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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Remembrance Sunday Sermon

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Remembrance Sunday is a most difficult day to preach because there all manner of emotions which are heightened on a day when we remember lives which have been lost and conflicts between our own and other nations. I would like to remember the words of three soldiers today and use their thoughts to help us to reflect upon this service and what we do as we gather together on Remembrance Sunday.

The first soldier  I would like us to listen to is Harry Patch. He was born in 1898 and died in 2009. He died at the age of 111 and for a time he was the oldest man in Europe. He fought in the trenches on the western front and he became the longest surviving combat soldier of World War

He said...

When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany's only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that? It’s just an argument between two governments … I don’t think it is possible to truly explain the bond that is forged between a soldier in the trenches and his fellow soldiers. There you all are, no matter what your life in civvy street, covered in lice, desperately hungry, eking out the small treats – the ounce of tobacco, the biscuit. You relied on him and he on you, never really thinking that it was just the same for the enemy. But it was. It was every bit as bad.’

There was a piece read out at his funeral  which was an extract from his book  The Last Fighting Tommy 

We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: 'Shoot me'. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was 'Mother.' I remember that lad in particular. It's an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind.
His funeral was held at Wells cathedral and the bells were rung 11 times, once for each year of his life, the theme of the service was peace and reconciliation and his coffin was accompanied by two soldiers from each of the armies of Belgium, France and Germany. 

It is wonderful that such a coming together of nations took place at his funeral. But somehow the futility of war seems to be the dominant message of the life of Harry Patch.

It was a great thing that this week we saw England playing Germany at Wembly in a football match, which thankfully ended in a draw. What a sight to see England playing Germany at Wembly on Armistice Day. How fitting also that the Truce Statue was place outside the stadium, which depicts the historic moment when during the 1st World War there was a ceasefire where a game of football broke out between British and German troops on Christmas Day 1914.

I was surprised to hear German fans say before the match that they had never seen the poppy symbol so it was particularly fitting that both teams wore black armbands with the poppy and the head of German football Reinard Grindel said the poppy was about remembering and values of respect, tolerance and humanity.

 

Today is not a day when we glorify war. It is day when we remind ourselves of the waste of life.

Then I listened to the words of Squadron Leader George Leonard ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE a Royal Air Force pilot, who fought and flew and served in 617 Squadron in the Dambusters Raid of 1943. When he received his MBE at Buckingham Palace he reflected on the war and the fact that over 55,000 men were killed in Bomber Command. He said that they did not die in vain, their lives were given for freedom.

Of course if the war had been lost then who knows how many more innocent lives would have been ended in gas chambers, ovens, concentration camps and other atrocities.

There is a time when as a last resort, war becomes a necessity when out of our love for humanity we are prepared undaunted to make the final sacrifice. 

Finally I was reminded of the story of Eric Lomax. He was a soldier who was captured by the Japanese in 1941 and put to work on the railway through the Burmese jungle. He was accused of being a spy and sent to the Japanese army secret police.  His interrogator explained to him on arrival at the prison camp in 1943:

‘Lomax, you will be killed shortly whatever happens. But it will be to your advantage in the time remaining to tell the whole truth. You know now how we can deal with people when we wish to be unpleasant.’ 

Eric Lomax would somehow survive an ordeal so unspeakable that when he was later transferred to Singapore’s notorious Changi prison, he described it as ‘heaven’. After the war, like so many of those who had survived the atrocities of Japanese captivity, he could barely discuss his experiences with anyone. He bottled it all up and through it all, he retained a loathing for the Japanese, particularly the infernal interrogator still haunting his dreams with the same words: ‘Lomax, you will tell us . . .’
Yet nearly 50 years on Eric Lomax an old comrade sent him a cutting from an English language paper in Japan. It was about a repentant Japanese soldier who was suffering painful flashbacks and ‘making up’ for his country’s treatment of prisoners of war. Eric Lomax recognised with astonishment that this was his former interrogator., Nagase Takashi 

Encouraged by his wife in 1993, that the two men were finally reunited on the fabled bridge across the River Kwai. Takashi bowed and, nervously, began a lengthy apology.

'I am very, very sorry,' he told Mr Lomax. 'I never forgot you. We treated your countrymen very, very badly.'

It was a therapeutic process and later Eric Lomax accepted an invitation to visit Takashi in Japan, where he finally, formally forgave him – reading out a letter saying as much.

‘I had proved for myself that remembering is not enough if it simply hardens hate,’

And Takashi’s said 'I think I can die safely now.'

After all he went through in life, perhaps there could be no better epitaph for Mr Lomax than the last line he wrote in his book:

'Some time the hating has to stop.'

The reason why we remember the horrors of war in Remembrance Sunday is not to glorify war, it is for the same reason that we remember the Holocaust. To remember the terrible mistakes of the past and the sacrifices which were made before good triumphed over evil. It is also a day in which we commit ourselves to be part of the process of change as we commit ourselves  to live for peace and reconciliation.