Sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, November 8.2009 in Enniskillen Cathedral
Sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday, November 8.2009 in Enniskillen Cathedral
by the Right Reverend Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher
Readings: 1 Samuel 17:31-37; psalm 56; Philippians 3.10-16; St Mark 12:38-44.
1 Samuel 17.37a: Go then, said Saul, and the Lord be with you….
To gather on Remembrance Sunday in this cathedral church is both an intimidatingand an inspiring thing to do. It is intimidating because we are surrounded in Enniskillen Cathedral in a very particular way by all the visual reminders of what Enniskillen itself has been in history - an island fortress; the home of the Inniskilling Regiment which raised armies for generations and fought worldwide with bravery and loyalty and cherishes to this day such a heritage; a place which gathers and garners history. This is a weighty heritage. It is equally inspiring because of the depth of commitment to community carried in the name Enniskillen today and in the humanity which lies within it, in terms of service and sacrifice. We remember with sadness and thanksgiving that tradition here this morning and marvel at the willingness to risk everything shown by so many in such far away places. We remember also more specifically today those from this parish who lost their lives in two World Wars in the last century, a time beyond recall but not beyond remembering. Also in our hearts are those who lost life and limb in The Troubles in Northern Ireland and whose memory combines with the continuing mourning for those killed and maimed in mind, in body and in emotion in The Bombing. The Bomb – still un-owned by its authors and perpetrators - across the world carries the name of this island town of Enniskillen and the sorrow of us, its people.

One of the noteworthy things which has happened over the year past is that two of the most venerable veterans of World War 1 in the United Kingdom have died, aged well over one hundred years. Prior to their deaths, they both spoke eloquently and with an authority bred of the entitlement to speak the truth which real experience gives. Their consistent plea was for peace and for war no more or ever again. This is an important perspective as once again we consider the purpose and the outcome of two World Wars. It may not, however, be something which any of us regards as entirely realistic. Facing totalitarianism, confronting power which is little more than nationalized greed, standing up to an ideology which systematically and scientifically sets out to annihilate whole categories of human beings and races simply because they exist – if this is what war is, then there is in my opinion an argument for preventing the forward march of such destructive and inhuman regimes particularly when they are immune from self-criticism and impervious to criticism from without.

The twentieth century I am sure never set out to be the century of war, but it succeeded in earning that title by the time we rang in the millennium. And in its first decade, the twenty-first century has had more than its fair share of warfare right across the globe. Many, I am sure, will echo the sentiment contained in the characteristically gentle words of the archbishop of Canterbury on October 9th, almost a month ago, marking the end of military operations in Iraq: A time to reflect on the unexpected qualities of people like ourselves who, caught up in the confusions of a great international upheaval, simply got on with the task they were given because they believed that order and justice mattered.

Of the three Readings from Holy Scripture which we have read and heard this morning, the first began with words of blessing to a young man going to war: Go then, said Saul to David, and the Lord be with you and the third concludes with a poor widow dropping two tiny coins into the Temple Treasury. This Gospel Reading highlights for all eternity the importance of never ever dismissing the generosity of those who possess next to nothing, but have a sacrificial heart. And the Reading in between takes us to the eye of the storm with the one who, in facing death, draws us in and through the gate of death to resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ himself. Young men and young women; old widows and young widows: these are the weave of war. Both carry deep echoes and profound resonances for us here today in Enniskillen. It would be all too easy to see David as a headstrong young man, cocky and articulate. But if we listen to what he himself says, we can discover that what he is doing is putting at the disposal of king and country the skills and expertise which he has already proved to be effective. Many young men and women have done this in wars ever since. It would, once again, be easy in a world of dazzling materialism to see the contribution of the widow to the Temple Treasury as nothing more than small change. But the problem here is the distortion of values. Time and again, we have no context of understanding out of which we can really judge what others do, what others give, who others are, why they are the way they are.

Situations of war reduce those with and those without earthly goods to the same level of human need and suffering. There is nothing but the coldest of comfort in the misty memory of something grander. And central to these human pictures is the human Jesus Christ. Paul is setting priorities, speaking in the first person and marking out the territory for all who have ears to hear. His concern is that people will fall back into ways in which they were comfortable before Jesus Christ met them. For Paul the present which makes sense of the future is being formed with Jesus Christ, marching in death to resurrection. This is a radical message and, sitting here as we are, probably sounds abstract and theological. But Paul is at his most emotional when he is talking in this way. Paul is offering to those who are wide open to confusion a straight path, a way forward and a goal to attain. The solidarity of the dying and the risen Christ with the rest of humanity has itself sustained and inspired, encouraged and angered, many a serving soldier as the connections with what I quoted from Archbishop Williams become clearer: they simply got on with the task they were given because they believed that justice and order mattered.

A few areas seem to me to be important in engaging with the legacy of service in the cause of order and justice, as Archbishop Williams described it. Every year, around this time, anxieties are voiced as to whether or not generations will continue to remember, in the way we understand Remembrance Sunday. In the wake of media sophistication, complexity and confusion tend to destabilize any sense of what we can readily understand as well as introducing footage which does in fact record and present what is happening right now in the arena of war. Documentary investigation gives us a deeper understanding of the context in which, historically, decisions were made and of the intention of those who made them. But obedience also lies at the heart of service, and this too the archbishop is careful to point out as follows: The modern serviceman or woman will not be someone who has accepted without question a set of easy answers. Their obedience is anything but mindless. But it is obedience all the same, obedience that comes from recognizing that others have been given a clear responsibility for certain difficult decisions.

One area which seems to me to matter is that we remain connected with the strong and principled sense of duty of those who ‘went to war.’ Decisions are made at national level. Decisions are also made at individual level. The pledge is that the state will do its utmost to protect those who go to war for good reason and the pledge is that the individual will do his and her best to fulfil the task and duty as entrusted. The level of self-understanding, the range of skills, the willingness to take both orders and initiative are attributes which we must not ever forget and must always remember. A sense of duty requires a living respect for all involved and that rare quality in today’s world, the recognition that there is a higher good, and that such a higher good dictates the flow of our response.

A second area is keeping alive the truth that love is stronger than death; that hope is stronger than fear; and that service is not futile. You might call it the battle for morale - but it is more than that. It takes everyone to the point where self-belief hits the brick wall and gnawing questions of self-doubt rise to the surface with ever-greater intensity. We must never underestimate or diminish the commitment to something beyond themselves which those who served - however long or short – in two World Wars showed. All of them served in places which they did not know. Many of them were imprisoned among people whose language they could not understand. Many of them never returned home and yet they kept alive the sense of direction and the singleness of purpose which made it possible to understand in a deep way that love is stronger than death and that ideals and practicalities can and must meet, and in meeting interact with one another. Some of you may have read, or seen as films, some of the Harry Potter books. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire there is the violent and cruel death of a pupil at Hogwarts School called Cedric Diggory. At the end of term, the headmaster utters the telling words to all assembled in the Hall: If ever you find yourselves faced with the choice between what is good and what is easy, remember Cedric Diggory. Note that it is not: the choice between what is good and what is bad, but between what is good and what is easy. The choice between what is good and what is easy does not present itself to those who serve in war and the rest of us do well to remember that too.

As David in the Old Testament stands on the conviction that victory over Goliath the Philistine is his because this Goliath has defied the ranks of the living God, so those who believe that order and justice matter stand with principle as their defence. As Paul presses towards the finishing line, he is not so much competing against others as offering his pledge to complete the task to which he has set his hand, so those who offer military service in any of the three Forces keep before them the goal of finishing the job. As the poor widow drops in her two tiny coins un-noticed and un-appreciated by everyone other than the Saviour, so no act of courage is insignificant or taken for granted.

Remembrance Sunday is a day of mixed emotions. It is a day of piercing memories and of vivid pictures. We gather to remember those who for the sake of freedom and for order and for justice gave more than time; they gave life itself. Once more in silence and thanksgiving we remember them in a spirit of sorrowful gratitude.

St Mark 12.42, 43: Presently there came a poor widow who dropped in two tiny coins, together worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, Truly I tell you: this poor widow has given more than all those who are giving to the treasury.