Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11th November, 2012.

Readings: Psalm 127, Mark 12:38-44

We pray:  may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen

There is a hymn that is used quite regularly in Scotland on Remembrance day written by a group of people from Carnwadric Parish Church in Glasgow in conjunction with John L Bell –[1] a well known Scottish hymn writer.  This hymn has an absolute simplicity about it and for me summed up my somewhat mixed emotions around Remembrance Day.  And I wondered if I might walk with you through the hymn today as we together explore some of the difficulties of holding in tension the reality of war and the love and peace of Christ.  It’s a big ask, but maybe we can find some answers and in the end I believe the gospel passage shows us a way.
The first verse of the hymn:
The first verse of the hymn:
What shall we pray for those who died,
those on whose death our lives relied?
Silenced by war but not denied,
God give them peace.
The reality of war – without the sacrifice of those who fought against the evil that the Hitler led Nazi Government became – what would have happened to us? Without the bravery of those who protect family, freedom and justice with their lives, what would this world look like?  That is a totally valid question and offers several horrific answers.  And yet there are those who say that any violence, any war is unacceptable – should Christians be among that voice?
Augustine is often identified as the theologian who set the stage for a Christian viewpoint that says a just war to secure tolerable order is acceptable.  Martin Luther King also accepted that the savage wild beast that is the underbelly of humanity needs to be restrained and vanquished.  He accepted that war was a plague, but that it was invoked to contain a greater evil.  Other theologians include such caveats as a just war needing to serve justice: they differentiate between conflict for a greater good and conflict that is amoral.  But who is to decide what is just and what is unjust and can we be sure that justice will not turn into injustice or create greater harm?  What do we do with Syria for instance – where at the moment it seems that political rightness has more weight than humanitarian needs?  All of
Rightness has more weight than humanitarian needs but where ploughing in with armed force seem only to add to the misery.  All of which still leaves us pondering  the rights and wrongs of war.  Few of us would disagree that Hitler needed to be halted and few would justify a war based purely on economic greed.  But there are many stories in between.

The next verse reminds us of the cost of war:
What shall we pray for those who mourn
friendship and love, their fruit unborn?
Though years have passed, hearts still are torn:
God give them peace.

Because there is a cost to war – an enormous cost of pain and death, of lost dreams, of futures not to be, of those left behind, loneliness, emptiness, heartache.  This verse demands answers –  and yet we are almost helpless to give them.  Christ asks us to offer compassion and tenderness to those who suffer – but what if the cause of that suffering is our safety, our rights?  Is that what sometimes makes us a little impatient with those who seem forever marked by the consequences of war – that or the somewhat guilty awareness that it wasn’t us thank God.

And then there were those that survive wars – the hymn speaks of praying for them too:
What shall we pray for those who live
tied to the past they can’t forgive,
haunted by terrors they relive?
God give them peace.
 We remember the hidden terrors, the inward struggles of those who lived for years, until their death, with the horrors of war and the nightmare of death and pain we who have not been there can ever imagine.   All this in a society that seemed to them to demand chin up and brave face.  There was a book written a few years ago – one that collected the memories and stories of war veterans - where they expressed, many for the first time, the demons that they had carried inside whilst living a seemingly normal life to those around – it was a shocking read to someone like me who had known one or two of these people for some time and had never seen below the surface.

But then I thought that there was a verse missing from this hymn for me anyway – and so I have written this:
What shall we pray for those who said
no to war, called coward instead.
They too were brave, hurt and afraid:
God give them peace.
 The experience of many to those who chose to say no to fighting was, I suspect, no easier than those who were in the midst of battle – there are some truly horrific stories told of their treatment and the scars were deep.  In the midst of the culture of the time it was no easy thing to be a conscientious objector – even on religious grounds.  There were many who would have called themselves Christian who made the lives of these people absolute hell.  Yet if the whole Christian world – or any faith for whom peace, love and care for others  was a core value had said no – what might have been the outcome?  Could the Church in Europe have prevented these world wars, with a different response?

What shall we pray for those who fear
war, in some guise, shall reappear
looking attractive and sincere?
God give them peace.
What is to stop us doing this again – because if you could talk to any of those soldiers from the war who gave their lives to stop injustice and anarchy the cry, I am sure,  would be ‘never again! Never again can there be such slaughter, such carnage – that is what we fought for, that is our plea!’
The need to restrain and stop violence and injustice and the horror that is something like the rise of Nazism or any other extreme movement will I suspect be with us for some time to come but we must pray that never again will we see throwing the lives of people into the maelstrom of war, the bloody lines of people killing and maiming as a means to hoped for peace and justice

God give us peace and, more than this,
show us the path where justice is;
and let us never be remiss
working for peace that lasts.
 Can we make a difference?  Can we be the peace of Christ in this world, realistically?  How can we avoid the spilling of courageous blood, the horrors of surviving war, the losses of young vibrant lives and futures yet to be written. 
I think that many make the mistaken assumption that being a people of peace means doing  nothing, that we do not aggravate or challenge anyone, that we do not stand up against evil. I am suggesting that there are other ways to contain evil and take on injustices: that it is our attitude to injustice that determines how we might respond to it.  In the Gospel reading from today the priests, the rich people and the poor woman were all doing the same thing – they were giving to the temple much as we all might want to stop injustice and terror.  The priests were giving of their presence and conferring honour, the rich were giving ostentatiously and from their surplus, the woman was giving from her daily need, putting her whole life into her giving for she trusted God to be in her every need. In some ways today and maybe in the past, you could say that the use of war to subdue threats is a bit like those who gave of their surplus – the decision makers are rarely the ones who put their lives on the line, who are deeply and personally impacted by the horror of war – sweeping and slightly biased statement I know but I am leaving it in there.   If we take that call for a just and fair world seriously it cannot be detached from our everyday reality, be taken from our surplus so to speak, but needs to be, like the giving of the poor woman,  in every single thing we do and say, so firmly part of who we are that we spread Christ’s radical love and justice in the simplest of acts, in our everyday life so that a call to arms is who we are and how we live.  We challenge the governments that call for war to keep access to oil fields, we speak out about the injustices that lead people into violence as the only way out, we make our voice heard in forums that make decisions and we showcase alternative ways to confrontation in our everyday choices.
For us, the call to arms is paradoxically a call to peace and love and justice that is the right of all people and the path of walking with the risen Christ.

Margaret Garland

[1] Carnwadric Parish Church, (Glasgow) Worship Group and John L. Bell  CH4 712