Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

November 13, 2012, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 11th november, 2012

There are two themes I want to take up this evening: Remembrance and Praying for the Dead. The two are linked, and yet they are distinct. First, an old chestnut: a visiting dignitary to an old people’s home sees that the lady he is talking to does not seem particularly impressed. “Do you know who I am?” he asks. “No, dear,” comes the reply, “but I’m sure if you ask matron over there, she will be able to tell you.”

One of the saddest and most distressing aspects of dementia is losing one’s memory, even of the most basic things: who we are, where we are, why we are here; being unable to recognise even our nearest and dearest. Memory is the way we bring the past back into the present. The things we experience imprint themselves on us, and even when the events themselves are long gone, the impression the have made remains with us and can be recalled. Our capacity to hold on to past experience and to recall it is fundamental to our sense of self-identity. I am the same person who, all that time ago, experienced those things. To lose that is to lose something of myself.

The same is as true for a community as it is for an individual. It is shared memory, memory passed down from one generation to another, that gives us a sense of who we are, what we belong to. This year, the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has rekindled for some of us memories of where we were, what we felt, sixty years ago. For younger people, seeing the old film of the event may have created a sense of history. Today, more than ever before, we can recapture the past in vision and sound. We can see and hear people who lived and died up to a century ago.

Each year, at this season, we remember the Great War which ended on this day ninety-four years ago. Part of the purpose of remembering, collectively, is to learn from our collective experience. Things were done at the end of the Great War that in fact brought about the Second World War. The Allies’ desire to punish Germany brought such hardship on the German people that Hitler found a fertile soil for his fanatical ideas. The same mistake was not made by the Allies the second time, and as a result Germany was rebuilt as a democratic and peace-loving state.

The policies of politicians (both democratic and anti-democratic) brought catastrophe. When we grumble about the petty bureaucracy of Brussels, we should remember that bureaucracy is far less bad than belligerence; and whatever the inevitable imperfections of the European Community, it was conceived in an idealistic spirit as a remedy for war, and has largely succeeded in that aim.

Another instance of Remembrance is that each year, on All Souls’ Day, we remember the departed, especially those near and dear to us. Which brings me to my second theme: what are we doing, when we pray for the dead? I heard an All Souls’ Day sermon (not in this Church), the burden of which was that we remember with thanksgiving all the blessings we have received through “those we love but see no longer.” Well of course, that is part of what we do. In the same way we remember, on this Armistice Day, the sacrifice of those men and women who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and justice. Of course we do that.

But is that all we should be doing? Are we just saying “thank you” to God for all the brave and kind people whose lives have affected ours for good? What about our enemies? What about the nasty people who have harmed us or harmed other people? Can we pray for Hitler? Or Doctor Shipman? This time last year we might have given thanks for the life of Jimmy Savile, and all the charitable work he did. How can we do that now? As Shakespeare says of Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Even if we can still remember that there was some good, we can’t forget the evil that was all mixed up with it.

A couple of centuries before our Lord, the Jews under Judas Maccabaeus fought for their freedom. After one battle, some of the Jewish dead were found to have been wearing pagan amulets, and it was said that God had allowed them to be killed because of their superstition, their sin against the God of Israel. However, Judas took up a collection and sent it to Jerusalem, that an atonement sacrifice might be made on behalf of the dead men. The writer who recorded this says that he did it because he believed in the resurrection. It would have been futile, he said, if the men could not have been benefited by the sacrifice; as it was, it was a holy and pious thought, to pray that they might be delivered from their sin.

On All Saints’ Day we honour all those who have died as friends of God, and who now rejoice in heaven. That includes not only those whose faith and virtue has been publicly recognised by the Church, but all those holy souls whose merits are forgotten on earth but known to God. But it is manifestly untrue that all who die, die in love and charity with their neighbours, and at peace with God. We can romanticise those who die in war; but not all were heroes, many died full of anger and hatred, maybe even cursing God. Are we to despair of them? Are we simply to forget them? If we do, shall not our prayers for the dead be simply for those who scarecely need them, while those who, desperately, do need them are neglected?

God, we know, does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his wickedness and live. It may be that some souls die in final impenitence, and are lost for ever. It may be so- but we certainly do not know who they may be; and as long as we do not, we have a duty in charity to pray for even the (by human standards) vilest sinner, that he or she may have had the grace, even at the last moment, to turn to God and be reconciled. Precisely because we do not know the final state of others, we should pray that it be good.

That does not mean instant admission to heaven. Most of us, when we come to die, will have unfinished business. Most of us will be imperfect, with many faults and failings. Some people are deeply scarred by lives of sin and selfishness, and have only realised their situation at the last moment. That is why the Church generally has believed in what is called “Purgatory”, not I think to be envisaged as a place or period of time, but rather of a process of purification that heals our wounds and strengthens us to live the strong life of heaven. We believe that in this process, the prayers of the living are beneficial for the departed. The Power that heals is the power of love, God’s Love; but our little loves can also help to facilitate the process. So often, in this world, it is lack of love that turns people to evil; every drop of love we can show may help to turn them back.

I said just now that the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has helped to reaffirm our sense of identity as a nation. On the occasion of the previous Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria’s   in 1897, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem which he entitled “Recessional”. Kipling is remembered in popular mythology as a Jingoistic apologist for Imperialism. Actually, this poem, written at the height of late-Victorian Empire, is quite the opposite. It occurs in the old English Hymnal, but not in the new, so I cannot get you to sing it tonight. I have often used it on this Remembrance Sunday.

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!

That would not have shocked the Victorians who first heard it. But it goes on:

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!

Human pomp and circumstance perish, but what remains is God’s “ancient sacrifice”, that of Christ, and what matters is not wealth and success, but a humble and contrite heart. In case his hearers should take this in too conventional way, Kipling applies it directly to the British Empire:

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!

Even at the high noon of Empire, Kipling foresaw its decline, and he warned against complacency and pride:

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!

Lest we forget: we often recite those words at this time of year, without remembering the context. What Kipling wanted remembered was that worldly success always passes away, that pride goes before a fall, that (as only a few years later, during the Great War that was still to come, Nurse Edith Cavell was to say) “Patriotism is not enough: I must have no anger or hatred in my heart.” Kipling himself was to lose his beloved son Jack, about whom he wrote another, poignant, poem. He caught a glimpse, I think, of that great mystery whereby God himself gave his beloved Son, so that sinners might not die, but live. In “Recessional” he pours scorn on those who think that by piling up armaments they can make the world a safer place. We are all sinners, in need of the divine mercy:

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!

It seems to me, now in my seventies, that we have forgotten so much about what makes a nation truly great: qualities that the Scriptures remind us of, to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And as we try to embody those virtues, let us pray for those, not only living, but even departed, who have to human eyes signally failed to do so. For heathen heart and boastful word, Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!


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