23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 12 2017
Isaiah 25.1-9, Matthew 5.38-48, Revelation 22.1-5
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
It is daunting for me today to stand in the pulpit of this church that has been built as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers who died in Palestine during the First World War. The closest I have come to living through a war is seeing it on television, being exposed to some of the tear gas sent down the street in which I work, being pulled out of sleep by the explosion of sound bombs in my neighbourhood and listening to the heart-breaking stories on both sides of a dreadful wall that mars the beautiful face of this Holy Land. Yet today is still desperately important, especially this year, when we remember the centenary of the Palestine campaign and 99 years since the end of the war.
The irony is that the First World War was called the “war to end all wars”! This phrase was first used by HG Wells. Like many idealists of his time he hoped that the sheer destructiveness of the First World War, unprecedented in its day, would persuade mankind to abandon war as means of solving political disputes.
Many agreed, most notably US President Woodrow Wilson, who argued that the war could become a catalyst for promoting democracy. He famously called the conflict a war to make the world “safe” for democratic institutions. To make this happen, Wilson thought, the war needed to end in a “peace without victory” in which the powers involved in the conflict would agree on a negotiated peace.
Wilson, like many others, thought that the spectre of communist revolution, as seen in Russia, would persuade the powers to come together. Wilson went so far as to issue “Fourteen Points” upon which any lasting peace had to be based. In particular, he advocated for an international organization to keep the peace.
In the end, the hope harboured by Wells, Wilson, and many other politicians and intellectuals was not realized. The First World War destroyed generations in the belligerent nations. But perhaps the greatest tragedy was that it only paved the way for an even more destructive conflict less than three decades later – a conflict of which we still bear the consequences today.
In this country we do not have to look far to see the evidence of battles, destruction, oppression and struggles to bring an end to all of this insanity. Today we cannot hide from what we might choose to forget at other times.
It is often said that people are the sums of their memories. Today we bring diverse memories wrapped in different and complex emotions. Some bring memories of loved ones lost due to war, others bring memories of their active service, and others still bring memories of civilian life during times of war.
Maybe some of us are struggling to get rid of the memories and scars that these wars caused in our lives. As I stand in this pulpit I am reminded of my grandparents and of my father who saw them killed in front of him when he was only three. He survived the Second World War, but the ripple effect of their deaths on him seeped into the lives of his wife and children, destroying what could have been a beautiful and loving family. Thus I stand with you on this Remembrance Sunday, not only remembering those who laid down their lives in battle, but remembering my grandparents only from their photographs and remembering those who survived the war only to carry their scars into eternity.
We are here to remember all those people, of whatever country, who have died in the pursuit of freedom and peace. We give thanks to God for their lives given for the freedom of many countries around the world. We acknowledge publicly and before God that countless people have given their lives for us and our freedom. We are here to pray for all who suffer and have suffered as a result of war… but that should not be where it ends.
Red poppies have come to symbolize Remembrance Day because of John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. His poem is hardly a call to peace. Instead, the voices of the dead soldiers urge us to fight on, to take up their quarrel with the foe.
You will notice that on the front page of our order of service I added two images of the poppy but deliberately coloured only one in red. It is important this year and every year to commemorate the war-related deaths of both soldiers and civilians. But today I want us also to remember another war hero, a spiritual war hero who laid down his life so that we have peace. I want us to remember the one who did not have a fourteen point plan to peace, but challenged the status quo and ordered his followers … orders us … to love beyond enemy lines, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
On the day he was to lay down his life Jesus said some words that could easily have been included in the lectionary today: “Put your sword back!” (Matthew 26.52)
These are the last words the disciples hear from Jesus before they run away. They are words that echo throughout our world today. Perhaps in more modern language it would be “Put your bombs back”, “Put your weapons back”, “Put your guns back”! If only we would understand the power of these words!
If only we would remember the true ways to peace and live them … then our world would be very different, and maybe we would not need in future years to come together to remember even more of those who have died in the tragedy of war.
God is love, let heaven adore him (CH4 123)
May God draw near when the hour of trouble strikes (Psalm 20, CH4 11)
Make me a channel of your peace (CH4 528)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (CH4 666)
I, the Lord of sea and sky (CH4 251)