(A Sermon, given at Upavon on Remembrance Sunday, 9th
November 2003, adapted from one given in Milton Lilbourne on 14th
Earlier this year my family celebrated my 20th. birthday - fourth time
round. I now pay for my television what I think most of it is worth, and I
have far more yesterdays than I have tomorrows.
Like other people of my age, I have many memories and am inclined to bore
younger people with them.
During the past ten years or so there have been several television
programmes about the wars of the last century. These have varied from John
Wayne winning battles in the Pacific, the privations of the London Blitz,
and harrowing pictures of the holocaust and so on.
I find it relatively easy to learn more about the Boer War. I have no
personal connection with that bit of history. It is less easy to watch
details of the 1914-18 war - my father fought and suffered in that war. I
was born only five years after it ended. That war was a gross example of
civilisation’s stupidity. That was a war in which there was wholesale and
mindless slaughter in the trenches and elsewhere. My childhood was in some
way affected by my father’s ordeal.
It requires more resolve for me to watch programmes about the 39-45 war
through which I lived and which, by the providence of Almighty God, I
managed to survive.
When you have lost comrades, friends or relatives; when your friends have
told you of experiences in Changi gaol or in other Japanese torture camps;
When you have heard at first hand the experiences of former prisoners of war
in Germany and Poland; when you can actually remember reading in the papers
of the liberation of Belsen, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and other horrors, and
seeing pictures of those tortured to death and near death;
When you recall being thankful that you had heard the bang and were still
in one piece; when you hear of the atrocities committed not only by the
enemy but by your Russian allies, not only as acts of uncontrolled
vengeance, but by an ogre called Stalin against his own people; when you
realise that all this happened in your time, you are aware that this is not
just history. Much less is it entertainment.
Yes, there have been more recent wars, “lesser wars”, forgotten wars, and
still present-day wars. These are some of the things we remember today.
Some of us remember with thanksgiving that we were spared then. All of us
should remember that our country was not invaded, that freedom was not
We recall too the countless acts of courage and resolution that achieved
these ends and which sustained our people.
And we remember those who suffered and died.
We remember too with sadness that what we have witnessed in the last
century is the evil which can engulf the minds of our fellow human beings -
after a thousand years of so-called civilisation.
Whether by coincidence or no, television seems recently to have a “thing”
about dinosaurs. There are disturbing similarities here. Here are fearsome
creatures defending their occupied territory, depending on awesome weapons
to bring down prey; relying on sheer size and heavy armour to maintain their
tribe and extend their territory; creatures, who, in the desire to maintain
their power, were oblivious to what we would call cruelty and the the agony
and suffering of fellow beings; creatures to whom almost every other being
was a competitor to be shunned or eliminated, and whose only mutual
tolerance was for a brief and loveless mating.
Am I describing primordial dinosaurs or twenty-first century mankind ? It
is a well-used truism that the veneer of civilisation lies very thinly over
our primitive instincts.
I call myself a Christian. For most of my life I have tried to teach
others of the importance of Christianity. Why?
Well, let’s get it clear - It’s not because I consider myself to be
“good”. I am a sinner.
I have no desire to escape from the realities of the world into a
Bible-thumping, happy-clappy world of sanitised pop music and ritual
“big-hugs”. I have neither right nor desire to wag my disapproving finger at
the private lives of people or to make detailed promises of the hereafter
about which I know virtually nothing.
I could give you a long list of reasons why I am a Christian, but the
fundamental one, the basic one, is that I can see only one way, and only
one, that has any hope of widening a gap. On one hand is the primitive world
of competition, envy, ambition, hatred, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the survival
of the wealthiest and the strongest. On the other hand is that true ideal of
a “loftier race” which shall be ‘gentle brave and strong’ when ‘nation to
nation, land to land, unarmed shall live as comrades free; in every heart
and brain shall throb the pulse of one fraternity.’
I am a Christian because only in the teaching and life of Jesus of
Nazareth do I find both the IDEAL and the AUTHORITY which offer the promise
that humanity CAN put its primeval swamp behind it and start to behave as
children of God.
I learn that HE said, “Blessed are those who are not dominated by the
thought of material gain, who mourn over the evil in the world, who
cheerfully accept their role in life, whose desire is to be at peace with
God, who are always ready to forgive, who seek after peace and who are ready
to accept misrepresentation and endure false accusation.
That is just the beginning of the “sermon in the Mount”.
And he went on in that same teaching session to give good advice about
motivation for much of human behaviour. People pay small fortunes to
psychologists for saying much the same thing. You can get it free by reading
three chapters by St. Matthew.
My Christianity has not so much to do with what is called “religion” and
“The Church”. These are simply the often imperfect apparatus which is used
to focus attention on the teaching of Christ. Religion and The Church have
been, and still are, frighteningly Imperfect. Sceptics will tell you that
they have been the cause of much war - and they are right. They are right
because institutions are made up of sinners like me. We get our priorities
wrong; we are influenced by “what’s in it for me?” and “What power does it
give me?”. But if we trim away the human and often sinful trappings we are
left facing Christ. “Who do YOU think I am ? he asked his disciples.
Later he gives then the ultimate reply. “The Father and I are one!”
That is his authority for putting before us what St. Paul calls “the more
excellent way”. That demands my loyalty.
In our time, may have died and are still being killed, for an ideal. The
ideal of a land fit for heroes, for ultimate and lasting peace, for human
rights, for liberty and security, for the destruction of evil and the
pursuit of happiness.
Only Christ has revealed that not only is this possible, but that it is
indeed, part of God’s plan for his people.
Today we remember that, too, with thanksgiving.
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004
THE PRISONER’S PRAYER
(This prayer was written by an unknown prisoner in
Ravensbruck concentration camp. It was found written on a piece of wrapping
paper near the body of a dead child.)
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good-will, but also
those of evil will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us;
Remember the fruits we have borne, thanks to this suffering - our
comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity; the
greatness of heart which has grown out of all this; And when they come to
the judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
SUMMER REVERIE 1994
(Written by Gp.Capt. John Peel D.S.O., D.F.C. who, as a
Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, was shot down three times. Until
recently he still walked the downs above Figheldean)
These Wiltshire downs I like to walk
Bear witness to those days when I was young.
Here, from these grasses bending to the breeze
In endless waves towards the sky,
I flew in youthful ecstasy to loop and roll
Among the peaks and valleys of the clouds.
“Stand here on this high bluff, old man,
and look towards the South;
Past that high spire,
across the fields of Hampshire now in bloom,
on to the English sea
There, where white trails of battle
Once etched the summer sky,
The chances of your life or death
passed piteously in brutal lottery.”
John Peel. September 1994.