Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

Remembrance Sunday

St Barbara’s 08.11.20

Rev Tulo Raistrick

On this first Sunday of our second lock down, as we seek to cope with the social, economic, health and mental challenges of these times, I confess I have been tempted at times this week to ignore the fact that it is Remembrance Sunday today, to focus on the more immediate.

But clearly, though Remembrance Sunday is being marked in a very different way for everyone, all round the country, this year, the themes of Remembrance Sunday remain no less important, and even on this first Sunday of a new lockdown we should not ignore them. And its also worth saying that current events make those themes, and indeed this sermon, more overtly political than they would normally be. 

Today is a day for looking back, looking forward, and asking how we respond to the present.

We look back today to a day 75 years ago this week when the most horrific and devastating conflict in human history ended – a conflict that saw 6 million Jews killed in concentration camps; that saw over 50 million soldiers and civilians killed in war; and a further 25 million die through war-related disease and starvation. An estimated 3% of the entire world’s population at that time died in those years. To put that in context, that is 200 times the percentage of the world’s population that have so far died from the coronavirus, a virus whose devastating impact we have all known firsthand.

And we look back 80 years ago this week to the bombing of Coventry. Our city knows first hand the devastation that war brings.

The further we get away from these events, the more important it is that we remember them. I remember a few years ago interviewing Stephanie Cotton and  Wynne Addision as part of one of our Remembrance Sunday services. Both had lived through the night of the Coventry blitz, Stephanie as a mother cradling her young child as she sat in the under stairs cupboard, Wynne as an older teenager with a brother and father who she went out looking for amidst the rubble the following day. Their memories of those events was crystal clear. But both Stephanie and Wynne have died this year, and with them some of those stories and experiences. As we lose the generation that lived through those years as adults, we become in danger of thinking that such events could never happen again, that our world has forever changed, that world peace and stability are a given. We forget that world wars happened to ordinary people just like us. We look back, lest we forget.

And we look forward too. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent much of the last few days hitting the refresh button on various news websites waiting for the US election results to be declared. Well, as of yesterday evening, we now know it will be Joe Biden, but amidst the relief and euphoria of many, we should not miss the fact that the events of the last few days in America, indeed of the last four years, point us to a darker, less stable future.

After World War Two, the United States took the lead in rebuilding a new world order. It was at the forefront of establishing the United Nations and the creation of Nato, as well as creating rules by which nations around the world traded and cooperated together. Many of those institutions and rules were, and are, far from perfect, but they have provided for the last 75 years a framework by which disputes between major powers could be resolved peacefully. After two world wars in the space of 25 years, the United States has played an important role in preventing a third in the 75 years since. The United States has also been at the forefront of nations encouraging the rule of law, human rights and democracy – again often imperfectly but nonetheless an important voice.

And yet the events of the last few days, and last four years, suggest that the United States is anything but a leader now in international cooperation and democracy. The outgoing president, Donald Trump, has spent the last four years undermining international cooperation, withdrawing from international agreements on climate change, withdrawing funding from the World Health Organisation at a time of a global pandemic, threatening to pull out of Nato. Its tempting now, after yesterday’s results, to blame it all on one individual, and that it may all go away like a bad dream. But the reality is that after four years of such policies eight million more Amercans voted for Donald Trump than last time (47% of those who voted). He received more votes than any presidential candidate in history other than Joe Biden himself. He is not an aberration. He reflects a changing mood. This is a trend. And it provides a model for other populist politicians to follow.

Why this matters is that it makes our whole world less stable. It provides justification for other nations, even our own, to break international agreements that we had signed up to. It justifies turning a pandemic into a source of racism – to call it the “China flu” – regardless of what the long term consequences for world peace may be.

And democracy too is undermined. The initial report of the international observer mission monitoring the election reported that the election was quotes: “tarnished by legal uncertainties, unprecedented attempts to undermine public trust and baseless allegations of systematic fraud.” This is the language used to describe rigged elections in a failing third world state, and is now being applied to a country held up for being the champion of the free world.

This could all too easily become a view of our future too. The divisions over Brexit have shown us that we are a polarised nation, and that there can be political advantage to playing to those extremes. We may have looked on askance as mask-wearing became a political issue in the States, but look at the recent stand-off with cities in Manchester & Liverpool: the pandemic is becoming politicised here too. And in another area of public life, 800 lawyers and judges signed a letter just a couple of weeks ago saying that some government ministers were using language tantamount to the incitement of violence against the legal profession. Those ministers have continued to use such language, unapologetically, despite recent attacks on lawyers defending immigrants.

We live in times where worldwide peace and stability is less a given now than it was; where democracy, the rule of law, justice, is under growing strain. At the beginning of the 20th century no-one could have foreseen what catastrophe would envelop the world over the next 40 years. Today we remember those events, so that we don’t forget they are possible.

So how do we respond today, given the events of the past, and the uncertainties of the future? Both our readings from the Bible are about looking forward to the “day of the Lord”, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the return of Christ. But both of them are really more about the challenge of how we live in the present. Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins with their oil lamps burning, waiting for the bridegroom to appear, is an encouragement to us all to be ready now, to not be found wanting, when Christ returns. And the prophet Amos speaks of our readiness being less about our worship services, important though those are, but about whether we are standing for righteousness and justice.

So what does that look like for us today? It means to pray for God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice to come here on earth as it is in heaven. It means to pray for our leaders that they will wholeheartedly embrace the way of peace and step back from exacerbating the divisions in our world.

As well as prayer, it means standing up to intolerance and discrimination where we encounter it, not allowing hatred or division to gain a foothold in our workplaces, our communities, our homes. And we can only do that if we respond not with a self-righteous anger or indignation, but with grace and love.

And today on Remembrance Sunday, it means not allowing ourselves or others to sleep-walk into another world conflict, to not allow ourselves to be convinced “that it could never happen again”. When in one of the world’s largest democracies serious questions are raised about whether there will be a peaceful transfer of power, and where almost half the electorate was willing to vote for a candidate equivocal about whether he would step down peacefully, the spectre of what happened in another democracy, 1930s Germany, raises it head. That comparison may seem remote and unlikely, and I hesitate to make it, but on today, of all days, it is worth reflecting on. |n these troubled times, let us remember, lest we forget.