Over the years I have preached many Remembrance Day sermons. I have preached for soldiers and scouts, for old veterans from the first and second world wars, and for regiments fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the years have gone by I have become more and more uncomfortable with speaking – because I have no experience of war whatsoever. I have never been in a war, never seen a war, never seen the consequences of war. No-one in my family has been wounded or killed in war. Who am I to say anything?
My grandfather was 18 when he went over the top on july 1st at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shot, gassed and lay blinded for 24 hours until the medical unit stretchered him out. He never spoke about any of it. My father fought in North Africa, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. He saw things which gave him panic attacks in the middle of the night. He never spoke of them
Who am I, therefore, to say anything.
Last week I went to see a film called ‘Mothering Sunday’ which told of three families in 1924 having a picnic by the River Thames just like they used to do every Mothering Sunday. Only this time they are all of them lifeless, like sleepwalking Zombies … because as one mother eventually screamed out ‘None of them are here’ Not one of their five boys were alive. Who am I to speak when mothers and fathers have lost not one, but all their children in war? On the War Memorial in this church there are 3 Baker boys. Three Grimster boys. Who was it who told their mother and father that ‘it was worth it?’
I am no historian but was the First World War worth 8.5 million dead? Did it achieve anything? Did my grandfather’s regiment decimated from being one and half thousand strong to just a couple of hundred in 24 hours save the free world? If that were the case why was his son in law fighting Germany again just 20 years later?
I ask myself the same question about Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Brave soldiers have fought and died. They have tried to build up and support local free government, they have tried to build justice and freedom. – But have we achieved this – actually – in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan? Who won the war now? In fact amidst the starving, are there any winners?
But I have also visited Madjanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz/ I have seen the piles of shoes, men’s, women’s and children’s, the piles of human hair, the ovens and the gas chambers. That too left me speechless – but the soldiers who reached there in 1945 were truly liberators in every sense of that word. A world under the Third Reich would have been beyond unimaginable.
And what would Jesus say to our weary world? He did not hide away from the fact that there would be wars and rumours of wars, nations fightng nations, kingdoms fighting kingdoms, earthquakes, famines. He warned his followers that these things would happen. … But there are two small elements in this morning’s short Gospel reading I want us to hold on to.
The first is the Temple. Jesus was leaving the Temple with his disciples and they were marvelling at the greatness and wonder of this fantastic building. Set high on top of the mountain. Built of enormous stones – some ten feet by ten feet. Carvings, wooden decorations, Gold and silver ornaments – a sight like a medieval cathedral towering over a medieval city – or perhaps the Empire State building in our modern city.
‘Look Teacher – they say … what large stones, and what large buildings!’ But Jesus warns them that not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.
A reminder perhaps for all of us that our Temples – our great buildings – and all the emotional, intellectual, political, ideological temples we build in our minds – the things we are so sure of – will be brought down to the ground by new thoughts, new learning, new science, new ideas. Whichever ‘… ology’ we want to put our trust in will be brought low. Only God is eternal and all idols must fall before him.
But then Jesus ends this passage by telling us that this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. Not the death throes, please note, but the birth-pangs. Now I have never given birth either, so perhaps I am not the one to speak on that either. But my neice who said that childbirth was the most painful thing she had ever gone through, and ‘never again’ gave birth to a lovely little sister for her first born son only a couple of years later. Birth pangs are the beginning of new life, hopefully a good place, and a better world.
So when Jesus describes the calamity of war and earthquake and famine, he also points us to the better place we long for. The place of peace and justice and equality and goodness where we want to dwell.
And remember. Chapter 13 is not the end of Jesus’s sermon. He does not leave us with a pessimistic prophecy of the end of the world. He goes on into chapters 14 and 15 to show us how suffering can be transformed by the power of God into resurrection. It is, as always, a story of hope and Good News.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington