May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer. Today, we are observing Remembrance Day, and I decided that, instead of using the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I amgoing to focus on Remembrance Day – or Armistice Day, as we called it when I was a child. But first, I want to share with you a couple of small pieces from Scripture, pieces which help us to figure out what it is that God wants us to do. For centuries, people have asked God for guidance – asking him what they should do in certain circumstances. The first one we will look at is from the book of Zechariah, when the people asked what they should do in order to please God. He replied: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. That seems pretty straightforward, but another writer put it even more simply. In Micah 6:8 we read: He showed you, O man, what was good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. I have always loved this verse, and never more so than when we are observing Remembrance Day.
There are many people who would suggest to us that Remembrance Day is outmoded, that it is a religious observation that should no longer be practiced, that the time for remembering the sacrifices made in wars long since past is no more – and that we should instead get on with other things. To these people I would say that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
But there is more. Some even suggest that Remembrance Day glorifies war and encourages people to think that it is acceptable, and that to die
fighting for one’s country is a good thing; and so they say: don’t do this; don’t remember. Instead, do something else; speak about the horror of war, and proclaim that God is against all violence, against all forms of man’s inhumanity against man. While I agree that we need to speak about the horrors of war, I will never agree that Remembrance Day glorifies it. I attended a church where Remembrance Day was completely ignored. The minister did not even want us to wear a poppy to church, saying that it spoke against the Prince of Peace. She refused to take part in the Remembrance Day services in the high school where I was teaching, and wouldn’t even come to the Cenotaph on November 11thfor the wreath-laying.
This, my friends, misses the point of Remembrance Day – it is misguided thinking. It is misguided because it equates the act of remembering the sacrifices made in the past by soldiers of our country with a glorification of war and suffering. And nobody would ever do that. At least I hope they wouldn’t. If any of you have heard war stories from people who have come back, you will know that there is nothing glorious about what happens during a war. If you have seen any of the pictures of what is happening even now in Syria and other places, you will know that there is nothing glorious about suffering.
It is misguided thinking because it equates honouring the memory of those who have died with honouring the kind of actions they found themselves having to make in the midst of a struggle that – in the end – none of them really wanted to be part of – but believed that they must be part of if others were to dwell in the freedom and in the peace that God wants us all to have. My father was one of those who served during World War II, and he didn’t do it because of glory. He – like many other people – knew that it was a job that had to be done, and he was ready to do it. He lost some good friends as a result of that war, and many others came home with serious problems, as still happens today. But it would never have occurred to him not to go.
When I was teaching, Remembrance Day was a really big thing. In the primary school, we would make poppies and learn the poem “In Flanders Fields”. In elementary and high school, we would take part in essay, poetry, and art competitions sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion. This still goes on today, in all regions of Canada. And the purpose of it is not to glorify war, but to remember it. In Valcartier each year, there is a service at the Community Hall on November 11th, which is organized by the school here. And in Québec City, there is also a service at the Cross of Sacrifice on November 11th, but this one is organized by the Royal Canadian Legion, and has a bit more pomp and circumstance about it. Many churches also hold special services on or around this date. Ceremonies such as this show that remembering is still important for us.
I mentioned “In Flanders Fields” just a minute ago, and now I want to read it to you. I am sure that most of you have heard it before, but I ask you today to listen carefully to the words, and see the images that John McRae creates.
In Flanders Field, the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields….
Remembrance Day is not just a time to fast and mourn. It is not just a time to remember those who died. Still less is it a time to say that war that is good or honourable. Rather it is a time when we – as we recall those who gave themselves for us, a time for us to remember just why it is they did what they did, a time to in fact remember the horror of war and vow to ourselves – never again, a time to take up the torch once more and to dedicate ourselves anew to living in such a way that we do not break faith with those who died to bring peace to the world, a time to commit ourselves once again to the struggle against evil – the struggle against the very things to lead to war in the first place.
When Zechariah responds to the people’s questions – what shall we do? What religious practice should we practice at this time and in this place?
He did not encourage them to mourn for Jerusalem as they had mourned before – the days of mourning were in fact over. Instead he told them to love truth and peace; and he reminded them of what all the prophets had said so long before, of what God had said long before – in the day when the land was still prosperous, and war and slavery far from the people. He reminded them of the promises made by God in the days of Moses and all the other prophets – the promises that said: If you forgot your God, if you fail to keep the commandments to love God and to love your neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be, if you do evil rather than good and act unkindly towards foreigners and refugees, if you steal, lie or cheat, if you take bribes and pervert justice and slander your neighbours – then your land will be destroyed, your men killed, and your woman and your children enslaved. But if you do good, if you care for the widows and the orphans, if you give justice in the courts, if you seek to follow God rather than to grow wealthy, if you obey God’s laws rather than worship success and seek popularity if you are kind and merciful to each other – then your land will prosper and you will live long and be happy.
These are the traditions and the practices that we are asked to remember in many places in Scripture. And these are the things that Remembrance Day asks us to call to mind each year as recall those who died that we may be free. What shall we do? Let us take the torch and hold it high; let us not break with those who have died. Let us live in the way that God meant us to live – in freedom, and with the intention of preserving that freedom, by doing all that makes for perpetual freedom and perpetual peace: by doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Then those who died in Flanders Fields will sleep as the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row. Thanks be to God.