Preached at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, on Sunday, November 8, 2015
Readings for this Sunday: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
It`s a great pleasure to be asked to preach at this Remembrance Service Sunday, and to represent the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service. I bring you greetings on behalf of our Chaplain General, Brigadier General Guy Chapdelaine, and the chaplains – Christians, Jews and Muslims, who serve the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Among these several hundred chaplains, I am one of approximately sixty Anglican priests. All of us came out of parishes and dioceses, and were given permission by our bishops to begin new ministries in the Armed Forces. In my own case it was Bishop Howe of Huron who gave me his blessing, despite the fact that he had invested in my theological education and in that respect had a claim on me. In this and many other ways, the Anglican Church of Canada supports its clergy in uniform and we in turn try to maintain our ties with the Church.
While we are happy to be priests in uniform, our ministry in the Forces is not just to Anglicans, or even just to Christians. Our ministry is to each and every military member, regardless of their belief. If we have the chance to celebrate the eucharist while on maneuvers, with the hood of a truck as our altar, we do. If we can help a Jewish soldier find a way to observe Passover, or defend the rights of Sikhs to wear their turbans or Muslim soldiers to wear their beards, we do so. We do our best to serve military personnel in all their diversity because the one thing that unites them is that they all joined to serve Canada.
What unites chaplains, despite all of our own religious diversity, is that we feel called to be with our military members and their families. It`s not because we necessarily want to convert them, though we do want to show them the love of God. We serve the military because soldiers are called to go places and do things that no one else would want to do or could do. Soldiers`’ lives can be touched by darkness and evil, and we as chaplains want to remind them that there is more than just darkness and violence. We want to show them the love, hope and light that we find in our faith.
In this respect, nothing about war has changed since the days of Canon Frederick Scott, a famous Anglican chaplain of the First World War. Scott wrote that “To both officers and men, the chaplain hold a unique position, enabling him to become the friend and companion of all’’. Canon Scott was an old man in an army of young men, a white haired eccentric in his fifties who lived in the muddy trenches and loved to recite his own poems to nervous troops as shells burst nearby. One of those soldiers later wrote of Scott that “The men loved him for in the hours of their misery, help and comfort radiated from his undaunted soul’’.
Canon Frederick Scott in France
At the military school where I work at Borden, we prepare chaplains for a military and a world that has changed greatly. When Scott wore his clerical collar in the trenches, everyone knew who he was and what a Canon was. Today`s soldiers don`t have that same basic knowledge of or comfort with Christianity. They may follow another faith, or more often, none at all. But they are still called to go to dangerous and difficult places, like Somalia, or Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Haiti, or Nepal. Their basic needs haven’t changed, and so we still train padres to be that friend who brings hope and comfort to the troops.
Chaplains cannot do this work without paying a cost. A very dear friend of mine was one of the last padres to go to Afghanistan before Canada`s mission there ended in 2012. Before he left my friend was a gentle family man, cheerful and funny to be with. He served with an infantry regiment, tough, rough and fit young men, but you could tell that he loved them and was loved by them. On his return I was shocked by the change in him. Like many new veterans he was angry and cynical and sarcastic, and it took him several years to get back to normal. Perhaps this change in personality had something to do with the fact that he lost a soldier over there. Master Corporal Byron Greff was the last Canadian to be killed in Afghanistan, the victim of a suicide bomber. Greff was in his mid-twenties. I will never forget the photo of my friend walking stone-faced in front of the casket on the way to the aircraft that would bring Byron Greff home.
Byron Greff and 157 other Canadians died in Afghanistan, many more were wounded, and according to a recent Globe and Mail article, at least 54 have committed suicide since returning. Today there no Canadians in Afghanistan and the future of that country is very much in doubt. It`s tempting to ask what it was all for. This week I called my padre friend, the one who was in Afghanistan, and asked him that very question. I wanted to know what he would say to Byron Greff and all those others.
Like many veterans my friend didn`t say much, but he made two good points. First he said that most Canadian soldiers do not want to go to war. When they do go, he said, it is with what he called a `weary sadness`, a sense that their job is unpleasant and unwelcome, but necessary. Second, he said, Canada`s wars are necessary because, in some way, they are to right a wrong or to free others. In legal terms, they are just wars. Holland, Korea, even Afghanistan were not left the worse for our presence. Unlike some armies, Canadian soldiers do not bring terror and cruelty with them. They are not feared by the locals. Today I see young Canadian soldiers who are recent immigrants from many countries, and I know that in their homelands, a soldier is often someone to be feared. So it is good to see them wearing our country`s uniform with pride and self-respect.
Still, my friend’s comment about ‘weary sadness’ speaks to something profound. On Remembrance Day we sometimes speak about sacrifice as if it is something that ended in 1918, or maybe in 1945, and is now safely locked in the past. The tragic thing about history is that sacrifices never end, despite talk about wars to end wars. Like Byron Greff, new generations of young Canadians are called up. Today you can find them in Iraq and Kuwait and Ukraine, training and protecting others. And all we know about the future is that it keeps getting more dangerous and more unpredictable, so it seems quite likely that new sacrifices will be called for.
In this respect, the words of our lesson from Hebrews seem to take on a new relevance. Hebrews tells us that Christ, our high priest, is not like human priests of the old covenant who offer sacrifices at their altars day after day. If Christ was human, he would simply share our suffering, and his blood would have to be poured out again and again in constant sacrifices that would change nothing. But, because Christ is of God and our high priest, his sacrifice of himself on the cross changes and saves the world. We do not know how this will work out or when it will happen, but we know that the resurrection changes everything. We know that God has not abandoned the world to an endless cycle of war and sacrifice and pain. Our hope and our promise is that God in Christ has begun his work of saving us and saving our world. As padres, that hope and promise is what we as padres is what we strive to show to the troops as serve. As Christians and Canadians, that hope and promise is what we seek to hold on to once the bugles and bagpipes of Remembrance Day have faded away.