A sermon preached at service for the Civic Act of Remembrance at Fairfield Halls, Croydon
Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God’
‘What were you doing 80 years ago?’
There aren’t that many people around now who can give you an answer to that question: I couldn’t.
One person I can ask is my mother-in-law, now aged 97: she lives with me and my family.
80 years ago she was 17 years old. And she still remembers the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 80 years ago this year.
She remembers the broadcast by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain; the distribution of gas masks; and the beginnings of getting the country’s economy on a war footing as imports of food such as oranges and bananas dried up.
The other thing my mother-in-law was doing 80 years ago was joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force: she was a ‘WAAF’.
80 years ago my late father-in-law was 18 years old. He had joined the army and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Artillery following his training as a gunner at the Woolwich Military Academy.
My mother-in-law’s war saw her working at airbases around the country from deepest Cornwall to the very north of Scotland – in what she remembers as the hottest summer she has ever known –
to being on the liner sailing in convoy to the Quebec Conference when Churchill met Roosevelt for key discussions about the course of the war in Europe and working in the Cabinet War Rooms, off Whitehall.
My father-in-law’s war saw him commanding 30 Indian troops when he was only 19 leading men in fighting in North Africa, and then in the campaign through Italy.
Today is clearly not just about my family stories. But it is about stories, like those of my mother and father-in-law, which are woven into the fabric of our national life.
You might have your own family stories, some distant, some far more recent and possibly quite raw.
We all have our nation’s story and experience, which still shapes who we are today.
On Remembrance Sunday stories and experiences – whether from the Second World War, or the First World War, the Korean War or Northern Ireland, the Falkland’s War, Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Syria – stories and experiences are remembered and shared, so that we may resolve that never again
should this happen in our world.
What started 80 years ago this year – in 1939 – lasted for 6 years. 6 whole years of global warfare,
resulting in the death of an estimated 70–85 million people – military personnel and civilians, men, women and children – killed in action, dying by starvation or disease brought on by war, or by genocide, most notably the Nazi Holocaust.
Like a pebble dropping in a pond war sends ripples throughout nations, communities, families and individual lives: health and wellbeing, physical, mental and spiritual is affected.
No part of the world is left untouched: the earth is wounded, God’s creatures in the animal kingdom are harmed. The ripples of war continue down the generations as people live and struggle with loss and grief and absence.
Remembrance Sunday calls to mind both the worst depravity of human nature in war and violence
and also the greatest glory of human nature in sacrifice for others: the risking of lives that others may be free to live.
Remembrance Sunday asks us not just to remember what we were doing at such and such a time,
or what was happening in the past, eighty years ago or whenever but it taps into a deeper human memory of how we might live our lives in freedom, fullness and abundance.
In this country many faith communities search their scriptures and traditions to shape a peace-filled world. With Her Majesty the Queen, our nation draws deeply on the message of blessed peacemakers in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches peace and urges reconciliation.
Reconciliation means reaching across boundaries of hurt or pain. Tearing down walls of division: like in Berlin 30 years ago. That’s true for relationships on a global, local and personal level, between warring nations, within torn communities, or within families and relationships.
The message and priority of reconciliation is for all men, women and children.
We need reconciliation now more than ever given that our nation and communities are at odds over Brexit, traumatised by austerity, terrified of burgeoning knife crime and unsettled by a General Election campaign.
If someone asks you in 5, 10, 50, or even 80 years’ time: ‘what were you doing in 2019?’
I wonder... what you would say.
On this Remembrance Sunday I hope I could say, I hope you could say: I was playing my part in reconciliation; I was reaching out beyond my comfort zone; I was engaging with people different from me I was being a peacemaker.
Do that and you will be honouring, in the deepest way, the legacy of those who we remember today who fell in war, so that the story of our nation would be one of liberty, safety and prosperity.
Today let us renew our commitment to honour those who died that we might live by shaping our nation’s story that each and every one of us can be a reconciling peacemaker.