Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sermon for Sunday November 7th - Remembrance Sunday

We stand in the season of Remembrance ... a significant piece of our task in this season is to hold on to the lessons of the past and place them in their proper context, offering lessons for today and tomorrow from the experiences of what once was … and the goal of marking Remembrance Day is remembering the past so we can learn how NOT to repeat it?

The challenge in drawing from the well of the past is to avoid engaging in a process of nostalgia that colours the past in warm soft tones and dubs it a “golden era” where everything was simpler and somehow better … remembrance is about recalling the past and honestly appraising its pros and cons to inform our decisions today.

Looking back on the era that we recall on November 11th, we need to remember fully the impact that world war one and two had on our society, and ultimately on us, even across the passage of time. Canadian Author Robert Collins in his retrospective work “you had to be there” looks back on the effect the Second World War had on his generation and notes:

"We were not a miltant people. We grew up with veterans of the first “great War” and their horrific experiences soured any taste we might have for battle. Yet 1 136 999 of us, men and women – 10% of the population – joined up, because it was the right, necessary and only thing to do." (page 54 – You Had to be There)

One cannot really underestimate the experience war had, but to revisit Collins, we gain an appreciation of WHY the second world war had such an impact. For starters he notes:

“we know that thousands of Canadians died wastefully, and we grieve for them. They were friends, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters. But those who fought, and the rest who served in uniform or in war plants at home, have a right to be proud. That time, that experience, has set us apart ever since.” (page 54)

Today, the impression of the Second World War has faded, and for most of us war is simply something that is viewed on our screens and in our reading material. It is something distant and far away. Even with attempts to honour our soliders and the fallen from Afghanistan, war is still something very distantly removed from our day to day lives here in Canada. We know our soldiers are serving overseas in an active combat war, and periodically we hear of casualties and deaths – but by and large it is something over there.

In World War Two, war was a reality for everyone, whether they were involved in combat or not. Inordinate numbers of men and some women served in a huge diversity of roles during the war. Ordinary citizens too were involved. At first agricultural production was ramped up and prepared for shipment to our British cousins, then came the Victory Gardens to produce food for homes and families, allowing the commercial ventures to send more to feed the troops and support network. Next came knitting socks, sewing pajamas, and baking cookies to be sent to airmen, sailors and soliders.

Collecting scrap metal, and not wasting anything became common activities, especially among children who valued the pennies they earned collecting old cars, equipment and other recyclables. The pennies in turn were used to buy Victory Bonds, War Saving Certificates and others investments that supported the war effort.
Collins notes that in 1942 rationing came into effect for everything from milk to gasoline. But his observation that alcohol was rationed to ensure our airmen had enough alcohol to supply necessary de-icing fluid to our air force so they could “avoid the icy hand of death.”

Even the role of women in society expanded dramatically in the early 1940’s with more and more women working in factories and industries that had previously been closed to them. More than the fanciful representation of Rosie the Riveter, the involvement of women in every branch of the service and at every juncture in the vast supply network meant the role of women had forever changed.

Yet, the war effort was not without its darker side ... the internment of the Japanese across the west, the establishment of Prisoner of War camps in remote corners of our nation, and the ever increasing toll of wounded, missing and fallen, meant that war was more than a grand patriotic adventure. It was as many observed – Hell ...

At a time of Remembrance we are challenged to balance our nostaligia and our revulsion and find the balance point that remembers the sacrifice of the fallen, while committing to finding a better way to deal with human conflict than all out war.

I’ve long consider it an honour to have met and heard the stories of vets from all of the conflicts Canada has been part of in the last century. I cherish the recollections of sitting with Herb, a Vimy Ridge vet who at the age of 105 was finally honoured for his service in that definitive Canadian Battle ... his story, 80 plus years removed from the actual event retold in vivid detail the days of battle that forever coloured his character and his view of the world.

I cherish the time I spent with Franklin, a simple army grunt turned poet who spent his idle hours penning poetry that captured the essence of battles he was witnessing and participating. But underlying it all was a deep cynicism that questioned the wisdom of armed conflict and proclaimed with out shame or fear the futility of war ...
There were many others ... the Mosquito pilot from Hanover who flew a plane with wings that came from the factory his father managed ... the landing craft pilot who watched helplessly as dozens of men died before his eyes in places with the familiar names of Dieppe, Scily, and Juno ... and there was a young father who lost four comrades in Afghanistan and has spent years recovering physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally from the moment that shattered when he glanced at his watch and a bomb hidden in a box of grapes detonated ...

Over and over, I have been blessed to meet men and women who have served in our military and who have quietly shared the stories of their experiences ... stories and memories of both heroism and horror, that serve to remind us that we must never forget ...

Never forgetting is not about glorifying war and wrapping everything in a patriotic fervor and ignoring the bloody horrors of war ... never forgetting is about ensuring that the sacrifices of the past are not and have not been in vain.
Never forgetting is about finding a new way of Shalom ...

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it well when he notes in his book “No Future without forgiveness” that:

“most of human history as a quest for that harmony, friendship and peace for which we appear to have been created. The Bible depicts it all as a God-directed campaign to recover that primordial harmony when the lion will again lie with the lamb and they will learn war no more because swords will have been beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Somewhere deep inside us we seem to know that we are destined for something better. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the better thing for which we are meant ...”

Tutu goes on to cite the examples of cleaning up after natural disasters, global responses to famine and other happenings that need help from beyond the immediate community ... the human spirit yearns for something more – something better ...

Remembrance Day – and this season of Remembrance is when we do more than embody that yearning ... Remembrance Day is when we use those memories to at actualizing that yearning ...

Franklin, a soldier in world war two gave me a book of his poetry, much of which was written on the battlefields of Europe through 1944 and 1945 ... in his later years he shared his words with me because he didn’t want the lessons he and his comrades had been part of to be lost. One of the strongest lessons Franklin learned was that in war when you die, it doesn’t matter the colour of your uniform – you’re still dead.

One late afternoon he sat on a hill side above two cemetaries in Italy – one for Allied troops, and one for German troops and watched the people of the surrounding country side come and pay their respects to the fallen on BOTH sides of the conflict that had so recently rolled through this valley, he wrote the following:

The shades of night are falling
On a cross-enstudded field
‘tis the resting place of hundreds
Of the Nazi marksmens’ yield;

While not far over yonder,
Less than half a league away
From the graveyard of the khaki,
Are the gravestones of the gray.

There’s one common soil to hold them,
Warmed by the self same sun,
And the winds that blow o’er khaki
Wails its path across the hun.

Too, the bees, by nature’s bidding,
Reckoning not from where they grow
Mix the nectar from the blossoms,
Off a friend with that of foe.

Hear the bells on hillside chapel,
Sounding out the vespers call,
Tolling out in common volume,
On the sleeping one and all.

See the peasants wending mass-ward,
Up the path at eventide,
Sign the cross with equal fervor
To the dead on either side.

Comes the stealthiest of hushes,
On this hero-strewn lea,
And the spectres of the corpses
Live in forms they used to be;

But one thing alone is lacking,
‘tis the longing to affray,
And in one forgiving mingle,
Are the Khaki and the gray.

Gone is all their warring spirit,
Followed by their martial mien,
Love has gathered in their heart-reins
Where but hatred once had been.

Lo! They speak in bated whispers
Of the grief that is to be,
With the last and western problems
And the wars near hallowed seas.

They decide in ghostly murmus,
To tender on this plea –
“Let war hatches all be sunken
In some unrelenting sea.”

So, they spake, ‘til dawning flares
Heralding in the rising sun,
Hastens on their prompt adjourning,
Sends them back from whence they’d come.

But the journey back togehter
To that haven they must go,
For He has but one lone barracks,
For the warrior, friend and foe.

Now to all the worldly salons,
Who we, from war, would save,
Pray be guided by this venture
From the land beyond the grave.

Our task of faith is to remember ... and to commit to a path of Shalom that is more than merely the absence of war ...
May it be so, thanks be to God, let us pray ...

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