Remembrance Sunday 14th November 2021

Remembrance

Sunday 14th November 2021

In 1914 at the outbreak of the first world war, a twenty-five-year-old South African named Percy Fitzpatrick, a former student at Oxford, returned home to Johannesburg and volunteered for military service. He saw service in some of the most ferocious battles of the first world war, including the Battle of the Somme.  On 14th December 1917, FitzPatrick, now an acting Major, was nearing the railway station at Beaumetz in north east France to say farewell to two friends who were going on leave to England. A chance shell, fired at long range, struck FitzPatrick and he was killed, aged 28. His father, Sir Percy FitzPatrick senior had lost his eldest son.  Father wanted to do something significant to mark the death of his son and so he planted memorial trees on his land, however he wanted to do more.  Sir Percy had been impressed by a one-minute silence kept in his local church in 1916 after the South African casualty list had been read out. The date and time of the Armistice – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – inspired Sir Percy FitzPatrick to suggest an annual commemoration.  His suggestion was forwarded to the King, George V who promptly took up this suggestion and the King issued a ‘call to the nation’ at the beginning of November 1919 asking that, ‘for the brief space of two minutes, there be a complete suspension of all normal activities…to perpetuate the memory of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.’  The first minute’s silence is intended as a thanksgiving for those who have survived. The second minute is to remember the fallen. And so, on 11th November 1919, the Armistice Day silence was officially observed for the first time. We continue that tradition as fervently as ever over a century later, on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday - today.

This annual act of remembrance gathers us as a civic community and as a nation  because, as well as the sacrifices of the past, we remember that men and women of today’s armed services continue to make extraordinary sacrifices – sometimes the ultimate sacrifice – in the cause of peace and for the preservation of freedom and justice. In recent years, UK forces have regularly been deployed in more than 80 countries around the world. 

I would like to reflect why we gather for this act of remembrance in church?  I’d like to offer two key reasons why I think we are gathering here this morning, and at the Memorial a bit later on.

The first concerns the stories that surround war. Remembrance Sunday gathers together countless human experiences of the bravery, sacrifice and anguish of war and violence. Remembrance Sunday gathers all those stories into churches such as this and places them in the context of the great Christian story of the violent suffering of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and the hope of the resurrection. One of the reasons we can fit our human stories of the sacrifice and pain of war into the Christian story is because Christianity never glosses over the human suffering and loss that is the inevitable outcome of war. The accounts of Jesus last days in the new testament never fast forwards through the crucifixion to arrive swiftly and triumphantly at a cosy resurrection. The Christian story recognises the reality of human violence and our grief that, in this fallen world, it is sometimes necessary to fight and die for freedom and justice in defence of the vulnerable. Christian faith also teaches us that violence and sacrifice – the violence that crucified Jesus Christ – does not have the last word. It doesn’t end there. Our hope lies in something more – another kingdom, a new life. In the resurrection of Jesus lies our hope that the death of our servicemen and women and the grief that follows are not the end. There is more, because God holds them in his life, in an eternal hope of redemption and resurrection. This has been the testimony of the Christmas Church for 2000 years – that death will not have the final word.  We hold on to this promise of resurrection and of hope for all those we remember today.

The second reason why we come to church for Remembrance Sunday concerns another key aspect of Christian thought – that we are created and every human life is a unique and irreplaceable gift, and therefore of infinite value. In this Christian context, our lives are not simply the outcome of a blind evolutionary process or the product of our culture or whatever we happen to want or do. Our lives are a unique gift that finds its ultimate source in a giver – the mysterious source of all things we call God – who brought our world into being.  If we understand that our life is a gift from a giver, this should make all the difference in the world to how we live because it’s not ours to do with simply as we please. So we start with thanksgiving to God for who and what we are – that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, as the Bible puts it. Understanding our life as a gift means that life has meaning in the way that any gift has meaning, as a bond between giver and recipient. We need to think carefully and seriously about what we do with the gift of our lives – how we treasure it, enjoy it and to what ends we live it.

The men and women whom we remember today, the millions killed in armed conflict, gave the gift of their lives in the cause of justice and peace. Each one of those lives is a unique and irreplaceable gift, so it is absolutely incumbent upon us today to be peacemakers and thereby ensure that they did not give their lives in vain. It’s also incumbent upon us as a nation never, ever to put our armed service men and women into harm’s when they might be asked to lay down the gift of their lives for anything but the most pressing of reasons as a very last resort.

The fallen men and women whom we remember with pride, thanksgiving and grief today, many of whom were very young, gave the gift of their lives to what they believed was the cause of peace, justice and goodness.  Our contemporary culture offers us many opportunities to live shallow, selfish and trivial lives. In the light of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving the gift of their lives on the battlefield, today’s Remembrance Service asks us to reflect on what it is that we are living for. They gave their loves for us.  What are we giving our lives for?

At the centre of our church we see the cross – the place where Jesus died. The cross also shows us the depth of God’s love for us and those we are remembering today – that God would lie down in the road for us and die for us.  The cross shows us the length, depth, and height of the love of God for all of us.  For God is love.  The cross is also a constant reminder for Christian people of the “example of love” that Jesus shows forth.  Jesus death on the cross and laying down his life for us, sets us the example by which we should live sacrificially for one another.  As in the words of our reading from John “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

On this Remembrance Sunday I suggest that the most fitting response from each of us is to offer afresh our own lives in the service of Christ and of one another and of our world. 

Nowhere is this better expressed for me than in the prayer of Ignatius Loyola.  Let us pray.

 “Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest; to give, and not count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to seek for rest; to labour, and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”    Amen


Remembrance Sunday 14th November 2021:
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