Civic Service of Remembrance

“Blest are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…blest are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Ever since any of us can remember, the first two weeks of November have been characterised in the United Kingdom by the wearing of poppies.  It has become the cultural icon of remembrance of all who lost their lives in war.  Those little emblems made of thick blood red paper on a thin green plastic stem.  Do you remember when they were larger and the stems covered in silver paper?  At school, it was always cooler to have one with a leaf on!

This year, you have probably heard and seen that The Royal British Legion wants us to “Rethink Remembrance”.  That means to recognise and remember the sacrifices made by today’s generation as well as the generations of the two world wars of the last century. So wearing the poppy has become a sign of remembering all who have died in war.

But this year, the first two weeks of November has seen self-appointed guardians of remembrance launching a variety of campaigns about the wearing, or not of poppies.  An anonymous figure on the internet, has set up a twitter account to enforce the so called correct use of the poppy.  His account #BigPoppyWatch has attracted over 10,000 supporters.  Even Remembrance has become politicized and used as a weapon to judge and control.  We live in challenging and very dangerous times.

Let me tell you about my poppy.  It is small and you can’t really see it until you stand next to me.  It was commissioned by the Royal British Legion to commemorate the 60, 083 deaths of allied soldiers on the battlefields of France at Passchendaele.  It is made of brass.  Millions of shells were fired in 1917 – and one hundred years later, they are still being ploughed to the surface of those Flanders’ fields, now peacefully returned to agriculture. My poppy is made of the brass from one of the many shell nose cones, recovered by local farmers, from the fields over which Passchendaele was fought in 1917.   The red and green enamel of this Passchendaele poppy is mixed with finely ground earth taken from several key locations in the Passchendaele area.  The essence of the battlefield and very ground the soldiers of 1917 fought upon, died upon, and many now lie in peace beneath.

Each Passchendaele poppy pin – and 60, 083 were made: one for each British soldier who died in that place – is dedicated to one particular soldier.  My pin commemorates the life of Pte Robert Ernest Herd of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (2nd Batallion).  Service number: 60638.  He died on 26th September, 1917 and is commemorated at the Tyne Cot Cemetery.  A little internet research has told me that he was the son of William and Eliza Herd and was born in Stafford at the Aqueduct Inn – and was the husband of Jane Mary Herd.  They lived in Cefn Rhug, Corwen, Merioneth.  Robert was 30 years old when he died in the battle of Passchendaele, 1917.

I find that quite moving – because it makes it so very real. I wonder how Jane fared in life; after hearing the tragic news that her husband Robert was not going to return home.  My own grandfather endured the mud of Passchendaele as a machine gunner in the Lincolnshire Machine Gun Corps.  He was stuck down by shrapnel – missing in action and presumed dead.  In reality he came to consciousness in a shell hole full of rain water.  He survived several days drinking that water out of his tin helmet, until he was discovered by stretcher bearers, taken to a field hospital, and then to Rouen and back to Blighty on a hospital ship.

Today, there is no one left alive who fought in the Great War – over 100 years ago.  You have to be in your 90s now to have fought in the Second World War. But the Royal British Legion are right – it is necessary to Rethink Remembrance.  I want to suggest that on this Remembrance Sunday, that in order to rethink Remembrance, we ask ourselves what is Remembrance for?

but we rethink our way of living as communities of human beings.

This last two years have seen so much anger unleashed in our society in the United Kingdom and in the United States – our special friends and allies.  We are witnessing the most appalling and dangerous presidency of the USA, which is talking itself into potential conflicts all over the world.  Our own country seems inexplicably determined to disengage in the one international initiative, which has guaranteed over 70 years of peace.

Politicians and would-be politicians, of all types and creeds, have disappointed us with disturbing pronouncements and infighting that has been taken up by the press and fired up the passions of people on the streets and in crowds.  The number of reported hate crimes has risen alarmingly. This summer, over a million people were relying regularly on food banks. I know of parents of young children who are scared for the future world into which their children will grow.

To rethink Remembrance – means realising that peace will only ever be achieved when we begin when we see each other as human with the same needs and concerns.  The church follows a God who embraced the division of humanity on the cross. Young people’s suspicion can only be challenged by adults who see beyond the prejudice and look for peace and well-being.

Service personnel and civilians do not die because of political or religious policies and creeds.  They die when politics and religion are used as weapons to beat and control; they die when people stop caring.  They die, when protest is encouraged and factions develop.  They die when people no longer feel respected and listened to and valued. They die when people forget that we are all part of one human family with needs and cares. As individuals, we are responsible for caring for one another, building community; creating peace and social stability.

Do you remember, where we first learnt to live with other people? In Infants’ School.  We learnt values:

Share everything. 
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t hit people.
Play fair. Don’t tell lies and tales.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 

We learned those values as children, and those were lessons for life.  Our Gospel reading, this morning is the blueprint for the rethinking of living given by Jesus, whose mission was to reconcile; to heal and to include all who felt rejected, injured, despised, not listened to, not valued.

The eight Beatitudes in Matthew (Beatitudes means ‘beautiful thoughts’) can be arranged into two categories. The first reflect a longing for a deeper relationship with God and with one another (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn). The second group reveal the transformation of our lives as fruits of that relationship (blessed are the pure of heart, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted). The first group brings us into closer relationship with God which results in the transformation of our lives as described in the second group.

So let’s “Rethink Remembrance”.  Remembrance is about much more than remembering – it is not about history it is not about looking back; it is about feeling the pain and suffering, which has been dealt to others – holding them before God, along with ourselves, and pleading for the grace to make amends – by pledging to work for peace and the healing of humanity.  Remembrance is prayer.

“Blest are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…blest are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

God bless you. God love you. God help you to reach out in love to your fellow citizens.


Posted in Sermons