Preached on Sunday, 12.11.2017
By the Reverend Dr. Norman Shanks
30 years ago, when I was chaplain to Edinburgh University, Remembrance Sunday was marked by a special service that started in the University’s splendid historic Playfair Library – the setting at other times for prestigious social or civic rather than religious events. There was an academic procession, the university’s army, naval and air training groups were out in force, and music was provided by the local territorial army band – a bit of a mixed blessing as hymn-playing was not their forte. It all had to be carefully choreographed and orchestrated because, in good time for the two minutes’ silence, we all had to move outside to parade in the quadrangle of the University’s Old College, where there was a bugler who played ‘The Last Post’; and somehow, in an age before mobile phones and the like, it all had to be timed to coincide precisely with the cannon going off on the dot of 11 o’clock at Edinburgh Castle a mile or so away.
The way that Wellington has come to observe Remembrance Sunday has a very different feel about it – free of some of the organisational stress that was inevitably part of that earlier experience I have just described. But we take the act and significance of remembrance no less seriously. We honour the memory and lives of those whose names are recorded on the memorials here in the church and those out in the corridor that came from Woodlands Church. Some of us will be thinking of particular people and families who have experienced loss and suffering through the 1914-18 and 1939-45 world wars – and subsequent conflicts too. Some of us will be remembering and reflecting on other memories and recollections – people, places, experiences, war as depicted in art, literature, film and theatre – conveying in recent times more of the grim reality of its horror and confusion, than did the too positive, over-sanitised movies and books that I grew up on in the 1950s.
Remembering is an important part of our psyche, personality and identity. We all have good and bad memories of course: maybe some of you have the capacity, like me, of blocking out and forgetting the not-so-good memories: I suspect that is more a survival-strategy than a sign of emotional or spiritual health! And there is the business of false memories: how accurate are our recollections? To what extent are they the product of wishful thinking – or distorted through the prism of our subsequent lives? Whether or not memories are true or false, good or bad they are real; so the question is what do we make of them? Are we imprisoned or inhibited by them? Or does our looking back help us cope more effectively, more resiliently, more creatively with whatever is demanding and occupying our attention in the here-and-now? Can our remembering help us prepare for the future as well as deal with the present? We cannot recover or recreate the past. Context and circumstances are fluid: we can seek to retrieve, explore, learn from, even perhaps relive our memories of days gone by; but the priority must be to face and deal with the challenges of today and tomorrow responsibly and faithfully.
Our readings this morning can be very instructive in this process. The first part of the book of Isaiah, from which our first reading came, dates from the 8th century BC. Judah, the people of Israel, and in particular Jerusalem, the holiest and most precious place of all, were under threat, from the rising power of Assyria. The prophet denounces the injustices and wrongs of his time, the oppression of the poor, the perversion of justice, the empty and hypocritical religious observance. With a moral cutting edge he calls the people to repentance and faithful service; with vision and hope he points to the new better, fairer future that is God’s true purpose for all if only God’s people will play their part in bringing this about.
And then we heard the verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, loving our enemies, and so on. So familiar, and so demanding – indeed potentially ‘costing not less than everything’. Professor Willie Barclay described this passage as ‘the essence of the Christian ethic’, affirming that within the Christian life there is no place for retaliation, vengeance; the clear emphasis is on the spirit of non-resentment and non-violence. On this day of all days we see how hard it is to reconcile this ethic with the reality of all the conflict and wars down the centuries; and the temptation is to write this off as utopian idealism that is out of touch with the practical and political realities. Over the years, within and around the church all sorts of theories about what constitutes a just war have developed and been refined; and, in the thick of engaging with the confusion and complexities of international relations, sometimes these may have been helpful. But alongside the unequivocal commitment to non-violence and sacrificial self-giving love that is spelled out in these verses, and against the contemporary background of modern weapons technology, such theories now look too much like rationalisation, after-the-event justification of a course of action initiated essentially on political grounds.
Ten days ago Ruth and I were taking part in another kind of act of remembrance. We were at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood where there was a gathering to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration by the British government in 1917 which led to the founding of the state of Israel. This anniversary has been recognised in a series of events throughout Britain and elsewhere. Some of these were unadulterated celebrations; ours had a very different feel about it: it took the form of a ‘citizens’ apology’ – because the Balfour Declaration also contained a commitment to do ‘nothing which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. At Holyrood, with a poignant mixture of the sombre and the hopeful, through song, speeches and silence, we were recognising and indeed apologising that that commitment was not fulfilled. In 1947 750,000 Palestinians (over 80% of the Arab population living there) were deprived of their lands, driven from their homes to become displaced persons, refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. When Ruth and I were in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in May we not only visited many of ‘the holy sites’, but a good bit of our programme involved meeting a range of people and groups campaigning for justice and human rights. Again and again, we heard how the Palestinian people are still suffering terribly, not only those still in refugee camps in other countries, but those too who live in Israel and in the occupied territories, where they are discriminated against, and experience continuing injustice: the life is being squeezed out of them through social and physical violence they experience, their treatment as second-class citizens, the settlements expanding inexorably and encroaching on their land. Since returning we are part of a weekly ‘wave of prayer’ through which, and frequent media reports too, we see that the situation is getting worse by the day. But we have been, still are, struck too and inspired by the indomitable resilience of Palestinians – as they remember what they have lost, strive for justice, maintain an unquenchable hope and ask us to support them and remember them in our prayers.
Remembrance and hope go hand in hand inseparably. ‘Remembering’ is often taken to be the opposite of ‘forgetting’ – but it has another meaning too and another opposite – ‘dismembering’. To remember is to put the parts together again, to make the connections once more, to get ready for whatever lies ahead. And in these uncertain, challenging times we live in, it is important to keep our own hope alive: things can be different; a better, fairer, more loving and peaceful world is possible, within God’s grace, if the ways of the world, our ways can change.
The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls those who seek to walk the way of faith to embody a ‘new greater righteousness’. There is remembrance here too – remembrance of the law laid down on the basis of the ten commandments which Jesus’ teaching builds on – and there is hope – because it’s all about what we look forward to, how we move forward. I’m sure that many of you have read Leith Fisher’s book on the Gospel of Matthew – entitled But I say to you – that phrase that occurred in our Gospel reading, and is repeated again and again throughout the Sermon on the Mount. The word ‘but’ is not used in a contradictory sense; rather the listeners, and we too, are encouraged to seek to go farther, to do even better. To that extent we are called to embrace a counter-culture that challenges the prevailing ethos of our times and in many ways turns upside down the fashionable values that tend to regard status, power, success and wealth as the be-all and end all, the recipe for a happy life.
The instruction in the last sentence of our Gospel reading seems to set an impossibly difficult goal – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The problem is that word ‘perfect’ and the connotation of unattainability it carries. But it is ‘perfect’ here, as the original Greek word teleios tells us, in the sense of complete, our identity, personality and purpose fulfilled. Some of the other translations catch this better: the Revised English Bible’s There must be no limit to your goodness or, as paraphrased in The Message, Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously towards others.
Richard Rohr, American Franciscan, immensely popular writer and speaker, spiritual guru, has said, How you do your life is the real and ultimate truth. Leith describes the passage from the Sermon on the Mount as an invitation to walk into the kingdom, ‘to sit and learn at a wonderful and surprising new school of love’. And so as we ‘do our lives’; let us continue to remember and to hope, and to trust in God’s loving purpose and amazing grace. Thanks be to God. Amen