Psalm 62; Mark 1:14-20
St Barbara’s; 11.11.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Exactly 100 years ago last week Wilfred Owen was killed in one of the last engagements of World War One. As he was attempting to place a temporary bridge across the Canal Sombre-a-la-waze (Sombre-Oise) in France, he was shot in the head by a German bullet.
Seven days later the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front was announced, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But for him, and the other forty British soldiers who died with him on that day, and for the 17 to 20 million people who died during the war, the armistice had not come soon enough.
In May 1918, just six months before, Owen had written a poem called Futility which in the years after his death was to become famous, and set to music by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem, the first performance of which took place in the new Coventry Cathedral. Owen, reflecting on the desperate destruction and devastation he saw all around him, the wastage of life, the horrors of suffering and death, asked: “was is it for this the clay grew tall?”
Drawing on the imagery of the very first chapters of the Bible where God creates human beings from the clay, and breathes life into them, he is forced to wonder: Is this what our lives amount to? Is this it? Surely God did not breathe his breath of life into us, create us in his own image, that we should end up living and dying in such a desperate way.
Many have rightly asked the question ever since. The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George on this day 100 years ago announced from the steps of 10 Downing Street that this has been “the war to end all wars”.
But there are many of you who sit here today who know all too personally that the First World War didn’t end all wars. The crowds on that November morning were right to celebrate and rejoice. After four years of terrible devastation peace had come. But in the 100 years since, we have seen more people suffer and die in conflicts than ever before. Tragedy, suffering, pain.
The centenary of Armistice Day is a reminder of how wonderful peace is, but also how easily we can lose it.
So is it for this – the seeming futility of suffering and death that Owen writes of – that we are made?
Our two readings from the Bible give us both a sense of purpose and a sense of hope as we look back over these 100 years, and as we look forward to the future.
Jesus told the fishermen on the lake-shore, “Come, follow me.” Follow him to do what? To proclaim that the kingdom of God was near. Jesus himself lived in violent times. His own country had been invaded and was under foreign occupation. There were regular uprisings, and equally regular acts of brutal state repression.
So to speak of a new kingdom was to use politically charged language. But his kingdom was not the kind that would lead his followers to taking up arms, to drawing swords, to plunging a country into violence. For his kingdom was one that would grow through love and reconciliation. This was a kingdom where enemies were to be loved; where people were to reconcile; where truth was to be spoken to power. A kingdom where the interests of others would be put before your own; a kingdom where understanding would be sought.
That may sound fluffy and airy-fairy. It may sound like motherhood and apple-pie. But the authorities of the time clearly didn’t think so. John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed for advocating this kingdom; Jesus was treated as a criminal and crucified.
We live in increasingly polarised times. The rhetoric coming from politicians on both sides of the partisan divide in the Unites States is growingly extreme. Extremist candidates are winning elections all over the world, challenging unity and cohesion. And in our own country, no matter the rights and wrongs of Brexit, we find ourselves preparing to leave the European Union, a project launched after the second world war to cement peace in Europe. And step back from the immediate, and we are faced with unprecedented climate change. Over the next few years millions of people will be displaced from their land due to rising sea water levels. Where will they go? How will they be accommodated peacefully elsewhere? And how will we cope as natural resources become under greater and greater demand?
Wilfred Owen’s question has echoes of another question, asked a couple of millennia earlier. A Jewish lady called Esther finds herself queen in a country where the king announces a genocide on the local Jewish population, her own people. She wrestles with how she should respond. But one of her relatives asks: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. But who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:4) For such a time as this.
As we remember those who have given so much for peace over the last 100 years, maybe we need to ask, is God calling us to follow him, to work for peace and reconciliation, to sow seeds of harmony and understanding, to challenge scape-goating and extremist talk. For such a time as this? That is our call, our purpose, us clay people made tall.
And if that is our purpose, we also have a hope. For if that purpose at times feels beyond us, if the challenges appear too great, then hear those words once more from the Psalmist:
“God is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress. I shall never be shaken… Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him… Trust in him at all times, you people, pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
Amidst the challenges and knocks of life, God can be there to protect us. Amidst the storms, he can be our steadfast rock, unshakeable, secure.
100 years on from the war to end all wars our world still searches for peace. And true peace will ultimately only be found in God.
May we all know, for such a time as this, God has called us; for such a time as this, God will be with us.