Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

On Wednesday it was announced that the papers of Siegfried Sassoon had been saved for the nation and would be housed in Cambridge University. It was a reminder of that great tradition of war poetry that came from the First World War … the likes of Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, struggling with the scale of the horror of war.

I found myself that afternoon speaking to HyWay. My mind went naturally to the weekend we had spent re-visiting old haunts in Shrophire where for eight years we had ministered to the Congregational churches of Pontesbury and Minsterley. We had enjoyed a weekend visiting our old churches, many old friends and exploring the beautiful, if little known, countryside of the Shropshire Hills and in particular the Stiperstones.

I told something of the story of Mary Webb, novelist and poet who lived in and loved the countryside all around those two villages. It was not only the men who had fought on the front in the first world war who wrote moving poems of the awfulness of what was unfolding. Mary Webb’s poetry of the war didn’t make it into the collections published immediately after the war, they make moving reading. As does one of her finest novels. Ostensibly Gone to Earth is a novel by a lover of the countryside and of all nature of the horrors of fox hunting. Written in 1916, however, it is also about the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man as it was witnessed in the awfulness of war. Indeed on one day alone, as she was writing, 1st July 20,000 British soldiers were killed, 40,000 wounded.

On Wednesday we reeled from the news that five soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. And since Wednesday we are horror struck at the rising death toll. A different scale, but for those families, for those who were wounded, the same sheer awfulness of war.

Today we have observed the two minutes silence and remembered all those who lost their lives in war and honoured their memory by re-committing ourselves to the search for peace.

And closer to home this week we have touched sadness and troubled lives.

It is at the end of a week like this I find myself asking what is the point? How do we cope in such a troubled world? How do we get through?

I find helpful pointers to a response to those questions in Romans chapter 8.

As a wonderful find of letters at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall shows – people supported each other by letter during the days of the Roman Empire.

Romans 8 is part of a real letter written by Paul to a Christian community in Rome that at times is up against it, living as it does in the sometimes hostile atmosphere of the Emperor Nero’s Rome. What Paul is doing as he writes is offering support to people who feel very much on their own and who need encouragement and support from outside their own situation.

That’s my first observation. There are occasions when we need to support each other, we need to acknowledge our own need of help from one another. That is the strength of an occasion such as Remembrance Sunday.

In the first part of our service we read out names of young people associated with our church who died in the wars of the 20th Century and in Iraq in the 21st Century. We also honoured two of our older members. Gwen had worked in Bletchley Park as part of the code-breaking team. She was one of those surviving members of that remarkable group of people who only a couple of months ago were awarded a medal in honour of their service to their country.

We also heard from Vic who shared his memories of his own service during the war years.

You can listen to Vic's recollections on YouTube by clicking on this link. Vic Remembers for Remembrance Sunday

It was moving to hear Vic’s memories, to be reminded in my generation of what an earlier generation experienced not all that long before I was born. It was moving to be reminded how real the sadnesses within those memories are, and how important this Remembrance Sunday is – a moment not for solitary remembering, but for shared remembrance and support.

The very act of writing letters to Christian communities, especially such a one as this in Rome that were struggling with their own circumstances, is an act of solidarity, a recognition of the need to support each other.

Paul offers an insight into what’s going on that for him helps to make sense of a suffering world. It isn’t something that answers all those unanswerable questions. But it is an insight that he holds on to and that gives him hope.

Paul takes seriously the awfulness of the suffering there is in the world. He sees around him a world that is, ‘subjected to futility’, in ‘bondage to decay’. But he is convinced that no matter how great the awfulness of the world and its agony the goodness of the love of God is greater and will ultimately prevail. He uses the analogy of the labour pains of child birth – to suggest that out of all the agony and pain and suffering of the world, something better will come.

Paul’s reaction to a world of sometimes horrific suffering was not to give up on his faith on God, but to renew that sense of faith in God in the conviction that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’.

‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ he asks. Will hardship, or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

That is the hope Paul holds on to. And he is the first to acknowledge that it is hope. In the middle of the awfulness of the Rome that Christian community were living in it was hard to see. In the middle of the awfulness of the 20th Century wars, or for that matter the wars of the 21st Century it is almost impossible to see. But Paul is quite blunt: ‘in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

By writing his letter in these terms Paul captures why being part of church is so fundamentally important to being a Christian. There are some circumstances when it is impossible to go it alone. We need the support of one another. That’s what we are doing precisely at this moment, and in the whole life we share together here at Highbury. We support each other here in the context of this church … as we hold on to our conviction that the ultimate victory of God’s good is assured and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are two things that we can then do. First, is to pray. All of us are supported by prayer … but the reality is in the middle of the awfulness of no end of circumstances prayer doesn’t come easily.

The words of prayer ring hollow, as Shakespeare explores only too powerfully as the tragedy of Hamlet unfolds …

My words go up, my thoughts remain below,

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

The genius of Paul’s writing in this, so supportive letter to that underground group of Christians in Rome, is that he recognises precisely this weakness, and how vulnerable it makes you feel.

It is precisely at the point at which our human frailty gets the better of us, hope eludes us and we feel at our most vulnerable, that we have a strength from beyond ourselves that we can draw on. It is in this chapter as Paul touches on the awfulness of suffering in an agonising world that he refers to the Spirit of God more frequently than in any other chapter.

It is at this precise moment of weakness and vulnerability, that ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’

Paul knows exactly how it feels when the words of prayer fail us.

At that moment, ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray a we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.’


It is so vitally important.

But prayer is at its most powerful, when it feels as if we have lost the ability to pray and words fail us. It is at that moment that in our groaning, in our sighing, God’s Spirit takes over the praying for us … and God knows our innermost thoughts … and God is there to sustain us and to see is through.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And then we need to take a leaf out of Paul’s book, or rather out of his letter. As we receive such help, we need, in turn, to offer help to others as well. Is there a letter of encouragement we could do with writing? Maybe it needs writing. Or a word of encouragement we can share with someone else … we need to share it.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And we are all called to share in the service of other people.

We’ll give the last word to Vic …

To hear Vic's memories of what followed on after the war and his life-time of service click on this link: Vic Remembers a Life-time of Service

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