Sermon given by Rev. Gamble on Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2015.
On this Remembrance Sunday, what remembering can there be? In one sense, I suggest, very little indeed, in that no one alive today can say they remember the First World War, and those who experienced the Second must be nearing their nineties. For you and I remembrance is not the reminiscence of our experiences. But it never has been. Indeed, Remembrance Sunday was begun in 1919 by people who were aware that a time would come when none would be alive who would remember from personal experience. They hoped to keep alive the story not just of bravery or courage, and as importantly, suffering and destruction. In 1919 the cost was to be seen all around in men injured in body and mind, in large swathes of towns and cities destroyed utterly: in Ieper only a dozen buildings remained inhabitable in a city of 80000 people. I remember as a child an old man who might be on a late night bus, shouting out incoherencies. He lived near our house, in houses for ex-servicemen and I understand had been gassed in the trenches: he was apt if he had a drink to revisit the horrors he had experienced, especially in the darkness of a cold winter night. An uncle of mine had died in those same trenches, nothing left of him when a shell exploded as the war gasped to a close. The cause of that war was to a great extent incompetence: incompetence by those in charge of armies who never understood the great technological changes that had occurred, and who thought it would all be over by Christmas. There was also the incompetence Gavilro Princip, the Serbian assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand who messed up his heinous deed, and went into a coffee house to console himself when the Archduke drove by on the return from the event he had been attending. Incompetence was a hallmark both of the war and its aftermath, when the victorious British and French sought revenge by destroying the prosperity of the losers and in so doing creating tensions that enabled the rise of Fascism which fed on the frustrations and pride of the losers. Empires were dismembered and impoverished and there is a distinct link between what happened in Paris in 1919 and 1920 in the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, and the next great conflict. In 1939 the moral element of the war was far clearer, the racial intentions of the German government were clear, even if the scale of what they had done was not fully known until the camps were liberated by the advancing Allies. But I remember the late Mungo Park telling me of visiting Nuremburg before the war to learn business from a Jewish friend of his father, and attending a rally, after which he joined the British army. At the other side of the world, similar experiences to those visited on the Jews were being inflicted on Chinese and Koreans. We must keep a remembrance of this, just as we must keep a remembrance of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And why? It is not to remember brave and selfless deeds, although there were many of these without which it is a certainty that we would not be here this morning enjoying the personal freedoms our society affords us. The world would be a much nastier place today. But we also remember so that we can defend ourselves against the forces that caused two great wars and are still at work in the world today. I talk of greed, and the lust for power, for the temptation to throw responsibility for our fellow men and women to the side and feast on the domination and exploitation of others, to reduce human beings to numbers and statistics as the Nazis did to the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped and others so that they could treat them as subhuman creatures and destroy them. For seventy years Europe has been mostly at peace, and we do seem to have taken some of the lessons learnt at such cost to heart. In many instances there would seem to have been genuine reconciliation effected. Some years ago Susan and I went on a holiday in the city of Liberec in the Czech Republic, on the borders of Poland and Germany. Liberec was once Reichenberg, the capital of the Sudetanland, a German speaking part of the inter-war Czechoslovakia. The German inhabitants were expelled in 1946 and replaced by Czechs, and 13 million Germans fled west both from the Sudetanland and what is now Western Poland into present day Germany. Today the locals criss-crossed the border without thinking twice about it. We ate lunch in a restaurant 50m from Poland and walked with the crowds across the footbridge over the Neisse river which joins the two countries: a few days later we visited a stately home, Muskau Park. It was built by the remarkable Hermann von Puckler-Muskau, a wealthy Prussian noble who spoke English and spent much of his time in England, where he became a friend and admirer of Daniel O’Connell and indeed wrote a book about a visit he paid to O’Connell in Derrynane. Muskau’s wife was an Ethiopian slave-girl he had rescued on his travels in Egypt and when she died he never remarried but devoted himself to the creation of English gardens on his estates. At Muskau, the Queen Anne style house is surrounded by sweeping landscapes and thatched cottages which would look at home in Warwickshire. In 1945 the new boundary between Poland and Germany was drawn through the middle of the estate: in 1990 it was restored as an international public park house in Germany, entrance in Poland and gardens in both and nothing to tell one which country one is in. But also today, our society sees something which harks back to that time of marching files of refugees which in 1946 poured through that now peaceful part of central Europe, men, women, children fleeing from indescribable horrors, innocent people being persecuted not for any harm they had done, but for belonging to this or that racial or religious group. We have seen the sacred tenets of great religions torn apart for their own ends by those who claim to be their adherents. The Nazis were only to delighted to claim that they were Christians and received to their shame the obedience of the German churches: today a travesty of Islam is being foisted on the world to justify the most horrendous of deeds inflicted by those whose only crime is actually to believe with Mohammed that God is compassion and mercy. Our best defence is remembrance, the carrying of the memories of the past into the future. We cannot carry bitterness with the memories from the past, and when the Communist regimes of eastern Europe collapsed with the Berlin Wall, one, on the borders of Germany and Poland of the first acts of the German government was a statement that they would never reclaim the land lost; the lack of such an agreement in the East still embitters relationships between China, South Korea and Japan. The memories include the bravery and courage of so many, and they must also be the realisation of the appalling loss of human life, of property and livelihood. If all the effort that was put into war had been expended in encouraging economic development, the effort put into industrial and social humiliation in the 1920s had been put into economic rebuilding, what might have been achieved? Isaiah began his prophetic ministry in a collapsing society which lived under the constant threat of destructive war, and held out a future of hope which involved social and spiritual renewal: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his paths…. He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (2vv 2, 4) As Susan and I crossed one of the little footbridges at Muskau, the crowds moving both ways across an invisible border, I came to understand what remembrance really means: not forgetting so that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and without dishonouring those who gave of their all that the lessons of a bitter past may be truly learned. John Edmonds, the author of the inscription on the famous war memorial at Kohima in India we will use in our worship this morning, where the Japanese advance was halted in 1944 also wrote these lines in 1918 Went the day well? We died and never knew. But, well or ill, Freedom, we died for you.
That is our reason for our remembrance today for freedom always needs to be valued and defended.