A Remembrance Day sermon
I was standing at the War Memorial on Sunday as many of you were.
I spoke the words – ‘We will remember them’.
I wore the poppy – ‘lest we forget.’
But found myself wondering what the task of remembering actually involves. What does it take? And what does it ask of us not to forget?
And why do we need so much reminding anyway?
There are times in this life when to be able to forget might seem to be more merciful. Many of the nastiest regional conflicts around the world are precisely because people can’t or won’t forget and are trapped in cycles of revenge and toxic bitterness.
I remember an old parishioner I used to visit who was imprisoned in the war and saw and endured violence that he was unable to forget. The memory cast a shadow across his face.
I knew a war veteran in North Devon who joined the reunions on the fortieth anniversary of the decisive battles of the war. In the weeks that followed 4 of that re-union group took their own lives. Remembering was simply too much to bear.
Memory alone is not saving. It may just as easily overwhelm and break us. ‘Fifty years and I’ve never left this place,’ wept a survivor on her return to Auschwitz.
And what of victims of childhood abuse hardly able, years later to move on and rebuild their lives.
Remembrance and Bible
But remembrance and to live in remembrance is one of the central themes in the Bible and with that the importance of history.
Forgetfulness was the root of all evil, the Rabbis taught.
One of the most insistent challenges in the Bible is to ‘remember’. And this is never more stressed than in times of uncertainty and change. ‘Remember me’, says God, ‘remember Torah’, ‘remember your story’, ‘teach your children to remember’. (for example: Is 46.9; Deut 24.9; Neh 1.8; Ps 42.4,6)
This certainly comes as a health warning to the culture in the habit of junking what anything that looks or feels ‘old’ and compulsively pursuing anything ‘new’, ‘fresh’ an exciting.
Renewal is always first of all a work of remembrance.
Nor is remembrance about looking back in the past.
It is about living with what makes us who we are.
I struggle with some of the old hymns at the war memorial – ‘time like an ever flowing stream’. Victorian theology of God’s transcendent sovereign ordering of life … that so easily feels remote and impersonal. Time does not flow smoothing like a stream through the human story. The novelist Pat Barker notes how it clots and coagulates around wounds and hurts. To keep us company, to live in community, require all sorts of unofficial detours. We learn to skirt round unspoken things. We avoid touching on sensitive issues … there are no go areas …..
To remember is not to recall a memory (though that is part of it of course). To re-member is to re-connect with what has, for whatever reason, been dis-membered.
To re-member is not to look back into the past but to bring into the present all that has brought us to this point, and shaped who we are, for good or ill. We are to live in remembrance. Those who do not re-member are not present either. There can be no healing until we are present to the wounds, to the fractures of our story and history. Bids for new futures, attempts at renewal that do not flow from careful remembrance may look pious and visionary, but they are actually escape bids.
In that sense we never leave the past behind. The Jewish Passover liturgy, recalling the Exodus from Egypt, speaks of making ourselves present as if we are there as it happens. Not just recalling it but in living relationship with it. Living in remembrance
So re-membrance is at the heart of a gospel of healing and restoring.
It makes us present to life as it really is. For there can be no healing unless we are present to the wound.
So ‘blessed are those who mourn’, says Jesus (Matt 5) – those willing to be present to the pain. You can’t remember without being in touch with what is separated.
Blessed are those who are willing to re-member.
The Christian Church is fellowship of blessed mourners who somehow make peace. A people through which what is broken is re-connected.
Room to re-member
I was once involved in running a series of retreat days with a Bishop for all his clergy. These were days for support and renewal in times of demanding and uncertain change. We offered the three downstairs rooms of his house to reflect on one of three themes.
One room was about endings – loss, grief, lament and letting go..
The second room was a place to reflect on the present journey through change – the transitional place between leaving and arriving.
The third room was the place to contemplate arriving, new life, new beginnings or resurrection (its caused much amusement that the ‘resurrection’ room was actually the Bishop’s study).
In each room were pictures, symbols, candles and some printed prayers.
For a large part of the day people were left to spend time in whatever room they chose.
The room most occupied on those days was the first room – loss, letting go, endings and grieving . Some felt guilty about this. Surely they ought to be in the resurrection room – full of new life and vision! But they also spoke of the comfort and healing of being able to draw near and honour the places of loss and of bereavement that were part of ministry and personal pilgrimage, but that they often found nowhere to name and listen to.
Only when they had spent the time that was needed in that first room could they ready to embrace the journey into new beginnings. This is the significance and transforming power of remembrance.
All renewal is a work of remembrance. It is life out of death.
God re-members us.
And where is our hope in this? Our gospel to a harrowed and forgetful but clotted world? It lies in this alone – that God, in Christ re-members us.
‘Jesus re-member me in your Kingdom’ said the dying thief on the cross.
And what else is there to pray?
(Not that God actually forgets ….
Imagine him watching as one morning in the tiny corner of the cosmos that is my study I am trying to pray and he up there somewhere thinking.
Oh no – I’ve forgotten his name. He spoke to me last week what was it about, promised to do something. Anyone got the file? No? Just have to do a general blessing.
It will come to me in a minute. Bit of a heavy week.)
Here in this communion service, like Passover, is far more than retelling a past story and symbolically participating. This is where we are remembered.
All of life is here.
We hold out to Christ our emptiness,
our hunger, our need – and our trust
– sometimes the image of child
holding broken bits that need
And we receive in Christ, life
Original whole food
A foretaste of what will one day be complete.
For in Christ ‘all things hold together’.
He holds us in remembrance – this is all his work – whatever it takes, at whatever cost – ‘though we are many we are one body’ ….
But move carefully and be gentle with each other, we are fragments not yet set whole ….
So whatever you come with – wherever life and faith finds you … whatever the story you find yourself part of …. Christ remembers you.
And it is our vocation to live in remembrance of Him
Bishop Leonard Wilson was bishop of Singapore at the time of the Second World War and he was imprisoned in appalling conditions and tortured. There in that prison, facing violence and death, he sang the same hymn at the start of each day ….
Christ whose glory fills the skies
Christ the true the only light.
Son of righteousness arise
Triumph o’er the shades of night.
Day spring from on high, be near
Day star in my life, draw near
There in hell, he remembered Christ – sang for soul and the soul of the world. A blessed mourner in the midst of a world forgetting its most basic humanity – let alone the living God …. (and fellow prisoners and captors came to faith through this saintly man …. )
It’s all mutual – this unfathomable, costly, hopeful work of remembering …. even out of hell itself … for ‘in Him all things hold together’.
And Christ’s remembering of us renews our future.
That hymn continues …
Finish then this soul of mine –
pierce the gloom of sin and grief
Fill me radiancy divine
Scatter all my unbelief
More and more thyself display
Shining to the perfect day
Jesus re-member me when you come into your Kingdom