Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Nov 7, 2010

Lections used are for Peace as per the ACC Book of Alternative Services:

Micah 4:1-5, Psalm 85:7-13, Ephesians 2:13-18, John 16:23-33

There is a school of thought that says Remembrance Day Sunday should be observed the Sunday closest to Nov 11, which would be the 14th, but I wanted to preach on the 7th in a way that hopefully might cause some to reflect on the upcoming observance. MP+

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ John 16:33)

“Recessional” by Rudyard Kipling
God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

In 1897, as Queen Victoria celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of her reign and as Great Britain celebrated an empire that spanned the globe, Rudyard Kipling produced a poem to celebrate Victoria’s long reign. Kipling was one of England’s great literary voices and, through works such as Kim and The Jungle Book, had earned a reputation as the poet laureate of the British Empire, but the poem that he produced for the Diamond Jubilee was hardly one of imperial triumph. Its title, “Recessional”, which suggests things ending and passing away, sounded a sombre note of caution to a nation proud of its imperial accomplishments. Kipling used a refrain, “Lest we forget – lest we forget!” to remind his countrymen and women that their Empire too could pass away like ancient empires before it (“Nineveh and Tyre”) if they forgot the God who alone had the power to guard and save them from their pride and arrogance (“frantic boast and foolish word”). Kipling’s poem was a warning that God, and not Britain, had conquered the world, and it would please God to preserve the Empire as long as the British remembered that fact.

While Kiping’s poem may be largely forgotten today, the words of his refrain, “Lest we forget”, still have a place in our minds and hearts as we, here in what used to be part of the British Empire, approach what we have variously called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. Sometimes these words — “Lest we forget” — are carved into cenotaphs, and, if we care to read these words and ponder them, they confront us with a challenge that something important is at stake here, that there are risks involved if we were to forget about the meaning of this day. I think it’s worth asking what would happen if we forgot about Remembrance Day?

First, if we were to forget about Remembrance Day, we would forget the sacrifice of those who served, both the sacrifice of our veterans old and (now, with Iraq and Afghanistan) young, and of our war dead past and present. Forgetting our veterans would be to devalue the civic virtues of service and the idea that some causes are worth great and ultimate cost. In forgetting these causes, such as the liberation of the Netherlands in World War Two or our attempts today, however frustrating and tentative they may be, to better the lot of the people of Afghanistan, we would devalue our sense of connectedness and obligation to other peoples, both at home and around the world, replacing that obligation with apathy and self-absorption. Forgetting our veterans and the causes they served means forgetting the stories which define us as peoples. A Britain which forgets its Finest Hour, or a Canada which forgets its coming of age at Vimy Ridge, would be diminished as a people, less a nation than a collection of individual amnesiacs. Finally, a nation that forgets these things would not be worth remembering by those who come after, except as an object lesson, like Nineveh and Tyre of how countries can end up in the dustbin of history.

You may have noticed that I have not said anything about God thus far, except to mention my text for this morning from St. John, and you would be quite right to wonder where I am going spiritually with this topic. One can observe Remembrance Day quite adequately without having any religious convictions. The things that I have suggested are at stake, “lest we forget”, are civic virtues of service and sacrifice, and a national cohesion that comes from remembering our stories and using them to chart our purpose for good in the world. One can subscribe to these values without believing, as Kipling did, that our country enjoys any divine blessing or God-given role as a world leader. We call such people realists or pragmatists, and if we had to chose we would likely say that pragmatists are less dangerous and make for better world neighbours than those who believe that their country has some special God given purpose (eg, the rulers of Iran and their nuclear program).

You however have come to church this morning either because you are Christians or because you are curious to hear what the church has to say. For the church, we too are a people who have much at stake “lest we forget”. Since God rescued his faithful people from slavery in Egypt, he has tasked them with the duty of remembrance. The Psalms, for example, remind God’s people never to forget the God who has never forgotten them:

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures for ever;
and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures for ever;
O give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures for ever. (Psalm 136 23-26)

The same divine love that sustained Israel is given to us in the person of God’s Son. In our Gospel lesson today, we hear some of the last worlds that Jesus gives to his disciples. He warns them that he will soon be arrested and that they will be scattered, but he says something to them so that they “may have peace”. Jesus does not give them something to look forward to, but asks them to remember something that has already happened. “But take courage,”, he says, “for I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).

Is this the mild Lamb of God who says he has conquered the world? What is Jesus saying, and how can we understand this extraordinary claim? First, Jesus is repeating the same message he gives all through John’s gospel, that he and the Father are one and have the same purpose and power in the world. John also reminds us that the Father created the world and created all things, but evil and darkness and death (and this is true especially of wartime) make us lose sight of God, lead us to doubt his power, and even doubt his existence. Because we have trouble seeing the Father, he has sent his Son and given him power over all things in the world, even power over evil and death as shown by his resurrection. To be a Christian is to believe and to remember that God has won this great victory through his Son, that the world is indeed “conquered”, and that the details of this conquest will be revealed in time.

What kind of conquest has our Saviour achieved? Two answers come to mind. First, we can say as followers of the risen Lord that he has conquered the power of death. As St. Paul says, “O death, where is your sting, O grave your victory? ” (1 Cor 15:55). This conquest is not just the abstract hope of some celestial life after death. For us as members of the military, it is the knowledge that the dealers of death we confront — suicide bombers, practitioners of ethnic cleansers, wardens of prison states — are on the wrong side of history. In the cosmic struggle between God and evil, their power is already broken, and this should give us hope and purpose. Second, as followers of the God who will reunite the earth, our quarrel is with those who practice hatred and division. We have the promise in the prophet Micah of all nations streaming to God’s heavenly mountain, and the promise of Paul in Ephesians that God “has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). These promises remind us that Remembrance Day is not about old divisions between former enemies, but about the hope that our sacrifices and conflicts will lead the peoples of earth to greater unity. We need to remember these promises whenever we encounter those things, such as the hateful email, or jokes about Arabs and Islam, which tempt us back into the divisions that God hates and has sworn to end.

As we prepare to gather at cenotaphs this week, it is a time of uncertainty and of fear for we who are the descendents of the Empire that Kipling celebrated. As in Kipling’s poem “Recessional”, there is a sense of things receding and fading. Even our neighbours to the south, whose Pax Americana followed the British Empire, now seem to sense that their best days are behind them. The West seems to lose purpose. New powers like China rise. Economies falter. Armies and fleets become burdeonsome to maintain, and their ability to bring change to a complex world seems suddenly to be in question. If our “captains and kings” have not quite departed, we doubt their ability to lead us anywhere good. This Remembrance Day we look from the pride and victories of the past to the uncertainties of the future. As we gather at cenotaph and monument this week, we as Canadians and Britons can remember with pride the accomplishments of those who went before us, and know with certainty what is at stake “lest we forget”. As Christians we can look forward with confidence to the future, trusting not in our own strength but in the promise of our King and Saviour that “I have conquered the world”.