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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Stones to Remember By: a sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Next year we mark the centenary of the Great War. This year I took part in a ceremony to mark the anniversary of a conflict much longer ago. The Battle of Flodden was fought on the border between the English and Scots in September 1513. It ended with terrible loss of life on both sides; for Scotland it marked a day of attrition that changed its history for ever. There is a granite cross on a hill where the battle was fought. Here many people both Scots and English came to mark the 500th anniversary and lay wreaths in memory of named families who are known to have fallen. The cross has a simple inscription: TO THE BRAVE OF BOTH NATIONS.

That lonely cross stretching up to the sky has power to evoke a distant memory. Here in Durham Cathedral, we have a war memorial that takes us back even further, the screen behind the high altar that John Neville gave to commemorate victory in the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. From the more recent past, the Durham Light Infantry battle-honours include the Peninsula wars of the early 19th century. There are plaques that honour the fallen of the Crimean War of 1854-56 and the Sudan campaign of 1885-7. A tall cross on the mound outside the north door commemorates those who fell in the Boer Wars at the turn of the 20th century. The Great War is remembered in the pillar outside the Cathedral on the Bailey; in the DLI Chapel the wooden cross of Warlencourt is a relic of the Battle of the Somme of 1916. The garden by the cloister recalls those who fell in the 2nd World War, among them Patrick Alington, the Dean’s son killed at Salerno in 1943 and remembered in a stained glass window at the west end. Opposite is the 2nd World War memorial to the fallen of all three services where we shall lay wreathes today.
That long inventory of war memorials shows how war and the memory of it is embedded in the stones of this place. We can’t get away from these solid memory-markers. But our reasons for remembering have changed over the centuries. The Neville Screen is in memory of a victory won: then, it was normal to erect a monument to celebrate a triumph. But in the 19th century as war became more mechanised and destructive, a new dimension began to creep in.  This instinct was the need to remember individual men and women who had fallen in conflict. For the cost of war is the loss of human lives, each remembered not only by families and friends but also those they fought alongside. When the unknown warrior was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1920, it was said that ‘we were burying every boy’s father, every woman’s lover, every mother’s child’. Remembrance Day puts this human cost to us every year as we listen to our memorials and to the fragile texture of human lives that they honour with both grief and gratitude.
In the reading from the Old Testament, Joshua has led the people of Israel across the river Jordan into the land of Canaan. It’s a threshold they must never forget. So they set up a stone monument at the site; not a war memorial exactly, but it has something in common: the need to remember, and to erect a visible reminder of the journey that has brought them to this point in their history. This is what war memorials and the rituals of remembrance do for us: they help us pay attention to the thresholds we cross as nations in war and conflict; they remind us how, when a people commit to war, it is also to a via dolorosa of grief and loss. Even in victory, life is not the same as it was before. Wars have shaped our world, changed the maps of nations, affected millions of human lives through death, bereavement, injury and unhealed memory. We can’t be indifferent to this cost if we have any feeling for history and compassion for suffering women, children and men. 
In stopping to create their memorial, the Hebrews had come to a point of recognition and reflection. Its purpose was so that they would not forget the hand of providence. I have been reading a book about men who served in the Great War. Its title is Six Weeks, the average life expectancy of junior officers who led their men over the top. As I read the diaries and letters of those men, I am struck by how many speak about God, invoke a childhood faith, have a strong some sense of One who holds destinies in his hands. Mostly, they did not believe in a god who crudely takes sides in conflict: good people of all faiths have served on every side of war. The Flodden memorial ‘to the brave of both sides’ speaks wisely. God honours the virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, as do we wherever we find them, and we do not claim them only for ourselves. Together with faith, hope and charity, they show how honourable human character is formed and shaped. That comes across strongly in the motives and attitudes of the young men in Six Weeks who knew that life was likely to be short. We should use the word ‘heroic’ sparingly. Better to speak of ‘goodness’, loyalty, doing what is required. These virtues exalt a nation and equip it to face the time of trial. Without them we are lost.
The unspoken message of war memorials is a warning about the danger of living without virtue, about the folly that gets us into war in the first place: wrath, greed, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony and pride. The seven deadly sins belong to nations as well as individual people. Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’ when Jewish business and homes across Germany and Austria were brutally attacked. Many lost their lives. It is one instance of how the power of evil erupts into visibility: how many times such stories can be multiplied right up to the present day. These memories haunt us as we lay before God all the wrongs inflicted by humans on humans. We recognise that we need to be delivered from forces greater than our own by a power that is also greater than we are. We know we must work for a world that is wiser, more self-aware if we are to survive as a race. The question is: how do we free ourselves from our demons so that our virtues may heal us? Leaders, politicians, peacemakers and opinion-formers have a vital part to play. But there needs to be a radical change of attitude and will. This is where intelligent faith can make a difference by turning our ambitions towards the wise and the good.
Earlier we heard St Luke tell of the place where Jesus fell, a victim whose body was pierced and whose blood was poured out like those we remember today. His battle was with all that is cruel and destructive in our world. Its memorial is the cross that tells how a crucified God absorbs human wrong by becoming its victim. It gathers up our memories of those lost to us in a larger story. It proclaims a death and resurrection that point to a new order where peoples are reconciled and nations are friends. It helps us to see that all that we lament today was not in vain. It helps us not to lose heart in a future worth living for. As we stand silently among these stones and memorials, we know we can safely bring to this place not only our sorrow and our grief, but our pride and gratitude, our prayer, our longing and above all, our hope.

Durham Cathedral, Remembrance Sunday 2013
Joshua 4.1-14, Luke 23.39-49
Six Weeks: the short and gallant life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel, 2010. One reviewer says that it is 'the single most moving book I have read on the Great War'.

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