Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 10th November 2019 – The Eucharist (Part 6) and Remembrance Sunday
“I’ve forgotten where I’ve put my keys – again”
“What on earth is that person’s name, who I’ve already been introduced to three times?”
“Which of my seventeen passwords have I used for that particular online account?”
Sometimes we can’t help forgetting things. And of course medical or age-related loss of memory can be extremely difficult for family and friends, as well as the person concerned. Conversely some memories, particularly painful ones, can be hard to put away, even if we want to.
But on some levels we have a choice in what we remember, certainly in what we commemorate. As a country – and beyond – we come together this Remembrance Sunday to acknowledge those who have suffered and died in conflict. And as Christians we remember the death of Christ, celebrated in the Eucharist.
Today, we’ll be weaving together some thoughts on both Remembrance Sunday and the Eucharist. And to do that, we’ll focus on three themes – sacrifice, pain and promise.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, guns that had injured, maimed and killed almost ten million soldiers fell silent. Battles that had raged for 51 angry months ceased. It was a moment of quiet to bring to an end four years in which the huge technical and mechanical advances of the nineteenth century were perverted into creating tools of death and destruction on an industrial scale.
The enormity of the numbers can overshadow the individual stories, and the individual sacrifices. I suspect some of us approach Remembrance Sunday with a slight hesitation. We may find some tension between feeling that we’re commemorating war or violence, and our longing for peace. We may wonder about the justness, or otherwise, of the causes are fought for. But if we think about the very real people who took part in any conflict, we see them recognising something bigger than their own needs and welfare. Whether we look at the soldiers who fought; those who worked around the clock in factories; the not-so-old children who cared for their younger siblings as their parents weren’t at home; in all these situations there’s an example of selflessness, of sacrifice.
In some cases, that resulted in them paying the ultimate price, at least in earthly terms. They remained committed to what they were doing, and to their comrades, even to the point of death. And that selflessness is something which we can affirm; putting others first is hard, in any situation. But millions did, and we remember their sacrifice on this day.
And if we turn to the Eucharist, sacrifice is of course a central theme here too. How we see Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross could be a series in itself – was he literally taking on our sin and dying instead of us? Was he showing the limitless power of love, and in doing so creating an example that brings us back to God? We could find many discussions about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, from early Christians through to medieval figures like Anselm of Canterbury, and onto today’s theologians. I’m not going to try to unpack what exactly we mean by “Jesus dying for us” – how we see that is perhaps part of our personal relationship with God.
But I think most Christians could readily agree that Jesus’s death was sacrificial, in that he chose to give up something important and valuable in order to get or do something more important – that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of “sacrifice”. He gave up something important or valuable (his life) in order to achieve something more important (our redemption, our freedom, our relationship with God).
And isn’t that the amazing thing? That he chose to die for us. And that the “cause” he died for wasn’t the victory of one nation over another; it wasn’t the enforcing of one political ideology; it wasn’t even the defeat of a dictatorial regime. His sacrifice was about us – each of us, individually, as human beings loved by God.
So sacrifice is one of the things we remember.
We’re going to pause at this point, and we’ll come back to think about pain and promise. But as we now approach 11 o’clock, we’ll listen to a recorded version of It is well with my soul. It will then be faded out and a chime will mark the start and end of two minutes of silence.
Tomorrow will be 101 years since the armistice that brought the First World War to an end was signed. The tradition of a two minute silence on the 11th of November began the following year, 1919. The next day’s edition of the Manchester Guardian included the following description of that first silence;
“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”
Pain. Anguish. Grief.
Many of the images of the First World War (or indeed the Second, or other conflicts) which we’re familiar with convey a sense of horror. But even so, we can underestimate the pain which so many would have felt – and so many feel today. In November 1919, parents would still have been grieving the children no longer sitting in the empty chair; ex-soldiers would have been re-living terrifying moments in their nightmares, as well as enduring physical pain. And the whole community would have been reeling from the indiscriminate flu epidemic that had taken hold and which killed more people worldwide than the war. People were hurting, intensely and in many ways.
And if we turn to the eucharist, there’s certainly reverence and reflection. There’s perhaps also chaos and a bit of fun – certainly if you were here for the eucharistic meal we prepared and shared together three weeks ago! And we do have space set aside for healing prayers each week, recognising the pain we may wish to bring before God.
But I wonder if we sometimes gloss over the pain experienced by Jesus when he broke bread and shared the cup of wine with his friends. He was facing death. And not a quiet passing, surrounded by family – incredibly hard though that still is. He was to be betrayed, humiliated, abused, and crucified. The pain – the mental anguish of anticipation; the physical suffering of the cross – would have been intense. And Jesus, as God made human, would have felt that, just as we would have done.
And, whilst terrible, isn’t that a second amazing thing? That God has experienced and knows all-consuming pain. The pain that was there in the First and Second World Wars and in countless conflicts, and which is so evident is our world now. It’s a reality, but it’s a reality that God shares with us.
So pain is one of the things we remember too.
“The war that will end war”. That was the title of HG Wells’ book about the conflict that had just stated, published in 1914. Despite the cynical or ironic slant given to the phrase in subsequent years, at the time it represented the optimism and belief that humans could move forward to a peaceful era. Woodrow Wilson, the American president who led the United States into the war in 1917, subsequently committed himself to establishing the League of Nations, as a way of bringing countries together through diplomacy, to ensure peace. Not much more than twenty years later, the world was again at war.
Thirty years ago yesterday, the fall of the Berlin Wall was being celebrated as the culmination of the largely peaceful transitions that were taking place across Europe. Millions of people felt that times were changing in a fundamental way, in a way that created new hope and promise. In the words of two East German citizens who lived through that day;
“But what I see today doesn’t just take my breath away, it leaves me reeling: the Wall is open! I can’t believe it.”
“It was the joy and the release, the surprise of it all, and the thrill of it being a shared experience.”
And yes, Germany was reunited a year later, and for many people new possibilities emerged. But walls haven’t gone away. Perhaps the ones we’re most familiar with are focused on keeping people out, rather than in, but they’re still very much there – on the Hungarian / Serbian border, or on the American political agenda. There are new walls that impose barriers, that insist upon division.
We try to learn from our experiences, from history itself. We make promises about what we will or won’t do again. We hope for the future. And it would be a pretty bleak world if we didn’t. But we find it so hard to keep those promises.
And if we turn to the eucharist, we see promise there too. Not a promise that all will be well immediately, for we know that sacrifice and pain were very much part of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. But a promise that God’s love is eternal, unlimited, and sufficient to overcome the darkest moments, even death itself.
In the very first week of this Eucharist series, Paul spoke of signs of hope and signs of love. Of a meeting place for God and people – who are sat down together, sharing food and wine, listening to one another and caring for each other, sharing one another’s joys and burdens, recapturing God’s plan for all of Creation.
And when Anna talked the second week about kingdom economics – how the Eucharist should challenge materialism and consumerism – she reminded us that God sees our intentions for good, and that even if we don’t hit the mark every time, even when we buy something unethical or fail to invite our neighbour in for tea just because we are tired, there is always forgiveness and grace.
And that’s the third amazing thing. That God’s promise holds true, even though – perhaps because – we struggle to keep ours.
So promise is one of the things we remember this day.
Sacrifice, pain and promise. We remember them in particular this Sunday each year, but we also remember in the eucharist throughout the year.
And I just want to finish, both this sermon and this series, by thinking about where that remembrance leads us.
We’re used to the familiar words of the communion service – “do this in remembrance of me”. I guess the instinct is to think of “do this” as meaning “break bread and share wine”. And undoubtedly bread and wine are central to the Eucharist. A fortnight ago Angela touched on the different beliefs about what happens to the bread and wine during the prayer of consecration, and the different practices for communion that can result. The sharing of bread and wine is a simple but powerful act, and is part of our remembrance of Jesus. But can we also read the instruction “do this in remembrance of me” as referring to the action, the sacrifice, that Jesus was about to make following that very first communion?
“Do as I am doing”…
“Show the unconditional love that I am showing to my disciples and for the whole of humanity”…?
Few of us would be able to literally pick up our cross as Jesus did, and thankfully we’re unlikely to be asked to, although some of the information Jan shared last week about current persecution of Christians around the world was sobering.
But we are asked to think about how we act in this world. Our hymn at the end of today’s service will be For The Healing of the Nations. It was written by Fred Kaan, a man who spent his teenage years in occupied Holland during the Second World War. Its words touch on hatred, dogma and unequal sharing. But it highlights God’s love too, and it prays “to a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word”.
And whilst you’ll be pleased to know that the next part of the service isn’t an exam paper to test what we’ve all remembered from this six part series, please do take the time to reflect some more. There are several books linked from Phil’s mini-website about the Eucharist, as well as all the sermon texts. And there’ll soon be some notes and questions that could be used in Rainbow groups or house groups. Have a look, and see what’s useful to you. But above all, when we come to receive communion, Eucharist, mass, the feast of life, or whatever we choose to call it; when we break bread in the name of Christ, let us remember the sacrifice, pain and promise of when Jesus broke bread for us.
FINAL HYMN: For the healing of the nations (Fred Kaan)
For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word.
Lead us forward into freedom, from despair your world release,
that, redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace.
Show us how through care and goodness fear will die and hope increase.
All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice may we hallow brief life’s span.
You, Creator God, have written your great name on humankind;
for our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind;
that by our response and service earth its destiny may find.