A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Archdeacon Jonathan Chaffey on 8 November 2020.
It’s a privilege for my wife Jane and I to join you this morning. We live just yards from Christ Church Cathedral, which was constructed upon the old Priory of St Frideswide, active at the time when the beautiful church of St Mary’s Iffley was built in the 12C. If all the stones of Oxford could speak…what stories might they tell? From the First English Parliament in 1258 through the St Scholastica’s Day riot between town and gown in 1355, to reformation then counter-reformation, from siege to lockdown, the building of empire yet the legacy of colonialism, revolutions of philosophy, science and medicine, the witness of the Wesleys, Tolkien and CS Lewis…
Recalling the facts of the past by themselves has only limited value. What matters more is not what but how we remember. It is absolutely right that we should shortly make our Act of Remembrance, just as the guns fell silent at the 11th hour on 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Today, I carry my Grandfather’s battlefield ID disc from the 1WW. Just 2 months in France he was severely wounded at the Somme and received a ‘blighty’. His OTC rooms at Oxford belonged to the Prime Minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, who was also at the Somme – but he didn’t return.
It is at our peril that we forget the harsh reality and consequences of war; for as the Spanish Philosopher, Santayana, wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. If we are to honour those who have served and died in world wars, more recent conflicts or in the fight to maintain civil society against terror and crime we need to do more. It is incumbent on us to recall the past in a way that inspires us to be reconcilers today. So how do we remember with understanding? You cannot explain away the loss of a generation; nor can you offer platitudes to those still carrying grief inflicted by war.
The timeless wisdom of the Bible helps us in our difficulty; it both comforts and disturbs. Psalm 70, which we have just read, is an urgent prayer for God’s help yet also a challenge to trust him and to acknowledge his salvation to others. Chaplains in the Armed Forces are there to help people recognise the presence of God even where others have tried to make him absent – and to help them discover that heartfelt prayer never goes unanswered. It was a profound privilege to serve in operational theatres of conflict, for instance to lead prayers on a parade square in Afghanistan and hear the Last Post as we said farewell to fallen comrades.
These young men and women of our Armed Forces, often not long out of school, exhibit tremendous physical courage. Yet if they are to dust selves down and walk or fly into danger day after day, if they are to retain discipline in the use of lethal force and to recover not just from physical injury but also from potential moral scars, they need to draw from deep reservoirs of Spiritual Resilience. This comfort and resilience may be something for you to receive today, particularly in the challenging circumstances of this pandemic – in your family life, perhaps in your places of education and work, your service in the wider community.
Today we remember, with respect and gratitude, those (as memorial at Kohima puts it) ‘who for our tomorrow gave their today’. To honour their memory we must take to heart God’s call to social responsibility: ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ Whether in Amos’ day 750 BC or within our own communities, the message is clear: true religion must promote the values of God’s kingdom. So look around you: where can you serve in Christ’s name? Where can you help others ‘dare to hope’, to discover that God never forgets them? Where can you bring the peace of Jesus into conflicts today: of our families, communities and nation? Where can the St Mary’s community allow living stones become stepping stones for others in their journey to the grace and truth of Jesus?
In our Gospel reading Jesus reinforces this message, calling us to watch, to be vigilant, to be prepared. We do this best by offering our lives in his service, following the one who laid down his life not just for his friends but for his enemies as well. Jesus continues to comfort and disturb yet however surprising it may seem, he also believes in us and calls us to be agents of change in his name.