Sermon preached by the Rector of Winchelsea, Canon Robin Whitehead, on Remembrance Sunday 2015
So all day long the noise of battle roll’d
among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fall’n in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
The noise of battle rolls on and on and on and humanity never learns that nothing is achieved from war but suffering.
I find myself in the Imperial War Museum. I am a Friend of the IWM. I never seem to get there out of school holidays and half terms. I want to be there alone one day, to ponder, to meditate, to take in the enormity of the suffering of a century.
I stand in the shop and hear the CD playing the Last Post, and the Evening Hymn and Sunset. That melody for Sunset touches me every time. But I can scarcely hear the music for the noise of people, of children, of noisy families. It’s good that they are here. The next generation must remember too. We must never forget, “ swear by the green of the spring”, writes Sassoon “ that you’ll never forget.”
I pray we never will.
I stand alone in the cemetery at Pozieres on the road to Albert, trying to take in the lines and lines of white graves, and even more so, taking in the ages of those lying there in the eternal silence of that place. The only sound is the wind howling around me. I stand in the wet at Thiepval and look up at the countless, interminable names.
I don’t want crowds around. I want to be far from the noise of battle and take it all in.
I light three candles with the children at Icklesham School this past week. One candle for the holy men and women down the ages whom we call the saints and whom we commemorated last Sunday, one candle for our loved ones who have gone before us and whom we still miss terribly and one candle for those who have given their lives in battle, who have fallen in the noise of battle, the clamour of warfare. No sound for a moment from the children. Soon life will go on in the playground but for a moment, we’ll be still.
Perhaps I should have lit another candle to remind us that the casualties of war are so often the innocent bystanders as well, and even up to this very moment. The plane blown out of the sky with holidaymakers recounting their happy memories of two weeks in the sun. In a moment, gone. The bombs reigning down on a city in times of war.
I sit up late reading Noonday by Pat Barker. It’s a fine novel that narrates the life of London in the Blitz. “Sitting like this in silence, listening to the sirens, you felt the darkness deepen. Even with every lamp in the room lit, you were aware of it, pushing against the windowpanes, seeping through cracks in doors and walls, dragging the city back into barbarism” Silence here becomes threatening, frightening, awaiting what fate has planned.
But in this silence, here and now, soon to be broken like any silence, not God willing by bombs, at least not here, which is sadly not what we can say for many parts of our world, here we remember the cost of war, for all people at all times and pledge to continue working for a changed world.
In a moment the choir will sing the anthem. “So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received praise that will never die, and a home in the minds of men. Their story lives on without visibly symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”
The late Peter Aston produces a haunting melody, incorporating trace of the Last Post.
Every time I hear this piece I think about the British Empire and the Commonwealth of nations but this was part of a speech delivered by Pericles, eminent Athenian politician, at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian (404 BC) as a part of the annual public funeral oration for the war dead.
We shan’t worry about the rest of that funeral oration. It doesn’t serve our purpose today except to recall that warfare has been in the DNA of humanity for all time.
We might remind ourselves of the words of President Jimmy Carter, humanitarian, peacemaker. “So I believe that in almost every case, the wars have been avoidable without betraying the basic moral principles and privileges and well-being of the countries involved. I think we’ve had unnecessary wars. So I think that we need to be more reluctant to go to war, and to go there only in desperate conditions when all avenues towards peace are exhausted, including good-faith discussions, either directly with our potential adversaries or through a trusted intermediary”.
It is our duty this day to ensure that those who in the cause of peace have given, and continue to give, of their life are honoured and remembered.
Remembrance Sunday draws human beings together in a unique way; people of all ages and all walks of life coming together across the nation, across nations to remember and reflect. In that moment of peace, of quiet reflection, a moment of prayer for peacemakers and governments that they might find ways of bringing the families of nations torn asunder by warfare and violence to resolve differences and work for peace. As one hymn puts it, praying for peace but not a cruel peace that leaves God’s poor bereft and dying in distress, a real peace, enriching all the human race.
After the noise of battle, silence, after the bombardment, a time for reflection, a time to remember, a time to reflect, a time to mourn, a time to look with compassion on the anguish of the world.