Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018
Follows the Gospel of Mark 1: 14-20
In a few short minutes it will be over 100 years since the official end of the hostilities in the first world war.
The death of nearly 1million British and many millions from other countries is still, rightly, remembered.
In the Gospel we just heard of Simon and Andrew, James and John immediately leaving their nets and following Jesus to an uncertain and risky life.
In a similar way so did many answer the call of Kitchener.
Britain was the only major power not to begin the First World War with a conscripted army. After war broke out, it was obvious that the small professional British Army was not big enough for a global conflict.
In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men answered Lord Kitchener's call to join up.
He realised that local ties could be used for national gain. Many more would volunteer if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.
And so on 21 August 1914, the first Pals battalion was raised from the stockbrokers of the City of London. Immediately 1,600 men had joined what became the 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.
Pals battalions became synonymous with the towns of northern Britain. Men from cities like Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Hull, Glasgow and Edinburgh all enlisted in their thousands in 1914 and 1915. And Pals battalions were also raised from Birmingham to Bristol and from Cambridge to Cardiff.
Many of these battalions suffered huge causalities and this ultimately ripped the heart out of many communities across our land.
Conscription then came in later when the volunteers were insufficient.
The idealism and the impulsive volunteering of so many men might seem strange to our generation. We are much more careful and much less tolerant of death.
It is sobering to reflect on one statistic.
454 British men and women lost their lives since 2001 in Afghanistan. This was 454 too many.
But 454 would have been a very good day in the first world war. On July 1, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties.
Now, we might argue that many of the casualties would never have happened if tactics we different – but that was not the fault of the casualties.
Many of them signed up immediately – convinced that they had to do their duty. Despite the appalling casualties, despite the risks to life and limb.
We live in very different times now. How many of us would be delighted if our children decided to join up today?
We are, understandably much more risk averse today.
But both the Gospel reading and the bravery of so many young men in WW1, and since, remind us that sometimes we do need to answer a call. We need to do things immediately – we need to do what we know to be right.
Today we remember the sacrifice of so many.
In the military of course; some of their names are inscribed upon our memorial.
The military, yes, and also the civilians – we must never forget the civilians.
Some calculations say that during the first world war 11% of the population of France became casualties. And we know how many civilians perished in the Second world war, with the advent of total war. In the 1940s Warfare began to affect not just those fighting – it began to affect everybody.
So we also remember all those non-combatants who lost their lives in France and Belgium, in the blitz, all the way through to the innocents who lose their lives in the present day due to war and terrorism.
John Macrae wrote this famous poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
What’s interesting is that Macrae – despite the horror he has experienced of war – still sees the need for it. He sees the urgent need for others to take the torch and carry it as best they can.
We may need sometimes to take up our quarrel with the foe. War may be a necessary evil, but it is necessary nonetheless. Necessary that evil may not thrive.
So today we remember.
We wear our poppies with pride.
But tomorrow what will we do with them?
Our Poppies - do we throw them in the bin? Do they end up discarded in a sideboard? Do we forget all about them?
True remembrance means none of these things. True remembrance means holding onto our poppies and letting them remind us every day of our duty. Our immediate duty, yours and mine, to do all in our power to maintain peace and solidarity between all peoples.
That I would say would be the best way of honouring the fallen and not breaking faith with them.
And that is the best way we can take their torch and hold it high.
Father Matthew BUCHAN