Sermon at All Age Service on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018
Reading: Matthew 5:43-48
Love for enemies
When I moved to St Albans, I was fascinated to notice the small war memorials in certain streets. Do you know the ones I mean? Just built into the sides of buildings. And while most war memorials are in public places of prominence – and, of course, we do have one of those in St Albans up by St Peter’s Church – these smaller ones are just quietly set into the walls of places where people have gone about their daily business. Shops and homes. Ever so ordinary and normal.
And I don’t know about you, but the effect for me is really to underline the poignancy of what it means for those men going off to war (and in this case the names mentioned are all men), knowing that they leave behind those communities at such a local level. Streets where most probably everyone would have known one another.
So I wonder if we can recreate some of that sense of going off to war now. Dotted around church I’ve left some cards with the name of each of those streets on it. Perhaps if you look under where you’re sitting you can hold it up.
So perhaps we can represent the men in those streets being called up and sent off to serve:
Thank you. And so let’s just pause for a moment, calling to mind those tight-knit communities sent out to their various destinations. Of course, what we’ve done just now is only symbolic. But for a period of time, there those men were, for however long it was, enduring the most terrible of horrors and extreme situations. Until this day precisely one hundred years ago the guns fell silent. And finally, thankfully, the return home could start. The process of rebuilding life in the communities where the men came from.
But, of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Because in so many cases it was only the name that came back. And so if those of you carrying a street name turn over that bit of paper, you’ll see underneath an image of the memorial: a list of names from that street of those who died. So can you carry those aloft as you come back to your places?
Names which have been engraved for posterity, symbolic not just of these streets – these little local communities in St Albans – but symbolic of countless others around this country and amongst allied nations – and those of all sides caught up in the war. Very simply, we remember them.
Because when we remember, we also ‘re-member’. We put back together again. That which has come apart can also be brought together again. We think of each of those people sent out as demonstrated by what we’ve just done – sent out under the bidding of their various nations – and then the return, the joining back together again of those communities – that’s to say, the re-membering. Whether coming to terms with the death of loved ones; grappling with misunderstanding, the psychological effects of warfare (the so-called shell shock, what we know better today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); or simply picking up the pieces in a radically changed world. Because that ‘re-membering’ often means we have to put things back together again in entirely new and different ways.
We see an instance of this in our reading this morning, part of Matthew’s famous telling of the Sermon on the Mount. Do you remember it starts off with the Beatitudes – powerful phrases such as “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted;” or “Blessed are the hungry for they shall be filled”? It’s Jesus addressing his disciples and flipping the received wisdom absolutely on its head. In Jesus’ world, in contrast to that which has gone before, the suffering of those in need is not forgotten. And he describes a whole host of other situations, doing the same thing till we get to that bit in our passage today. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says, that “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” That’s the received wisdom, that’s what people then were used to and expected.
But it is in Jesus that this attitude of hatred towards enemies is completely recast and put back together again in an entirely new way. Jesus ‘re-members’ it, if you like, and says to us “Love your enemies” – don’t hate them – “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And the reason for doing so is that we may all be children of our Father in heaven, he says. Isn’t that fascinating? It’s not just a simple “well, wouldn’t it be nice if we all loved one another and that’s that?” No, there’s a purpose: it’s so we can all come together under God, our Father in heaven.
In a few moments we will have a corporate act of remembrance on this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. But remembering – or re-membering – is a very Christian thing to do. It’s something we do regularly together at St Michael’s. At the Last Supper Jesus had a meal with his disciples and broke bread with them, saying “Do this in remembrance of me.” In communion we’ll take part in that act of remembrance shortly. Watch Kenneth as he breaks the bread and then symbolically joins it back together again. Because we are all joined together in Jesus’ death and resurrection – his perfect sacrifice of love for each one of us. That act transformed the world; that act re-membered the world.