Remembrance Sunday - Matthew 5. 1-12

The Revd Dr Mark Bratton
Sunday 09th November, 2014

A member of this congregation recently handed me a publication of The Berkswell Society Local History Group called In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow, the title, of course, of John McCrae’s famous poem. Largely the work of Ted Innet, it offers a succinct account of the operations, conflicts and locations, in which the men of Berkswell died and the Force or Regiment in which they served. Forty-eight Berkswellians were killed in battle; their names are inscribed on the Berkswell War Memorial, designed by Sir Charles Nicolson, consecrated in 1920 and unveiled in 1921. Two hundred others survived, returning home to civilian life.

Berkswell’s first casualty was Corporal William Timms, who served in the 1st Battalion of The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. He died a month after the war started, on 29th September 1914, during the Allied retreat to the Marne. Lance Corporal Charles Harold Woodfield of the Royal Amy Service Corps was the last local fatality, dying on the 5th March 1919, six months after the signing of Armistice. He reminds us that the consequences of the Great War endured long after its official close in the shattered bodies and traumatised minds of those who survived the carnage of the fields of Flanders and the other theatres of operation.

Of their lives, we have only the sparsest details. There is no reason, to doubt that many of them experienced beyond endurance the privations of warfare: the cold, the squalor, the sleeplessness, the terror, the utter carnage of the first truly industrial war. Stan Green’s selected readings offer us a glimpse into the shocking reality of the trenches. To us, these soldiers may simply be names on a wall made of stone. However, a hundred years ago they “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved”.

As Ted Innet informs us, the Great War exacted an extremely high cost from all who were involved in it. The overall losses run into many millions. Some hold that the punitive measures meted out to the Germans at Versailles incubated the extremism that led to the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of the Second World War. In the Great War’s aftermath, not only was the map of Europe redrawn, but also the Middle East’s, the consequences of which are still felt to this day. I remember as a young boy in Lebanon travelling to the south of that beautiful, war-torn, country, artificially constructed out of the post-war mandate, bewildered at the impassible border with Israel.

It is wholly appropriate at a commemoration service such as this that we should together bring to mind all those who lost their lives serving their country, holding them in prayer before God. However, Christian remembering is of a different order to conventional commemoration. In the Christian economy, remembrance is not solely about bringing the past into the present and holding it there, but drawing the future into the here and now, and living that future as a present-day reality.

This is what is at stake in the Beatitudes in our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew. The Beatitudes serve as the prologue to the Sermon on the Mount, which spans chapters 5-7 of the Gospel. The Greek word we normally translate as ‘blessed’ is makarioi. Makarioi are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; makarioi are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God; makarioi are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The state of ‘blessedness’ in the Beatitudes is an objective state. If you are mourning, or meek, or merciful, or pure in heart, then you are blessed now, whether you experience it as such or not. The Beatitudes do not supply us with a strategy for living. Rather, they provide us with a glimpse of what the world would be like if God’s promised future were fully brought into the present. The Beatitudes disclose to us that the universe does not ultimately belong to the super-spiritual, the “thick-skinned”, the supremely confident, the self-serving, the ruthless, the masters of realpolitik, and the persecutors. It belongs to the least amongst us because they are the ones about whom God is most concerned.

The Gospels teach us that the kingdom of God is not just a future reality, but present one as well if we are responsive enough to make it so. God’s promised future of a transformed heaven and is a reality we can commemorate into the present. In Christ, eternity has broken through. If we are to make God’s promised future a present reality, we can’t just sit around on our backsides. We have to get with the programme.

One vital way we can do this is to cultivate a critical, distance from “the way things are”. Things never have to be the way they are. They remain so because we are either too lazy or unimaginative to make a difference. There is no time like the present in a world, which seems to be on the cusp of political, economic and ecological crisis. Whether it is the microbiological threat of Ebola, or the political threat presented by ISIS, or the environmental threats posed by collapsing Antarctic ice-shelves or the depredation of the rainforest, we must understand that none of us lives in siloes. We are all inter-connected. This stands to reason if we are all part of the One God’s One Good World.

So as we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, let us commemorate in two directions. As we draw the past into the present, to honour the dead, to hold them before God, let us also commit ourselves to drawing God’s promised future into the present, marshalling all the resources of faith, hope and imagination we can muster.

AMEN

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