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Remembrance Sunday. Moscow. 2022

Military conflict, whatever it is called, is awful

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Falkland’s conflict.
I was in touch recently with the person who served as the chaplain on board HMS Conqueror, the submarine that sunk the Belgrano. He spoke of how that still today weighs very heavily on his soul.

Later in this service we will hear the poem Annabelle. It was written by Tony McNally, who suffered from PTSD. He served in the Falklands and after his Rapier Missile unit jammed as a result of a minor electrical fault, watched helplessly the destruction of the British ship Sir Galahad, ‘as if at the cinema’. The images of the dead and badly burned bodies of the Guardsmen on the shore and in the water kept coming back to haunt him.

War is awful.

Jesus, in our second reading today, foresees the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, an event that took place in AD70. He foresees the devastation, the hell that lies ahead: ‘They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you’. And he weeps.

And it is not just the suffering and death. It is not just the devastation of communities and destruction of cultural monuments, the paralysing rumours and uncertainty, the fear or the separations

It is about what war does to all of us

We come to accept the unacceptable as normal.
There is the growing hatred fuelled by and fuelling the lies and exaggerations. Incidents of atrocity are universalised. The deep fires of the volcano of revenge are ignited. Friends become enemies. Families are divided. We wanted good for them. Now we want evil for them.
There is the growing brutalisation. We dehumanise ‘the other’, the enemy. We strip them of uniqueness, of any value or significance. We define them as non-human, so that we can do to them what we want. They become like characters in a video game, and we cannot separate reality from fantasy. We end up doing things to them that we could never have done before. We blow their legs off and we laugh, or at least celebrate, when we have done it.
And as we dehumanise the other, we end up dehumanising ourselves.
War is awful.

And yet - and I know that this can be a platitude, but I also suspect that some of you will have seen this - it is when things are darkest that you can begin to glimpse the things of the light.

As the kingdoms of this world rage against each other, we can begin to see the signs of that other world, that other kingdom. We see glimpses of light.

We see the gift of life: a new birth, a new Anabelle. Every new birth is a sign of hope. 

We see it in acts of great courage. The gratuitous acts of mercy and kindness and humanity. The soldier who challenges the mocking of the prisoner, or who steps out of the trench into no man’s land in order to challenge ‘the enemy’ to a football match, or who treats the one at his mercy with mercy.

And we see signs of this other world, glimpses of light, when people offer genuine selfless service.

And particularly at this Remembrance Day service we remember and give thanks to God for our late Queen Elizabeth. She exemplified that selfless service of country and commonwealth throughout her 70-year reign. And it was a service that began during the war years.
She was 13 when war broke out.
It would have been easy, and would have been the wise decision, to evacuate at least her, the heir to the throne, and her sister to the US. But all the family remained in the country. And when she was 18, Princess Elizabeth became number 230873 second subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, training with a motor division.
What she did then was more inspirational, more morale boosting, than practical (although we are told that she knew her way round a car engine for the rest of her life), but it was the beginning of a life lived in service.

Of course, there are many who have offered similar service to their country and many people who have made the supreme sacrifice. Today it is right to particularly honour those who did give their lives, and also those who still suffer - physically and emotionally - from life changing consequences of war time service.

But we also see glimpses of that light, of that other kingdom, in the ones who, like Bishop George Bell in the Second World War, are prepared to face the wrath of society, and maybe the authorities, by challenging the dehumanisation of the enemy, and who ask the awkward questions.

One of my favourite hymns, which we often sung on Remembrance Day in the UK, is ‘I vow to thee my country’. There was however one line that I struggled with and quietly changed; not that I think anybody noticed! It was the line in which we describe one aspect of love for country, ‘the love that asks no questions’. 
That is not true. Real love is prepared to ask the questions. 
So I changed that line to ‘the love that asks the questions’.

And it is in the hell of war, when everything is stripped away from us, when there is nothing or nobody else we can turn to, that people often do turn to God - even if they don’t claim to believe in him. Not as some insurance policy, but as offering a new sort of world.

It is when we find that we are afflicted, persecuted, crushed and struck down, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians - and I know that for many of you it has at times 
been very hard, and we thank God for you - that we begin to pay attention to the rumours of another world, another kingdom, a different way of living.

We hear that at the heart of this kingdom is one who conquered not by military might but by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, 2000 years ago, in order to give his life for his enemies. And that by his sacrificial death he defeated the power of sin and death.
We hear that the foundations of this kingdom are justice and mercy and love, where there will be peace and abundance, and no more separation, suffering or death.

Military conflict is awful. But it is when it is most dark that we can see glimpses of the light.

When she was 13 the then Princess Elizabeth found a poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins. It spoke to her. She showed it to her father, and her father used it in his 1939 Christmas Day message.

Perhaps it is something we need to hear again today:

‘And I said to the man 
who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light 
that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness 
and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light 
and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, 
and finding the Hand of God, 
trod gladly into the night.
And he led me towards the hills 
and the breaking of day in the lone East.’


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