Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 10 Nov 2019 12:31

The text of Mike's sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2019. (You can listen to a recording here)

It begins with the start of John Lennon's Imagine...

It’s a catchy little tune, isn’t it? But, at risk of causing offence, I think that “Imagine” is one of John Lennon’s worst legacies.

I can appreciate the sentiment but, even when we get past the gob-smacking hypocrisy of singing “imagine no possessions” while sat at a white Steinway piano in a large house set in a 72 acre estate that’s part of a gated community in Berkshire, I think “Imagine” gets a couple of things profoundly wrong.

“Imagine there’s no heaven”, “imagine there’s no countries – nothing to kill or die for”, “imagine no possessions – no need for greed or hunger”. “Imagine all the people living life in peace…. Oh ooohh ohhh oooh”. The underlying idea here is that if we can strip away countries and borders and religion and possessions and all those other oppressive things then humanity will revert to its natural state of peace and harmony, the sharing of the earth and a “brotherhood of man”.

I’m not sure I could disagree with him more.

One of the central insights of Christianity is the painful recognition that the default setting of human beings is not peace and harmony. Left to our own devices we usually don’t share everything and find nothing to fight over. Anyone who has young children will know that they can be incredibly kind and generous, but moments later can show staggering levels of selfishness! If we’re honest we know that even as adults we can be kind but can also be jealous, greedy and self-interested.

And it’s that jealousy, greed and self-interest that brings about the horror of war, and so brings us together today to remember and give thanks for those brave men and women who have sacrificed life and health in defence of freedom and peace.

It’s important that we gather to remember. But there are two kinds of remembering.

Earlier this week we did what I call “passive remembering”, when we recalled the events of 5th November 1605. It’s a day on which we might briefly call to mind a significant event in our democratic history, but basically it’s an opportunity to enjoy some fireworks. We “remember, remember the 5th of November” but our remembering doesn’t really change us, it’s fairly passive in nature. 

People joke that in 100 years’ time the world’s press will gather in Brussels on the 31st October each year to witness the spectacle of the British Prime Minister delivering the annual request for an extension to Article 50 – something that happens every year, no-one really knows why anymore, but it’s all good fun.

“Active remembering” is quite different. This is a remembering that is more than just “bringing something to mind” like answering a quiz question. It is instead the act of remembering in the hope and expectation that we will be changed, and the future be changed, as a result of our remembrance.

I hope that Remembrance Sunday is, and continues to be, an act of active remembering. Today must be about each of us acknowledging our gratitude, but also be a serious commitment to amending our ways and working for peace.

I’ve heard the argument made that over the next 20 years, as the final veterans of World War 2 gradually come to the ends of their lives, Remembrance Sunday will cease to be a significant event. If our acts of remembrance become habit and tradition that we do faithfully year by year with no particular expectation that we might be changed in the process, then perhaps it would be right for Remembrance Sunday to gradually disappear.

However, I feel quite strongly that an active remembrance is becoming more important, not less.

If we are gathered here today in the acknowledgement that the brutality of war is not just a dim and distant memory; if we can come together and recognise that the making and sustaining of peace is the task for every generation to rise to afresh; if we can be humble and honest together that the possibility of violence and strife is not a problem for someone else, but is within each one of us; then this act of remembrance is meaningful and is capable of honouring those whose lives we give thanks for today.

We haven’t seen war on these islands for a long, long time. And yet who can say that we are a nation at peace? We all have work to do in contributing to the building up of our common life. Lasting, meaningful peace does not, as John Lennon imagines, appear when we strip away national borders, private possessions or religious rules for living well. Deep, lasting peace comes from secure nations and communities, healthy institutions and organisations, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, checks and balances that avoid the concentration of power and authority in one place, and, ultimately, peace comes from each one of us being willing to build these things up and defend them. 

We need to acknowledge our faults and failures in upholding these things and re-commit regularly to doing better. It’s also my conviction that this happens much more easily when we know who we are before God.

Young people – the task of building peace is yours too. Being part of something like Guides or Scouts or a sports club is a brilliant way of building up the social and community bonds that hold us together and make us strong. I encourage you all to take seriously your duty as peace-makers and community-builders now. One day it will be your generation in the driving seat, so now is the time to build up the habits of striving for peace.

In a few minutes Jason will invite us all to renew our commitment to being people of peace. In order that this becomes an active commitment I’m going to leave a few moments of quiet after I’ve finished. Take time to think of one thing you could do in the weeks and months ahead to make for peace and building up community where you are, for it is when we consciously act to bring lasting peace that we most fully honour the fallen. Amen.

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