“He is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Every day throughout the year in this church we carry out a small act of remembrance. For members of the congregation who have died, on the anniversary of their death, we remember them by name and we pray for them. Our role has been described as the “remembrancers of the unremembered”.
At this time of year, remembering those who have gone before us takes on a particular significance. On Monday we commemorated All Souls Day and, as an act of remembrance, we read out the names of our friends and family members who have died.
In our service today and throughout the country there have been many “acts of remembrance”.
We do this because we believe that God is the God of the living. To God, “all of them are alive”.
A few moments ago we promised that, “at the going down of the sun and in the morning/we will remember them”.
In all our acts of remembrance, we do, we remember them.
Today we remember in particular those who have died in war. But actually I don’t remember anyone who has died in war. My maternal grandfather was in the RAF but he survived the war and died when I was two. My paternal grandfather was deported from occupied France. And he worked as a forced labourer in an aircraft factory in Czechoslovakia. He survived the war and died in 2004.
Over time we will have less and less direct connection with the men and women who gave up their lives in the two great wars of the last hundred years. Of course there are many people for whom war and armed service continues to mean the loss of their loved ones. But we can’t get away from the fact that the vast majority of us do not have direct personal experience of mourning a loved one killed in the service of their country. Many of us just do not remember anyone who has died in war.
I wonder, therefore, if that is why in the run up to Remembrance Sunday this year there was the inevitable skirmish with the red poppies in one corner and the white poppies in the other.
What happened was that a minister at a church in Telford angered many by refusing to wear a red poppy and many people were deeply offended. Someone speaking on behalf of that minister said that she is in favour of peace and reconciliation and a red poppy apparently is a symbol that advocates war.
Does our increasing remoteness from personal and direct experience of the horrors of war mean that we are increasingly focussed less on the simple, heartfelt and non-political act of remembrance and, instead, we use Remembrance Sunday as an opportunity to continue the anti-war debate?
The Gospels do have many examples of Christ advocating for peace and as his followers we must continue to strive to bring about “the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding”. But today is about remembering not about campaigning; it is about remembering.
But as I said, I don’t remember anyone who has died in war and so how can we remember if our own experiences of war and loss become more and more remote?
In a few minutes’ time we will hear the words of Christ that we have heard so often and which are central to our tradition of worship.
We recall Jesus with his disciples on the night before he died. He took bread and broke it. He gave it to his disciples and in sharing it with them he tells them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Similarly, with the cup of wine, he tells them to drink it, “In remembrance of me.”
For many of us, these words, the actions of the priest, and the bread and wine offered by us are more than a simple re-enactment of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Their significance is more than being a simple re-enactment. The act of remembrance here, the act that Jesus commands us to do, brings him into our midst. He becomes present among us in a way that I will leave others better qualified than I am to wrestle with!
And so remembrance is more than simply remembering. Remembering is interior. It is individual.
In contrast, remembrance is an action. It is an outward sign of an interior memory.
If remembering is interior; remembrance is exterior. It is not individual; remembrance is collective.
I’ve heard God described as being an absent presence. God’s elusiveness is part of God’s appeal. God draws us into the divine through our constant searching for something that we cannot fully experience. At times God does seem very present but at other times God really can feel very absent.
But when we do as Jesus commanded and we eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance” of him, we are in the presence of God in a direct and immediate way. In the act of remembrance that is the Eucharist, an absent, elusive, God becomes present.
So, I would suggest, it is the case with the act of remembrance that has taken place this morning. We bring into our presence the absent: the increasingly distant and increasingly forgotten men and women who do not grow old as we grow old.
Our act of remembrance takes the seemingly absent dead and in some way makes them present to us once more. It takes men and women whom we do not know and we will never know and makes them present to us.
In Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Last Post” she imagines “what if”. What if we could rewind time and take the soldier blown apart by shrapnel and bring him back to life. She writes:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud...
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce - No - Decorum - No - Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too -
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.