Notes from Steve’s Remembrance Day Sermon

Dying to self / preparedness to die

I’ve been thinking about war. And those go to war for whatever reason: duty fear vengeance love rage patriotism compassion; and whether they are fighting for self, family, friends, country, religion, politics, or whatever.

And my thinking about war raises lots of uncomfortable questions:

We often speak of Jesus preparedness and even his willingness to die to die for the whole world, but how do we respond to men and women today who are prepared to die for others? Pity? Awe? Rage? Apathy?

And we who hate war – what do we feel about those in the forces who go off to fight on our behalf – or at least at the behest of our elected leaders?

And what do we feel for those innocent parties – referred to as ‘collateral’ when they are killed accidentally by a bomb or a shell or when a child is blown to pieces by a cluster bomb they’ve picked up thinking it’s a plaything.

And how do we respond emotionally to those who say that sometimes war is the last, least wanted and universally abhorred but only option in certain circumstances? How do we reconcile the evils of war with sometimes needing to combat and destroy monstrous evil in the world?

Is war ALWAYS wrong/evil? Yes, I hear myself reply. But it also seems to me that when we speak of war we are speaking of where war is conceived – in the human heart; and so is the human heart always wrong/evil? This time I hear my reply is NO! The human heart may be weak and prone to sin but human life even in all its frailty may never be wholly right but is not always wrong and evil… it may be where wrong emanates from but it’s also where love and compassion reside….

In the past I have spoken on occasions such as this and talked about selfless acts of compassion and bravery – like the crew of the little fishing boat deliberately sailing their boat beneath the blazing Piper Alpha gas platform in the North Sea , putting their own lives at risk to rescue a man clinging to one of the support pillars.

Or the story of bravest soldier of the first world war, as he came to be known: In the first world war, soldiers were digging a tunnel to undermine the German trenches. It caved in and trapped them but rescuers dug a narrow tunnel to them everyone crawled out except one lad who was too badly injured to crawl. It was then that one of his comrades, a 43 year-old ex-miner called William Hackett refused to leave and stayed with him while the others all escaped so he wouldn’t die alone in the cold and dark. Before the others could dig their way through again, the tunnel collapsed completely and both died and are entombed there together to this day. William Hackett was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

But today I want to look at us and how we remember acts of selfless courage but link that selflessness to our own behaviour.

We in this country, unlike others around the world even today, are not often called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. Our sacrifices are more often made with regard to our money, our time or our energy in some way and these ways are very important – but they are, in a sense, ‘external’ – they don’t necessarily always touch the inner person…

But what about those times when we find ourselves in conflict, not with an enemy on a battlefield, but when we find ourselves at odds with someone else?

In most conflicts, it seems to me, there are those who want to control, punish, even eliminate others, whether in war or a playground argument, and if we are serious when we talk about creating a better world, the thing we need to give up and surrender is often more to do with our need to be right, our desire to win at all costs – in other words, our pride.

Sometimes it’s brave soldiers like William Hackett that show us the way; sometimes it’s children: In Marcus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’, set in the Nazi era, a young Jewish German girl is sent to southern Germany for supposed safety. During a Hitler Youth rally there is a stampede and she hears her name being called. She looks around and on the ground she sees the boy from her school who has been taunting and humiliating her since she arrived in the town. His ankle is smashed and bleeding from the stampede. She might have laughed at his misfortune but she sees, not a spiteful boy but ‘a wounded animal’ needing care and protection and she immediately goes to him and helps him. Compassion overcomes fear and retribution.

In Keith Hebden’s book ‘Seeking Justice’ he lists the things we need to do to create a just and compassionate world:

Create the future – not just complaining or protesting the past or the present

Love one another – not hating /ignoring/being apathetic towards others

Integrate the self – not just going through the motions externally without engaging the heart and the head and the hands

Initiate the engagement – not waiting for someone else to move first

Consent to loss – not insisting on winning every argument every time

Die to self – not ‘surviving at all costs’ or ‘making sure you end up top dog’ or living by a ‘don’t let them get away with it’ mentality

Dying or living, in these terms, means making a decision about life in a way that dares to say, “I may live (conquer/win/be top dog/look clever but if the cost of that is someone else’s pain, someone else’s unhappiness, someone else’s losing face, what kind of life is it that I truly gain?” What was it Jesus said? “Those who wish to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”

The fishermen, the soldier, – if they had failed to act on their compassion, if they had ‘tried to save their life’ what kind of life would they have been in effect choosing, I wonder?

Today we remember those who for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances, laid down their lives or had them cruelly taken away for the good of whoever – or no-one – (which is what Jesus meant, of course, when he talked about losing ones life ‘For his sake’)

In countries around the world people are dying for their faith (or at the hands of those who think they are killing in the name of God ) – whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or whatever. I pray that none of you ever have to make that supreme sacrifice in the same way.

But dare we resolve, out of nothing else but selfless love and compassion, to die to self, be prepared to die, whether physically or figuratively, for the good of the other, seeing all people as children of God, as indeed we are – and therefore in that sense, not enemies but friends. If we can only do that, how much it could change our understanding of the words of Jesus in John 15.13:

“Greater love has no one than this – that they lay down their life for their friends…”

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