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Sermon for Ordinary Remembrance Sunday 2007

The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley

This time last week Delia Shepard and I were taking part in worship at a lovely church in New Bedford Massachusetts. We had such a wonderful and interesting time that it will take a while to tell you all the things we learnt. We will always remember the colours of the autumn trees, the intense blue of the sky, the curve of the Atlantic coast and above all the warmth and sincerity of the people we met. I bring you love and greetings from Pastor Ken Beres and the people of Old First Congregational`Church in New Bedford and I know that they will be praying for us today in their Sunday Service.

When you visit New England it is at first the familiarity of the place that strikes you and then the differences. The different accent, the unique architecture with many houses made of softly painted wood. Many of the churches were also made out of wood painted brilliant white which looked wonderful against the autumn colours and sunshine.

One of the most striking things which we saw both in cynical New York and in less complicated New England was the yellow ribbons tied to the railings of many, many churches and some public buildings. The tradition of tying yellow ribbons to welcome home a loved one from war or to signify that he has gone away to war dates back at least to the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s. Some of you will remember an intensely annoying pop song, called “tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree”? Anyway, wherever we went on our American trip there were festoons of ribbons designed to call to mind the American servicemen and women who were serving their country overseas. At the church, where we were last week, the young peoples’ group were planning a spaghetti supper as a fund raiser for veterans, ex servicemen and women who were in need. It struck me that in America Remembrance is not just for November 11th (or Veterans day, which is what they celebrate) but all year round. In various places we saw banners or electric notices saying “Support our Servicemen and women”. Many people want the American troops to come home from a war they no longer believe in but they still honour the work that the troops are doing.

When I have spoken to people back here in England about this, many have said that they wouldn’t want to see such whole-hearted support for soldiers because it would look as though we supported the war in Iraq. Goodness knows that I am not a fan of any war but this seems to me unreasonable. We can pick and choose our Governments, next time there is an election. We can get rid of our local councillors if we don’t like the wars that their party chooses to take us into. But we can’t, shouldn’t be so unfair as to decide not to support the boys and girls, men and women who are sent off to fight the wars. They go on our behalf of and they do not choose which wars to fight, they just go.

Jesus occasionally had encounters with military men, notably the Centurion who asked for his servant to be healed. You will recall that there was a remarkable instant understanding between the gentle Prince of Peace and the hardened Roman soldier. Perhaps Jesus recognized in the Centurion his own discipline and willingness to serve others. We know from the words the Centurion sent via messengers that he saw Jesus as a “man of authority” who could command even life or death. And there was sympathy and respect between these two unlikely allies. Now Jesus could have refused to deal with a representative of the Roman Army which was the instrument by which the people of his own land and religion were kept in subjection. Any move to rebel against Roman authority was crushed ruthlessly and viciously by the Roman soldiers. Did Jesus turn away from the grief-stricken Centurion on political grounds ? No he did not. As always, Jesus’ generous and spontaneous sympathy for any human is to be our model.

As Jesus loved and helped the Centurion, though he surely disapproved of his profession, we must put aside politics and love the people, revere the people that fight for us. A soldier who came back from the Falklands war said, “it was coming home that we were not prepared for”. We cheer them off to war but hardly acknowledge their return and soon lose sight of them. Historically soldiers have been treated poorly by this country, pensions are inadequate and compensation handed out grudgingly. If we want heroes to fight on our behalf we must make sure that we treat them fairly and with respect.

On Remembrance Sunday we honour the courage and self-sacrifice of the men and women who died in the last two Great wars and subsequent conflicts. But we also hold up a mirror before our eyes, of what we as a nation allow to happen to soldiers, sailors and aircrew when we send them to war. As Christians we need to ask hard questions about the morality of each conflict and the price it exacts in terms of human suffering. If we dehumanise the so called enemy we commit a sin against the all-loving Creator but if we allow the work of our troops to go unacknowledged we err in an even less forgivable way. We are always taught that we must “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Perhaps we should rework this adage into “hate war but love the warrior”?