes from trust, patience, tolerance and faith. It is not unilateral, it cannot be “Peace only on my terms”, it results from mutual agreement and understanding. Peace has never been easy to achieve; it is very hard work to establish and keep the peace at any level in our society.

Yet regardless of the difficulties, peace must be what we all strive for, what Micah foresaw, what Jesus taught us.

The driving force for peace must come from us, it must come from our remembrance of those who have given their lives in war; it must come from those injured in conflict and for their families and loved ones. Peace will not come if we forget; it won’t happen if we wait for others to work for it.    It is through our vigilance, our voice, and our prayers that peace and light will emerge.

The poppy wreaths and crosses that we will lay at the memorial today remember not only those from this community who have given their lives. We will also remember the injured and their families for whom we have no recorded names.

The Poppy is our symbol of Remembrance, but let us remember through the remembering of pain and loss that there is always the light of hope, love and faith through Jesus Christ.


Adapted from talk written by Rev. John Brown in 2011