Service on Remembrance Sunday, November 9.2008
Service on Remembrance Sunday, November 9.2008

Sermon preached at a Service on Remembrance Sunday, November 9.2008 in St Macartan’s Cathedral, Clogher
by the Right Reverend Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher
Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; St Matthew 25:1-13

St Matthew 25:13 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying: ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The Readings which we have heard this afternoon speak of preparation and practicality – both of them are essential to the life and work of the serving soldier. The Wisdom of Solomon introduces us to Wisdom itself, spoken of here as a person. Wisdom the person overlaps significantly and intimately with the person of God, as the author understands and pictures Wisdom. The very positive thing which comes through is that Wisdom actively makes herself known to those who seek Wisdom. Wisdom is to be found at the gate, in a prominent position where she simply cannot remain un-seen – precisely because everyone passing in and out passes through the gate of the city, the town or the village. The picture continues: once Wisdom has been met and recognized, Wisdom becomes a companion, seeking out new friends, meeting people as they go on their way and meeting them also in everything that they think and do. Wisdom is not abstract, therefore, Wisdom is a friend to those in sorrow or in joy, caught up as they are in their everyday life and preoccupation. It ought, then, to follow quite easily for us that in the New Testament Reading the distinction is clearly drawn between a practical wisdom and a practical folly. Being prepared for the Lord’s arrival is one thing. Being prepared for the Lord’s delayed arrival is quite another. And it is, perhaps, here that we see a shift in thinking. This, again, is not a matter of theory but a matter of practice. Lived wisdom is the particular point at which you recognize that you are part of what has been carefully prepared and at which you have a special part to play. If you are ready to play it and to cope with the emergencies and the things which are unexpected, and if you can indeed react to them, then you are recognized as a friend and received as a guest. The Wisdom which has been waiting at the gate, the Wisdom which meets you and accompanies you receives you now into the banquet of the Messiah.

We gather this afternoon to remember with thanksgiving those from this parish and locality who followed the call of Wisdom in their day and hour in serving their country, in serving the cause of freedom in their generation and in creating a climate of freedom for their successors. We here this afternoon are beneficiaries of their active sense of active service. For them, they would have combined and drawn together a number of voices: the voice of duty; the voice of honour; the voice of a most special contribution in the hour of need and darkness; the voice of care for others; the voice of God – all of these voices together made and constituted for them the voice of Wisdom. And as the years between the events themselves and our remembering them grow in number and in distance it is all the more important that in remembering we do not forget. Our remembering is, of course, set in the context of a wide appreciation of war. Sadly – particularly for those who thought it – the turn of the second into the third millennium has not brought about either a cessation of war or the advent of predictable peace. Across the arena of world events we still live daily with theatres of war and with all of the squalid consequences of impoverishment, displacement, cruelty, illness and death. It does not change sufficiently for us to be convinced that it has in any sense gone away. And so we, too, in our day – in our remembering – need Wisdom to meet us, to accompany us and to warn us repeatedly to be prepared.

Now I am sure that you would agree with me in saying that the phrase: Whatever you say, say nothing …is a piece of homespun wisdom which has seen many a person out of a tight corner and I can only presume will do so again. Many of us will have heard it and perhaps used it. I wonder indeed if, in so doing, we ever give it a second thought. What does it say? Does it speak from a standpoint of confidence and resilience - based on the matter in hand being so self-evident that you do not in fact need to say anything more? Or does it speak, instead, from a standpoint of fear and resignation heading, rather, towards the sort of silence which says nothing in its quest for yet another piece of homespun wisdom: anything for a quiet life? Maybe somehow the phrase has stood the test of time precisely because it can and does say any or all of these things at the same time and still is capable of keeping people guessing.

But more recently, as I am sure that you know, the phrase: Whatever you say, say nothing … has had a new lease of life as the title of a piece of research undertaken by The Hard Gospel Project of the Church of Ireland; it is a report on the views and experiences of Border Protestants for the Church of Ireland Diocese of Clogher. The Report is a report for our times. It is ten years now since ‘the outbreak of peace’ in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming absence of real violence as a daily occurrence in our streets and in our fields and hedges is a cause of gratitude and relief. Often we hear that nobody now wants things to go back to how they were in the bad old days of The Troubles and that nobody has an appetite for violence of that sort and on that scale. I simply hope that this is true and I try very hard to share their confidence.

But where - as People of the Open Book, as people who claim to be Bible-based in all our thinking, as people who rejoice in a heritage of ready access to the Bible in our own language, a development in which history combined to give us both the Reformation and the Printing Press – where do we stand within the Biblical expectation as peacemakers, not simply as peacetakers? What contribution have we made; what contribution do we wish and want actively to make to a community of respect, a country of confidence and a climate of co-operation? The report in its concluding section expresses it starkly: ‘Clogher Diocese should seek to determine the key areas where ‘the carpet’ (as in the phrase: lifting the carpet) needs to be lifted and whether or not it is indeed the role of the Church to encourage and enable people (Church leaders, clergy, parishioners and others) to gain the skills and confidence, and secure the support, to face and address the issues and challenges that prevail. The alternative is arguably a future built on continued avoidance and dishonesty.’ This really does nail it – are we willing together to move out and to move forward or do we somehow expect others to do this work for us? And if they get it wrong do we want them around to offload shame and blame?

The Report, to my mind, highlights a dilemma at a deep human level which simply will not go away. It is a conviction which lies at the heart of human integrity and human solidarity that it is quite wrong to diminish an experience which you yourself have not had. At the same time it is also impossible to avoid the fact that any human society is made up of people who have had similar and overlapping experiences and others who have had quite different and contradictory experiences. The key - later or sooner – is for such groups to listen, to understand and then to act together. Until that happens, life is in a very real sense suspended and, in an equally real sense, not happening. Where part of the total community is hurting, the rest of the community is hurting – and may even have no effective way of expressing it – AND the whole community is incomplete. St Paul tells us as much whether it be about the crucifixion of Jesus or the church as the body of Christ.

I trust that you will find time to read the Report. There are copies in abundance at the West End of the cathedral and I hope that you will take one home. I am glad that it was commissioned and I am glad that we have it. It is a competent and a sensitive piece of work on a post-Conflict situation and such a situation of Conflict and post-Conflict is where our memories also carry us today: we stand together post-World War 1, post-World War 2, post-The Troubles of Northern Ireland and are catapulted on into Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and elsewhere with all the sadness, anger, confusion and forgiveness which such conflicts have brought to the fore in human individuals. Their own experience is the realization that war itself brings few winners through its barbed-wire, its landmines and mortars, its knee-cappings, its cluster bombs and its concentration camps, whether they be Dachau, Auschwitz or Guantanamo Bay. It is true but frightening to say that the trauma and the wounded-ness of war and situations of conflict can and do eat up the future as well as the present for people who become en-meshed in things and situations they never expected to have to encounter. For such people are at the mercy of forces they cannot regulate.

Some things in the Report strike me as particularly note-worthy and rather alarming but they do locate us in the wider context of what is happening throughout the world. Many people from the diocese were interviewed for this Report and there is, in fact, no sustained mention of God in it on the lips of anyone. Of course this puts us in the diocese of Clogher in exactly the place in which we find the rest of the Western world – increasingly slow even to talk about God, unconcerned about our inability to do so, content with the ‘value added’ of secular consumerism – but it will come as a shock to you as indeed it did to me. From what I can see, not one of the participants mentions God once. I fully accept that for many people there are tremendous difficulties in finding God again after a sustained period of conflict and even in believing in God but I do not somehow think that this is what has happened here. In fact I do not know what has happened. But I do know that there is no real evidence of God being where we seem to be going. You would expect people who have quite a lot to say – and often being very critical of others into the bargain - about what they want and do not want the church to be to speak about God in what they are saying. But: No!

The second thing which particularly struck me is a suggestion made in the body of the Report as an editorial comment by the author. It connects the thinking of people in the diocese with the thinking of the whole of Europe in the post-Conflict situation of two World Wars, not least in the context of what is now called the European Union. It comes across as a practical, courageous expression of that genuine cry for help voiced so often in the form: ‘It must never happen again …’ It runs as follows and I quote from the Report: ‘The task facing the Church, and indeed wider society, is arguably less about solving or fixing whatever the immediate issues may be and more about building a new preparedness and capacity to embrace such contentious issues in an on-going way. Perhaps the real challenge is to learn to walk towards rather than away from conflict and genuinely see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.’ This, I respectfully suggest to us all, is a place where Protestant people have not often been before and a place where we need to enter. I ask you please to think about it and to consider where it might take us.

The third thing I want to say relates to something which the author of the Report, Mr David Gardiner, said and it is this: in Chinese characters the symbol for conflict is the same as the symbol for opportunity. Again, I ask you please to think about it. It connects with the previous point I have made and it opens a way of breaking the cycle of re-invented suspicion, hostility, diminishment which has taken place on all sides and may well still be there under the surface of The Peace. This is the point at which we have the potential to make a difference and to match our experience in all its reality, painfulness, forgiveness and hopefulness with what it is to be adventurous. And this is why, at the recent Diocesan Synod, I spoke with the highest of expectation of this Report as ushering in an era of hope.

The motto, derived from Holy Scripture, which expresses the life-blood of the Anglican Communion is the following: The truth shall set you free.
It is a rule of thumb which I have found every bit as useful as that other rule of thumb which we have been discussing: Whatever you say, say nothing … We all aspire to truth but so often do not want truth on God’s terms. The terms on which God offers truth to us is such that God does not, in giving it to us, deny it to others whom we do not, cannot and will not control. I say this not to be disloyal to truth and truth-telling but because truth and love in the person of God are the same. As I said earlier, the absence of any mention of God in the Report does not of itself inspire confidence - in fact it can do only the opposite - inspire concern and alarm. But, where will the truth lead us? If we do not honestly and openly ask this question in 2008, we simply are left with the unanswered question of generations of people at home and abroad who have already fought and given their lives for freedom and truth and love and respect. We simply cannot, when we gather in the name and in the house of the God who is truth, be left with the unanswered question of the hand-wringing Pontius Pilate: What is truth? Not least on a Day of Remembrance, my friends, we need to go further as our human need and our spiritual instinct combine to seek resolution of questions which torture.

Any post-Conflict situation leads us into fresh expressions of truth because neither human nature nor God lives in a vacuum - or can do. Today we commemorate – with sober diligence and thankful dutifulness – the offering of life on the part of those who gave not only everything they had but also everything they were to humanity and to God, as each one of them understood God to be, for a future which they themselves would not see. Every generation has the open opportunity to be mindful of what previous generations have given, of what others who came before us offered in terms of courage, conviction and commitment. In the words of a hymn too infrequently sung:
Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found him,
Whose journey is ended, whose perils are past;
They believed in the light; and its glory is round them,
Where the clouds of earth’s sorrows are lifted at last.

Let us not, in our day, in any way dis-honour them by our fearfulness of a future which God carries in his heart and is yet to disclose. In the morning and in the evening let us remember them.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12: Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.

May God bless both our remembering those of the past and our hoping for those of the future.


Date: 11 Nov 08