There is certainly a lot to remember this year, especially with the passing of HM the Queen, herself a war veteran, and the ascendency to the throne of King Charles III, who has experience in all three services. And it will be to the war in which the Queen served that I will refer later.
I’ve not served in the armed forces except for a 2 week placement with the chaplain of the British Army’s 5 Rifles, which included the amazing experience of waking up on a foggy morning in Norfolk surrounded by boxes marked “grenades”.
For me personally it’s hard to comprehend that this time last year I was in Moscow. Diplomats, ambassadors and defence attaches from embassies across the city converged on St Andrew’s, where we remembered those who gave their tomorrow so that we could have today.
Those memories are confusing and mixed. I stood there in Moscow, knowing just how proud my father would have been. He would always stand for the two minutes silence, being part of that generation born after the war, living in the shadow of an event so huge that they could never quite live up to it. His father – my grandfather – had served in World War Two, yet like most of that generation, rarely spoke of it.
As we observed the silence, I was aware of the privilege of helping to lead worship in front of such a prestigious crowd. Yet we were all completely unaware of what was brewing half-a-mile away in the Kremlin. Today, one year later, so many lives have been destroyed by those decisions. I had no idea of the implications of those decisions for me personally: because of that war, since March I have slept in 14 different beds, averaging one new bed every 3 weeks!
Yet millions of people have suffered much worse. Homes and livelihoods destroyed. Unemployment and enforced migration. One month living in your own house; the next living as a refugee, dependent on the goodwill of others. And for many more, there was a son, a brother, a father – and then there was not. How many soldiers have been called to the frontline, willingly or not, and then, before they’ve had the chance to even understand why they are there, the war for them ends. A bomb. A missile. A grenade. A drone. A bullet. And their war is over – another coffin returns, another family is devastated.
I want to take us back to Moscow last year and the Remembrance Service there. The Reverend Malcolm Rogers, still chaplain in Moscow, gave another of his brilliant sermons. All his sermons are powerful and provoking, produced by a humble, passionate man of prayer and biblical study. But this one has stayed with me beyond the others, and so today I will blatantly plagiarise much of his sermon!
Malcolm preached on the Arctic Convoys. To help Soviet Russia in its fight against Hitler, Britain and the allied forces sent convoys across the freezing arctic to supply the USSR. Churchill described the convoys as the “world’s worst journey” – through freezing waters, with sub-zero cutting winds, facing mountainous waves on ships weighed down by thick pack ice on them, the crew sleeping in their coats to keep warm, and all with the threat of U-boats waiting to torpedo your ship.
Then Malcom introduced us to some people who were on those convoys. There was Anderson. He was 17 years old, an American cabin boy on convoy PQ13 in 1942. His ship got lost from the main convoy and was torpedoed. Anderson spent 4 days in a lifeboat at minus 20 before a Russian minesweeper picked them up. Many others had died in the boat from exposure. On the minesweeper, a Russian nurse tried to help Anderson, but when she peeled off his shirt she saw his skin was dead and blackened from the waist down, and he was unable to bend. He died shortly afterwards.
And there was Russell Harrison Bennett, a Canadian who had been on a ship when it was hit and exploded. He had been badly lacerated but was rescued. Then his rescue ship was hit by a torpedo. He survived the lifeboat but died of his injuries on the next ship to collect him. The nurse commented that he never moaned and was a wonderful cheery patient.
For Anderson and for Russell, we ask: what was the point? Anderson was 17. He had just started, and then was dead. As with D-Day – how many were shot before they even put a foot on those beaches? What was their contribution? And Afghanistan – all that work and then the politicians abandon the country. What was it for? And now with Russian and Ukrainian soldiers – so many Russians didn’t even know why they were driving to Kyiv in aging machinery before a rocket ended them. What is the point? Did Anderson and Russell mean anything?
In the gospel reading today, Jesus was talking about wars and rumours of war, and about having family members betray you, and about being persecuted – even to the point of being executed. These words are more and more relevant in today’s world, but were very true 2000 years ago. Family members betraying you. The state hunting you. The leaders you were listening to one week, being torn apart by wild animals in front of baying mobs of Romans just one week later. Those Christians would be tempted to ask: what is the point? Did we mean anything? Against the might of Nero, or his modern incarnations, do our sacrifices make a difference?
We would tell Anderson and Russell that they mattered. Their service helped, in a tiny way, bring about the downfall of Hitler. And to the Christians who died in Rome, we present ourselves. We meet today representing that same faith, while Nero is regarded as a crazy aberration who is (thankfully) history. We meet in freedom, while Imperial Rome is a museum piece. The thousands or millions of nameless Christians who listened to Jesus’ words may not have felt their contribution was meaningful. Yet we are here, and Rome is not.
And the key to all this? Listen to Jesus’ words: verse 8 “Many will come and say I am he – do not go after them”. Verse 9 “When you hear of wars, do not be terrified”. Verse 12-13 “They will arrest you – this will give you an opportunity to testify!” Verse 15 “I will give you words”. And verse 19 “By your endurance you will gain your souls”.
Jesus is telling his followers to remain steady. Root yourselves in the good news message, in the promise that those who remain faithful will be those who are saved.
What are the pressures we face? We might not face physical persecution, but we do face many other pressures. For most of us, they are the ideas of this age, the waves of new philosophy and the oceans of new social pressures.
We must discern the messages of politicians, and the messages in the media and in global advertising – these subtle forces that shape how we think. Is it really of God, or is it leading us astray? “Do not go after them”, said Jesus.
We are here because of those Christians who remained stable, who were faithful to the message and didn’t chase new ideas. Their faithful, quiet service, resilience and dedication; their acts of love, resistance and kindness are the acts that have truly shaped history.
So let us emulate them. Let us listen to the words of Jesus and stand firm, remembering we are the custodians of the Christian message today in this generation.
Let us rededicate ourselves to the message that God loves us, and calls all humans to repent from their own ways, to turn from their sins, and to begin walking with Jesus as his disciples.
Jesus calls us to sacrifice our desires and become more like him. To seek peace. And as we do that, in God’s hands, these small acts become the acts that overthrow empires.
And in his great mercy, on judgement day it will be the compassion of the nurse who treated Anderson that will be remembered.
It will be the doctor who treated Russell. It will be the Christians who were thrown to lions, yet who rather than renounce their faith and cry to the emperor, quietly embraced Jesus in their final moments.
Today, Remembrance Sunday, let us remember and honour those who have stood against evil.
Let us remind ourselves that God’s justice will prevail.
And let us commit ourselves to standing firm against evil and firm for the message of Christ in our generation.
And let us remember that remembrance means nothing if it does not change our actions.