Sermons & services

Sermon for Remembrance Day

Published Sunday 8th Nov. 2020, at 5:23 p.m.

It’s strange to think that in the midst of a global pandemic claiming thousands of lives, ruining many thousands more, armed conflict is still going on in the world. Afghanistan. Yemen. Syria. Nagorno Karabach. Nigeria. Mali. The list could go on. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are 49 armed conflicts currently going on across the globe, ranging from small armed clashes to full on wars or civil wars. Nearly a hundred thousand people have died so far this year. And though I find those facts depressing, I don’t find myself surprised by them. In the Second Book of Kings we read about the season when kings go to war. That was two and a half thousand years ago: so it was before and has been ever since. Humans are still warring with humans and we really haven’t learned that much, have we? People are fighting so many different battles at the moment. Battles against the Covid 19 pandemic. Battles against anxiety, over jobs and health. Battle against the mental health issues effecting so many people And yet behind each headline are the stories – the lives – of ordinary people. Real people. It’s so easy for that fact to get lost: for individual tragedy to get lost in that bigger picture. The former Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, once said: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. On this Remembrance Sunday, this is a trap we must ensure we never fall into. It was a trap the people of this nation also had to make sure they did not fall into at the end of the First World War. For those of you who know this story: apologies. For those who don’t, this is the story of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. It begins in 1916, and an Anglican clergyman serving on the Western Front. The Reverend David Railton spotted a grave in a back garden of a house in Armentieres in France. Planted in the grave was a cross on which was written the words, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. This is what Railton said: “How that grave caused me to think … I thought and thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong. ‘Let this body – this symbol of him – be carried over the sea to his native land.’” Four years later, Railton wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Herbert Ryle, to suggest having a nationally recognised grave for an unknown soldier. The idea caught the public imagination. This is how it happened. The unknown warrior's body was chosen from the bodies of six British servicemen whose bodies had been exhumed from battlefields on the Western Front - the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. These remains were brought to a chapel on the night of 7th November 1920, where the officer in charge of British forces in France and Belgium, Brigadier General John Wyatt, randomly chose one body. It could have been anybody: the body of a Lord, a farmer, a factory worker. A saint. A sinner. The point was that the nation might honour him without distinction of rank, birth or service. The fact that the identity of the soldier was unknown, meant it could represent anyone and everyone. But it’s what happens next that astonishes me: the honours the body was given. The journey home began when the casket, made of oak from trees from the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, was placed onto a French military wagon, drawn by six black horses. All the church bells of Boulogne tolled, and the massed trumpets of the French cavalry and the bugles of the French infantry played the French ‘Last Post’. Then, the mile-long procession—led by a thousand local schoolchildren and escorted by a division of French troops—made its way down to the harbour. As the body was taken aboard HMS Verdun it was piped on board with the same call as if an admiral was coming aboard. It was escorted across the Channel by six battleships. And as the flotilla approached Dover it received a 19-gun Field Marshal's salute. On the morning of 11th November, one hundred years ago, the unknown soldier began the journey to his final resting place, drawn on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery while another Field Marshall’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. At the newly unveiled Cenotaph, the cortege was joined by the King himself and other members of the Royal Family. At 11 o’clock there was a two-minute silence, and the body was brought into Westminster Abbey, passing through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross. In the Abbey itself, sat 100 women who had lost husbands or sons, who watched as the coffin was buried under soil brought from the battlefields of Europe. That story speaks powerfully to me of this day, of the dead of all the world wars, of all the departed. Treating that unknown soldier with the highest honour imaginable was a deep act of faith. Because each one of us is uniquely created by God, uniquely loved into existence by God, held in existence by God, and destined to live for all eternity’s in God’s love. There is no such thing as a no-one to God. And therefore each human being is deserving of the utmost honour. Of course, not every soldier could receive a similar burial but that was the point: the Unknown Soldier could represent all those other soldiers, seamen, airman who gave their lives. St Paul could speak of his faith in the Jesus who died and gave himself for me. It was that personal. Jesus died for each and every one of us – individually – as if we were the only ones he died for. And he could do that because of the infinite worth of each and every one of us. Each one of us in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, created by God in His image and likeness, held in existence by God, and destined to share in God’s life for all eternity. And for whom God sent his only Son to die on the Cross for all humanity. This is why we honour the Fallen. Not because of their personalities, whether they were good or bad people or a mixture of both. Not because of their rank, in uniform or in society. Not because of their achievements, or lack of them. Not because of whether they died bravely or in cowering terror. But because each one of them was one of God’s children, infinitely precious in his sight, and worthy of honour. And so worthy of Remembrance. Amen.