Remembrance


This is my sermon at Croydon’s Remembrance Sunday service

I have just got back from a visit to Jerusalem – a city full of memories. Memories of key moments of faith for Jew, Christian and Muslim. Memories also of conquest and betrayal, war and oppression, recent and more ancient, and in every direction. In many ways Jerusalem seems to me to be a city paralysed by memory. We do this, because they do, or did that; we cannot do this because they did not do that … . The past can paralyse the present and disable the future. It can become a burden so heavy that it is no longer possible to move to a new place, to explore new possibilities. That is the danger of remembering badly.
This year, in Croydon, as well as remembering the past we are living with the tragedy of Wednesday morning. Lives lost in peace, not in war; ordinary people doing the ordinary things we all do, suddenly killed and injured in a moment’s catastrophe. We are still as a community dealing with the shock of the event – especially for those closest to the dead and injured, it seems still to be happening in the present, here and now. The reality has yet to sink in. Those who came away without great physical injury will still be living with what they experienced and saw, as will those who were the first responders.
It is too much to deal with all at once. We take time to adjust; it’s normal and healthy to do so. Because suddenly and shockingly, people with whom we were sharing our present, our everyday lives, have moved into the past. Yesterday many of us were at St Edward’s church in New Addington, where people gathered to pray, and to grieve. Many others walked to the site of the crash and left flowers. Those actions are the first steps in the long journey of remembering well. There will be many other steps to come, in grief for those whose lives have been lost or changed, in giving thanks for the lives of those who have died. But the journey has begun.
In Croydon, in this peacetime tragedy, we are beginning the journey of remembrance. On this day, Remembrance Sunday, we continue to walk the same long road. The shock of the terrible loss of life in World War 1, out of which this day came, is no longer a conscious memory except for a very few. We pass on as a society the memory which is not personal for most of us. We look back and give thanks for those who lost their lives in war, for the courage of ordinary people who did not hide from their duty. Even though we do not remember the events of World War 1, we still remember them because they have become part of our story of who we are, what our society is about.
And because conflicts continue to arise, this continues to be a time when many personal memories of loss come to the fore. Remembering well starts with the past, with the names written on the memorials, with our own memories and losses.
Remembering well also means recognising that the tragedy of war does not take sides. The grief of a widow is the same whatever their nationality; a child who has lost her parents doesn’t suffer more or less depending on which nation’s bomb fell on them. Remembrance began as a way of dealing with the pain of a particular, and dreadful, experience a hundred years ago as hundreds of thousands died in the trenches of World War 1. It is still that, but that is not all it is.
If our Remembrance is a time when we return to old wounds and open them up, then we are in danger of becoming like Jerusalem: unable to escape from the chains of our history. But if it is a time of healing, then the memories of the past can provide for us a resource for the future. We remember the past in order to redouble our resolve not just to live for ourselves, but to know that we are part of something which is greater than us as individuals. For those who are people of faith, that commitment draws us beyond ourselves into the body of believers, and provides a framework for our lives. For all of us who are citizens of this country, there is also a calling to recognise our common good, to seek the good of one another, and not simply our own advantage.
And if we do Remembrance well, we are learning how to respond to our present day tragedy. The first and necessary and right thing to do is to live with the grief, and the shock, and the anger and the bewilderment. A loss like this is not something one can ‘get over’ in a few days, or weeks, or months. Supporting one another through that process, as friends, as families and as a community, is the beginning – and it lays down the foundations for remembering well. Mark Smith, Dane Chinnery, Phil Seary, Dorota Rynkiewicz, Donald Collett, Philip Logan and Robert Huxley – even those of us who never knew them will join in remembering them. We will remember them well, as we remember those who have died in conflicts over the years.
I have spoken of our work as individuals and as a community in remembering. That work of remembering well is sustained and enabled by the God who remembers us all. To God there is no barrier between death and life, because he is the fountain of all life. So all that God remembers is alive; all those from whom we are separated by the barrier of earthly death are alive in him as we are too. The infinite, creative and compassionate love of God sustains us in our grief and enables us to remember what is past, to remember those who have died, in hope and in trust. For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Anointed One, is the great sign in this world of the hope of resurrection.
Psalm 122 famously asks us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. It is not inappropriate to apply that line also to our place and time – ‘Pray for the peace of Croydon; may they prosper who love you’. As we gather today to remember the past, and in our present shock, whether we are people of faith or none, we commit ourselves again to a future of hope in which we serve one another, and seek the good of all.

poppies_250x165We’re just coming up to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. There will be many events over the next four years, but what will we be remembering? There are plenty of different perspectives, and lots of emotion too.

I’d like to suggest that instead of spending our time discussing whether it was a just war, or evaluating the strategy and tactics, that we agree that we are commemorating a tragedy. Wars may or may not be necessary, but they are always tragic. Tragedy is a complicated word – it means more than ‘awful’ or ‘wrong’. There’s space within tragedy for heroism. War is tragic because it would always be better for it not to happen – but in times of war people also perform deeds of bravery they would not have imagined possible.

The human cost of World War One was horrendous. About 17 million people died – about 10 million of them were military personnel. Casualties were of every race and religion, and from every continent – among so many others, there are about 2000 Chinese buried in WW1 cemeteries in France. About 900,000 British personnel died; to use a local example to where I live, about the same as the population now of the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Croydon and Sutton, put together.

The political consequences were huge: by the end of the war the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed, and Germany was in a state of revolution. In these islands, the lines were being drawn which would lead to the partition of Ireland. The tyrannies of Stalin and Hitler arose out of this chaos. On a much smaller scale, so did the troubles which caused so much suffering in Northern Ireland and beyond. The war was a tragedy not just because of what happened in those four years, but because it opened the door to further, and even greater disasters to come.

So how do we remember a tragedy like this? Not by standing apart – either in praise or in blame. If you’ve ever seen one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you will know that the play invites you to experience the emotions, to share the dilemmas of the principal characters. Really good TV dramas do exactly the same. By being drawn in, we understand the complexity of what’s going on from the inside. From our hundred years’ distance, we now have the chance to understand the First World War, and at the same time to understand ourselves a bit better too