The priest I lived with was taking the service at Sts. Peter and Paul, Chaldon – it’s one of the other churches in our team ministry. Since Remembrance Sunday a number of people who were there have asked for a copy of her sermon, so I’m posting it here.
This year on Remembrance Sunday, and again on Armistice Day on Tuesday, our thoughts will go back to the anniversary of the First World War, which started on 4th August 1914 and by this time a hundred years ago had already cost many lives. The first battle of Ypres raged through October and November. In those two months there were some 54,000 British casualties, 80,000 German casualties, around 86,000 French casualties and the Belgium army was virtually obliterated. These losses are just so great that we find it hard now to imagine the impact or understand why such massive loss of young lives was tolerated.
In Afghanistan we have lost some 453 military personnel in the thirteen years of engagement there. As each coffin arrived back home public opinion against British involvement grew. If you go on to the BBC website, you can see a picture of each of the British military who has died in Afghanistan. They are grouped in years with 2009 and 2010 seeing the highest loss with 108 and103 respectively. Seeing that sea of young faces on the screen is unbearable. If in 1914 the bodies of the dead from Ypres had been repatriated, had there been television so people could have seen every one of those 54,000 coffins coming home, would the British public have continued to be so patriotic?
At the beginning of the War against Germany in 1914, Britain just asked for volunteers – Lord Kitchener’s famous poster of “Your Country Needs You” was aimed to recruit just 100,000 men to supplement the professional army. That was the estimate of what was needed. Patriotism was such that 2 million men had volunteered by the end of 2015, but the loss of life was so great, so unprecedented and I think so unexpected, that by January 2016 the British Government reluctantly introduced conscription. There were so many volunteers, so many willing to go and fight. They did not know the reality of life and death on the frontline because news was severely censored and propaganda fired up their love of country and fuelled their hatred of the enemy. It was in one sense a different era when media could be controlled and patriotism was in the blood; and yet it was also the beginning of our era when war became industrialized – the weapons so sophisticated and brutal, and the transport system, i.e. the Railways, enabling the constant replacement of supplies and men at the front, especially in France and Belgium.
There is something very noble about fighting for your country and today we recognize the nobility of every person who has lost their life in war, especially this year those who died in the First World War. But we also recognize the utter horror of so much loss of life, young life, and wonder at how it could be allowed to happen. I expect many of you, like me, have been to see the poppy installation at the Tower of London. It is stunning and shocking at the same time. I went with my eleven year old grandson on the Friday of half term. The sky was a perfect blue and the sun shone so strongly that we were almost blinded as we looked across the moat of the Tower. But I shall hold forever the wonderful sight of that sea of red against the deep blue of the sky. The installation called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” has caught the public imagination as a way to remember. By 11th November the 888,246 ceramic poppies, representing the British and Commonwealth Casualties of this war, will be in place. Each one individually made and unique. When you get up close to them you can see that each one is slightly different – each is unique as each person lost was unique.
The title for the installation comes from a poem by an unknown soldier. The artist Paul Cummins discovered the poem in an archive of wills made by soldiers in the trenches. It was not written as a poem but reads like a poem. It begins:
The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.
“As God cried a tear of pain” – who was this unknown soldier with such understanding of theology?
It was not until after the Second World War that the theology of a suffering God was fully explored. It was a German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, himself a soldier of the Second World War, who built on the ideas of people like Karl Barth, and wrote about a God who suffers with humanity in his influential work “The Crucified God” published in 1973. The line of that poem “God cried a tear of pain” would be so at home in Moltmann’s work. It is a book which though focusing on a God who suffered on the cross, and continues to suffer with us, never loses sight of the hope of a better future through the assurance of the Resurrection.
“God cried a tear of pain” came prophetically from a soldier in the trenches as he saw all his comrades fall and believed that his own end was imminent. Only now is his poem from the trenches being read.
When I went to see the poppies at the Tower I was overwhelmed by their number and I was choked up. I found it hard to speak and some tears did fall. The installation has been criticized by some for only representing British and Commonwealth deaths, but how can you represent the 37 million military and civilian deaths that historians estimate were the result of the First World War? The British and Commonwealth dead are ours and we remember their love of their country, their sacrifice and that of their families in this church service today. We remember “how great the pain of searing loss” – that is a line from a modern hymn by Stuart Townend in which he recalls how God the father felt as his son died on the cross. The hymn is titled “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” – some of you may know it. God’s love for us is so deep that he does weep with every death in war, and with every family who grieve a son or daughter.
Let me end by reminding you of the Rector of this church in the First World War, the Revd Gilbert Belcher and his wife Katherine. They lost two sons within four days in August 1915 – Lieutenant Humphrey Belcher died on the 7th August aged 22 and his brother Captain Austin Belcher died on 10th August aged 27. They were with the contingent of 20,000 British soldiers who landed on Sulva Bay on the north side of Gallipoli to launch a new attack on Turkish forces that August. Just for a moment pause and imagine that Rectory here in Chaldon when they got the news. Imagine the grief of Gilbert and Katherine right here in this church where they must have tried to find comfort for their grief. How great their searing loss. I hope they felt the tears of God crying with them.
Sometimes as we look upon the tragedies of the past and the continuing tragedies of our world today, our prayers can only be prayers of tears mingling with the tears of God. But through our tears we, as Christians, have that ever present hope St Paul spoke about in his letter to the Thessalonians “that through Christ who died and rose again, God will bring with him those who have died……. and so we will (all) be with the Lord forever”. Amen.