THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
22nd Sunday after Pentecost / Remembrance Sunday
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
1 Corinthians 15: 50-58
John 15: 12-17
Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the armistice of WWI film director Peter Jackson released an outstanding documentary entitled “They Shall Not Grow Old” – This documentary has no narrator, it has no flashy editing, it is simply 2 hours of restored and colourized footage of the Great War, mixed with the voices of those men and women who experienced it for themselves.
I would like to begin this morning by sharing one story from this film, told by a 17-year-old British soldier who enlisted in 1914:
A friend of mine said to me,
“We’re going to join up.”
It was from the patriotic point of view, and from the general excitement of the whole affair, I suppose.
I didn’t believe in war to that extent, but I was prepared to do my part.
Oh, my mother was very aggrieved about it.
But, you know, a young man, you decide you’re going to go.
At lunchtime, I left the office, went along to Armoury House and there was a queue of about 1000 people trying to enlist. Everybody thought it would be a civilized war.
My mother, she said, “you wait until you’re 19.”
See, that was the age in those days, 19 to 35.
Well, it was supposed to be. We were all lads together, you know, full of excitement and all this kind of thing.
My mother, she said to me, “Look, we could stop you doing this because of your age.”
I said, “Yes, I know you could, Mother, but I’m sure you won’t” which they never did.
I just felt that all the young fellows of that age were volunteering and I thought it was my job to do the same.
I was desperately keen and a whole heap of us were.
I said, “Direct enlistment, please.”
They were highly delighted and pushed me in as quick as lightning. Lots of lads were joining the local regiments, like the Bucks and the Middlesex. Lads that I knew and had been to school with, we joined up, hoping for the best. We were good friends.
“We were good friends”
Whether you have seen “They Shall Not Grow Old” or not (and I would certainly recommend watching it) I hope that you can sympathize with this young man, for what occurred over the next four years.
Over the next four years, from 1914 to 1918, the “war to end all wars” was anything but a “civilized war.” Indeed, it was anything but the adventure that so many young people, on all sides of the conflict thought that it would be.
And because of this, the voice that speaks of such “good friendship” and “simple patriotic duty” and “hopeful optimism” to us (from 105 years in the past) takes on a kind of haunting quality.
When we—who are on this side of history—remember this young soldier (as he was about to become) we experience a great mix of emotions. Remembrance Day is an emotional day no matter what emotion it is:
Inspiration, sympathy, pride, worry, pity, mourning.
But to hear first hand, the voice that did not know what the Great War would be but signed up anyway, we are called to feel something else. And that is gratitude:
We are called to say “Thank you for your service.” Not in an off-hand way or by habit but with a full measure of empathy and thanksgiving.
“Thank you for your service.”
As not only Canadians but Christians, what does it mean to thank someone for their “service”?
What does it mean to see the images, to hear the voices, to have even an idea of the horrors that were endured and to summarize this range of thoughts and emotions in such a simple response: “thank you for your service”?
If we really think about it, what are we thanking these men and women for:
For their sacrifice? For their patriotism? For their duty? For their friendship?
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we heard the words of Jesus, witnessed to by John, as He spoke to the necessity of the reality-changing sacrifice He was about to make on the cross:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Tomorrow, on Remembrance Day, people across Canada will gather at their local war memorials, cenotaphs, and community centres to pay tribute to those who gave “the ultimate sacrifice” in service to their country.
And at each of these services: at a thousand gathering places, in a thousand towns, a thousand voices will attempt to speak some meaning into not only the sacrifice, the loss of life, but also the immeasurable courage that we are called to remember every November the 11th.
These thousand voices will lift up words, songs, and poems; praises and prayers, to all of those who “laid down their lives in service to their country.”
But how should we remember their sacrifice? (as not just Canadians, but as Christians): How should we say “thank you”? How should we make sense of the history and the bravery and horror in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As Christians, gathered here in this place, giving our worship to God; as those free to invoke God in prayer, how should we give thanks not only those brave men and women but also to God, who has given us the faith of resurrection we hold for them in our hearts?
As followers of Christ, the one who died that death itself may die, how do we understand the Words we have heard this morning:
How do we understand the words of the Psalmist who proclaimed the power of the God over all nations:
That when “the nations were in uproar and the kingdoms in totter,” this God uttered his voice and caused the “earth to melt”?
wars cease to the end of the earth;
He [who] breaks the bow, and shatters the speak;
He [who] burns the shields with fire.?
How are we to understand the reality of war, the reality of death, when we have gathered to pray into Christ’s holy mystery of life and death?
How are we to hear the mystery told to us by Paul:
[That] We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
How are we, as faithful Christian people, living in this broken and blessed world, living as inheritors of a world that was shaped by so much loss and so much sacrifice to proclaim with Paul who tells us that victory over death has been achieved through the Lord Jesus Christ?
There is something difficult about proclaiming this promise, on a day that we remember just how real and present the powers of war and death really are.
On a day when we should remember not only those who served, fought, and died, but also those back home who lost their faith because their loss?
How are we to believe in the Good News that Christ has come to put an end to death on a day when the toll of death climbs so high and the weight of sacrifice weighs so heavy?
In the Scriptures: we hear of a Heavenly Father who has put an end to war, and a Beloved Son who has put an end to death, and yet, all around us, we are reminded of how distant these promises still seem.
In every name we read on every war memorial, we are reminded, that for so many thousands of people, God did not arrive in time to put an end to war, Christ and his trumpets did not arrive in time to prevent so many from dying.
As a people called together in the Spirit of Christ, to witness to the Good News of Christ, how are we to proclaim the battle fought and the victory won?
This is the trouble of this Remembrance Sunday morning, and I was taught to always preach the trouble, because without trouble we can never really understand the Good News, that is true not only of preaching, not only of the Gospel, but also of the realities of war and peace
Friends, the Good News that we are called into this morning is just this: to remember.
To remember that though God’s promises are trustworthy, to remember that though Christ is coming at the end of history to bring us into an era of everlasting peace, that the sacrifice we witness to in this time and in this place is real.
The reality of the Good News this morning is that even though we may be tempted to rush to the end of the story, to think only on the armistice at the end of war and the trumpet at the end of history, we are called to remember that neither victory was achieved without great cost.
That just as those we remember today and tomorrow achieved what they have through great love and great personal cost, Christ himself has assured a victory for all people through his love and his cost.
In Christ’s words in John’s Gospel this morning, Christ gathered the disciples together and told them the truth of his mission of life, death, and resurrection:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
In these three statements, Christ has shown us his holy purpose for love, for sacrifice, and for victory:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved”
Love one another, reflect my love in your lives with one another, take my love within your own hearts and practice it in your own life.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The greatest demonstration of this love is a willingness to lay down your life in order to save the lives of your friends.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
If you do what I have commanded, if you love, and if demonstrate the greatness of love that is within you, you are my friends.
In these three statements:
-The commandment to love
-The greatest love of sacrificing oneself for one’s friends, and
-Friendship with Christ as the outcome of the commandment to love
Christ has shown us His plan for humanity:
That we love one another.
Not merely with sentimental love, not merely out of duty or hope or adventure but in a self-sacrificial love.
For the purposes of Him who showed us the depth of this love.
In this teaching, Christ shows us that while God is indeed one with the power to make wars cease; that while God is indeed one who does rescue us from death through the mystery of resurrection;
That God has used even death to display His Good News for us.
God not only uses death for the purpose of His Gospel but He Himself chose to die for this Holy Purpose:
God in Jesus Christ chose the Cross, He chose the nails.
He chose to go forward into a death that was anything but glamorous, that was anything but pretty, that was anything but a fun adventure, all for us.
To die to put an end to death itself.
To demonstrate that greatness of love, which is to die for one’s friends.
What separates Christianity from other faiths and what separates Christian Remembrance from a merely civic Remembrance is that we believe in a God who has entered fully into the human experience.
We believe in a God who is not just powerful, not just sovereign, not just present, but also a God who has entered into the human condition in order to reveal Himself to us.
The Good News we proclaim is that God is not just present, not just powerful, not just loving but that this God—in Jesus Christ—had sandals, he had finger nails, he felt hunger and thirst, he experienced isolation, he experienced pain, he even experienced death
We want to move the story forward, we want to get to the part where He is resurrected from death, we want to get to the part where He has succeeded in redeeming us from sin, but before any of that happened there was a willingness to die in our place.
There was a willingness to die in our place.
There was a willingness to sacrifice Himself for others.
There was a willingness and a call to go toward the cross even if it meant the end of His own life.
There was a cross and a hill on which he proved his love for humanity, and his desire to call us friends.
On a day such as Remembrance Day, with the memories of the Great War and other wars that followed, the mystery of the cross looms large:
“Why did such sacrifice and such loss need to take place after Christ died to put an end to death?”
“Why did God not come soon enough to rescue them from destruction?”
“Why does Christ not intervene with trumpets to put an end to this world, and to finally usher in a new and glorious Kingdom?”
This is a great mystery, and we ought to be compassionate in remembering those who lost not only their friends but also their faith because (for them) God did not intervene quickly enough.
There is no easy answer to such questions as these.
There is no shortcut that makes it easy for us to hold the wars and the Gospel together in harmony.
Our faith in a loving God is found today, not only in those who made the “ultimate sacrifice,” those who enlisted, those who served, those who lost loved ones in this service, but in God Himself, who entered fully into our human condition: coming not as a great victor, not as a force that caused the “earth to melt”, not as a king or a conqueror, but as a gentle and fragile young man.
As one who went willingly into a sacrifice that we can hardly imagine.
All so that we would know His truth and to see His love in the actions and the sacrifices of all who followed His example:
That through such acts of service, and through the opportunity to gather and remember them, we can know more fully the truth of the Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”