Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 13 2016
Isaiah 65.17-25; Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19
Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
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.
I spent yesterday morning in the company of George Griffin, a sergeant from the 1st/7th Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
It was, as meetings go, a quiet encounter.
George was, like many others, a soldier in the Great War. He was wounded in France on July 1 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme – one of over 57,000 casualties on the worst day in the entire history of the British army.
The Battle of the Somme was a battle between empires: the British and French on the one hand, the German empire on the other. More than a million men on both sides were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
In September 1916, George was awarded a Military Medal for bravery. His battalion was later posted to the Middle East. He survived the Third Battle of Gaza but was killed in the Battle of Nebi Samweil on November 23 2017.
He lies in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on Mount Scopus, where yesterday I was taking part in the annual service of remembrance and dedication hosted by the British consul-general.
Around him on Mount Scopus lie 2,515 Commonwealth soldiers from the Great War. The Jerusalem Memorial at the top of the cemetery remembers a further 3,300 Commonwealth servicemen who died in Egypt or Palestine and have no known grave. If you drive around this divided land, in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank, you will find many more graves of soldiers, from Canada to New Zealand, Scotland to South Africa, who fought and died in the war.
At 11am on November 11 1918, the guns fell silent. By then, those who had died in uniform numbered perhaps 10 million or more. As we looked down from Mount Scopus on the sunlit city of Jerusalem in the quiet of a Sabbath morning, it was hard to imagine what they endured.
George Griffin and the men of many nations who died in the Great War weren’t just numbers. They left behind mourning parents and often grieving wives and children who cried themselves to sleep. It was right that we remembered them yesterday, and it is right that we should remember them today, along with the dead of too many wars.
Each year I ask myself how to do that appropriately.
On Friday, the English and Scottish football teams played each other at Wembley in a World Cup qualifying match. Both teams wore poppies on black armbands, bringing them into conflict with the international football federation. FIFA regulations outlaw “political, religious or commercial messages” on football shirts.
This provoked an all-too-predictable political storm.
The poppy was introduced in 1921 to raise money that would help British veterans of the Great War find work and housing. The British Legion, which each year organizes the poppy appeal, insists the poppy is not a political statement or “a sign of support for war”, but instead a symbol of “remembrance and hope”.
In truth, it can be all of these things and more.
The poppy is a complicated symbol that condenses all of our mixed feelings about war, and it has been politicized almost from the beginning.
All wars are terrible, some particularly so. Some wars – although not nearly as many as we are inclined to think – are necessary. All too many are fought for all the wrong reasons. In today’s world, there are too many wars, and we rightly fear there may be more to come.
CH4 has a hymn from Carnwadric church in Glasgow that nicely captures this full range of feelings.
In verse 5, it asks:
What shall we pray for those who fear
war, in some guise, may re-appear
looking attractive and sincere?
God give them peace.
In my view, however, it pulls the rug from under its own feet in its first two lines:
What shall we pray for those who died,
those on whose death our lives relied…?
In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May fell into the same trap. She told the House, “Our football players want to recognize and respect those who have given their lives for our safety and security.”
But we dare not assume that those who die in British uniform are dying for us, for our lives, or our safety and security. Some years ago, friends of mine lost their nephew in Afghanistan. What made the loss worse was that he thought the war was wrong. He didn’t agree with it, and neither did they.
When we tell ourselves, as all too often we complacently do, that those who fight in the uniform of our country do so for the good of other people and in the comradeship of a true cause, and when others in other countries tell themselves exactly the same thing, we make war more likely.
Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote “In Flanders fields” at the battlefront on May 3 1915, the day after his close friend Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell.
I understand why he wrote as he did, but I want to resist the injunction he puts on the lips of those who 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.
Sometimes the right thing is to refuse to take up the quarrel.
It is right to honour our war dead. But we must not allow ourselves to be gulled by those who would take us unquestioningly into new and often questionable wars.
“No slave can serve two masters,” says Jesus of Nazareth. “For a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Luke 16.13)
When our rulers seek to lead us into war, we need to look at their quarrel with suspicion. We need to put their cause between our teeth and bite it, to test whether it is true or counterfeit.
Is the war in which they would enlist us really for the good of other people? Or is it simply in the service of nationalism or a supposed national interest?
If you allow me, I want to pivot briefly to the shock outcome of last week’s elections in the United States, the consequences of which are feared but still unknown.
In a speech in September, Hillary Clinton already explained one of the reasons why she lost on Tuesday. Some of those who supported her opponent were, she said, deplorable: they were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” and anti-Semitic – all the things that decent liberals are against. But many, she recognized, were not.
They were “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.” And so, rightly or wrongly, they looked to the candidate that promised them change.
The other reason is one that Clinton and her decent liberal friends will find hard to acknowledge. The day after the election by Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, put it like this:
“The upper 20 percent of income earners, many of them quite liberal and rightly committed to the defence of minorities and immigrants, also believe in the economic meritocracy and their own right to have so much more than those who are less fortunate. So while they may be progressive on issues of discrimination against the obvious victims of racism and sexism, they are blind to their own class privilege and to the hidden injuries of class…”
A generation ago, the Clintons and their friends turned their backs on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and put their trust in the neoliberal policies of a supposedly free market. This worked well for them: they could eat their cake and have it. They could flaunt their liberal credentials while hobnobbing with bankers and celebrities. But it worked very badly for American workers and their families, and on Tuesday enough of these said, “Enough!”
In the US and across the western world, we need to think again. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth.
This leads me to the two positive things I want to say in conclusion.
First, this is still God’s world. It always was and always will be. In their different ways this morning, Isaiah and Luke tell us that we should trust in God even in the most challenging of circumstances.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus predicts the destruction of the second temple – the centre and, as it was thought, the sine qua non of Jewish life. By the time Luke is writing, a decade or more after the Jewish War, this has already come to pass. But the Jewish life then centred on the second temple has not disappeared. In the intertwined vines of Christianity and Judaism, it continues to the present day.
Every age has its wars and catastrophes – yes, and its false prophets too. We should not allow ourselves to be terrified but should trust that God remains present in our lives and sovereign in our world.
Second, we should ask ourselves where we too are trying to serve two masters. We should turn again to God and serve God with a single heart. And we should not be weary in doing what is right.
Christ, whose glory fills the skies (CH4 578)
Isaiah the prophet has written of old (CH4 241)
Courage, brother! do not stumble (CH4 513)
‘Thy kingdom come!’ – on bended knee the passing ages pray (CH4 473)
God of day and God of darkness (CH4 217)
Stephen Fotrell, “Is the poppy a political symbol?” BBC; November 1 2016
Alan Johnson, “After these days of rage”, New York Times, November 8 2016
Michael Lerner, “Stop shaming Trump supporters”, New York Times, November 9 2016
Dr Alastair McPhail, “Welcome”, Service of remembrance and dedication, Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, November 12 2016
Katie Reilly “Read Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ remarks about Donald Trump supporters”, Time, September 10 2016
 I’m sorry to say that England won 3-0.