Sermon: Faithful Remembrance, Faithful Hope
Up until I was 12 and I left Clifton School for General Wolfe Junior High, every year there was a Remembrance Day service at the school at 11 o’clock, and immediately after the service we all went home for the rest of the day, to remember.
The service included a reading of the names of boys who had gone to Clifton and who had grown up – barely, to go and not come home from one of the Great Wars. There was a Scripture reading, and a reading – maybe even a recitation of In Flanders Fields. I think the service always began with the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” “The Last Post” was played from a scratchy record. There was silence. At the end we offered a fairly restrained rendition of “O Canada.” We all wore poppies.
Then we had the rest of the day off to go home and spend it doing our best to remember what we were supposed to remember. A generation-and-a-half ago, Remembrance Day was a whole day filled for everyone with a sense of the sombre – a day of shared grief, sorrow and deep reverence. It was a deep and silent day.
Now it’s not so silent, but it remains as deep, and it may be even broader and wider than it used to be.
I understand Remembrance Day services are still held in the schools. Talking with Tina Farraway about the triplets in preparation for our worship today, I think she said that tomorrow as part of their school’s service, “In Flanders Fields” will be shared by a number of classes – each class either singing or saying a different part of the poem. It sounds like a good way to make it a shared experience of remembrance.
There will also be services at cenotaphs across the country, with all kinds of people still taking time – maybe, if they’re working, an early lunch – to gather, to see the parade of vets and cadets and policemen, hear the names of those who gave their lives, hear a recitation of “In Flanders Fields,” listen to the bugler, observe silence for a minute, and sing “O Canada.”
They don’t get to go home after the service, though. Schoolchildren and most people at work don’t have the day off. As they leave the cenotaph they find their way back into life and daily routine.
Yet even at that, in the midst of the unstoppable chatter and commerce of our culture, there is still a good bit of attention on the hard lessons and sombre realities of the Day – maybe more every year.
The Spectator, for instance, on Friday carried stories about Bill Reid, a veteran who every year sells poppies and sings songs of the Second World War in the Appleby GO Station, and the folks of Ainslie Woods in West Hamilton who have written a book about the young men named on the cenotaph in their neighbourhood.
Almost daily over the past few weeks there have been stories and notices in the paper about Holocaust Remembrance events, so even those who don’t attend still know about them and what needs to be remembered … as well as stories this year about the Holodomor – a Ukrainian word meaning “death or killing by hunger,” which refers to the Russian-directed starvation of 3-4 million Ukrainian peasants in 1932-33 … and about Kristallnacht, or the “Night of the Broken Glass” – when 75 years ago, Nov 9-1o, 1938, Nazi paramilitary groups and non-Jewish civilians went on a planned and co-ordinated rampage against Jewish homes, stores, synagogues, hospitals and schools through Nazi Germany and parts of Austria.
Ever since the Great Wars of the twentieth century – especially the Second, we have been sensitized to a number of evils in human history that we now do not hesitate to call evil – things like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic or racial cleansing. The practice and the effect of these things in human history are among the deeper things we remember now on Remembrance Day, and our willingness to remember has had an effect.
It causes us to lift up the genocide in Rwanda as something we should not have allowed to happen, and from which we want to learn our hard lessons once again. It affects the way we respond to actions apparently undertaken by the Syrian government against its own citizens.
It also causes us also to look back at the past – even our own own past, with new eyes and new sensitivities ... at the way we treated First Nations and the kinds of racial cleansing and medical experimentation that were official government policy towards them, and at the way we treated Japanese Canadians, even the families of First-World-War veterans, during the Second World War. The government has publicly apologized in both cases, naming our sin and mistakes.
So we know now that great evils are done in human history, and we know their names. We study their causes, their ways of infecting a society, and their ways of being acted out.
We also know there are no such things as “good” and “evil” nations in any simple sense. Such language is usually just propaganda shorthand for “us” and “our enemies,” because we know no nation is all good or all evil, that there is good in each, evil in all, and people in all nations need to be empowered to speak and work for good, for justice and peace, for the protection of others, and for the protection of planet Earth where we work out our shared destiny.
All of that is now part of Remembrance Day – a remembering of more hard lessons than we can sometimes manage, and a remembering of the hope that we will learn from the past to make the future different and better for all.
Faith communities have a part in this. We especially are called to be part of this global work of remembering and hoping.
In our reading this morning we’ve heard words of Haggai – a prophet to Israel five centuries before Christ, who also lived in a time of trying to move from remembered hard lessons of the past, towards the hope of a different and better future.
Haggai lived in a time when the people were rebuilding their kingdom after its destruction in war – which came to them because of their sinfulness, and after exile in Babylon – where they had time to reflect on why such bad things had happened to them.
Back in their land now, they need to rebuild. Homes and farms, towns and cities, even the royal palace and the temple of God in Jerusalem are in ruins when they return. So for twenty years -- from 539 BCE to 520, the people begin putting their world back together.
And after twenty years, Haggai is disappointed, frustrated and anxious because in all that time they have not yet begun to rebuild the temple of God. Their homes and farms are well-restored. They have attended to their own needs, their comfort and leisure, as well as their commerce. But Haggai can see that none of it will go very far, last very long, or amount to more than just short-lived personal comfort because God and God’s good will are not at the heart of what they are doing. Not even just not at the heart – God and God’s good will – what they really are -- are not even on their radar.
And how then, Haggai says, do we expect to get beyond self and the old self-centredness? How do we expect not to fall into the same sin and blindness as undid us before? How do we expect to prosper, for the future to be different and better than the past, if we don’t begin with what we’ve learned through our history about God, God’s real desire for the world, and ourselves in relation to it?
So get to work on the temple, he says, and God will turn the world and its resources towards a different and better future.
Now … thinking of the rebuilding our world needs after the horrors of the last century, sometimes religion can be part of the problem … when religion remains sectarian and self-centred, when people think God wears only their name tag or secret ring, and intends to bless and save them instead of, and even against other people.
But as it says in Psalm 145, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” It’s not just us instead of them, nor is it even humanity over and above other creatures and the whole of Earth. God’s love and compassion are directed forever to all, and with this kind of faith that we have grown into in the last generation, the faith communities of the world have a place and a role to play in the building of a future for the world that is different and better than what we remember.
And it’s happening.
Ten or so years ago the United Church established a mission initiative called “To Heal the World,” in which they invited co-operation among people of all faith traditions – and no faith tradition, to share their understandings of the good will of God and their gifts of God’s Spirit to help heal the world together.
Separate from this, religious teachers are moving in this direction -- like Japhia’s brother Philip Newell who in the past decade has moved from studying and teaching traditional Celtic Christianity, to creating and sharing in interfaith dialogue and activity among Christians, Jews and Muslims towards peace and the healing of our relationships with one another and with Earth.
Pope Francis has startled some – especially in his own church, with statements that all people, regardless of their faith or un-faith, should live to resist evil and support good as they see it … and that the church’s traditional dogmatic concern to make all people Christian is an unhealthy obsession we cannot afford anymore.
And here at home, this afternoon from 3:30 – 4:30 people in Hamilton from all faith traditions as well as people who claim no faith tradition, will sit in peace and silence at First Unitarian Church to reflect on, pray for, and commit themselves to peace for all in the Middle East.
We remember what we have learned from the hard lessons of the past, for the sake of a different/better future God helps us envision.
As Psalm 145 says,
You, God, are near to all who call to you,
to all who call to you in truth.
You fulfil the desire of those who revere you;
you hear their cry and you save them.
You watch over all who love you,
but the wicked you will destroy.
My mouth shall speak your praise, O God.
Let every creature bless your holy name forever.
And as Haggai says:
Remember what was, work for what will be …
because we know God’s desire that the world be healed
remember what was, work for what will be …
because it gives God something to work with
remember what was, work for what will be …
because this is how we find our way into the world God is creating.