Remembrance sermon

Sermon for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 5:38-48


Someday “God shall judge between the nations,” the prophet Isaiah dares to sing.

[T]hey 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.

As Walter Brueggemann notes, this anticipation is “not unlike Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.” There seems such a long way to go, to get to those ploughshares and pruning-hooks; and like King, we might need to believe that such a future is there, even if we may not see if this side of the Kingdom of God. And like King, maybe the most faithful response to a culture consumed by violence is to take seriously the deep claims Jesus places upon us in the Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he says. “[I]f anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” It was this radical ethic of non-violence that informed King and those who followed him, and it is this ethic that the theologian Stanley Hauerwas claims as the heart of the Gospel:

[Jesus] does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid getting hit again. Non-retaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of non-retaliation because that is the form that God’s care took for us on the cross.

I believe Hauerwas in fundamentally right here; though it is a position most easily maintained in theory and during peacetime. And so I need to pay attention to the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian who also affirmed the centrality of non-violence in the life and teaching of Jesus, but who still found that he had little choice but to participate in the German resistance movement. Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler; something he chose to do in full knowledge that he was violating that gospel call to non-violence, yet convinced that to do otherwise would be to allow a greater evil to continue.

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I was born in 1961 right at the very end of the post-war baby boom, meaning that in a real sense mine is the last generation to have grown up under the shadow cast by the Second World War. Born in England in 1932, my father was too young to have served in that war, and both of my grandfathers were too old. My father spent most of the war years in boarding schools or at his uncle’s farm in Scotland. On those occasions when he could go home, he often had to sleep in the bomb shelter built in the back garden; something my rather single-minded grandfather refused to do, because he deemed the beds too uncomfortable. My childhood nightmares were of monsters and alligators under my bed; my father’s were of Nazis under his.

When I was in elementary school, our family rule was that after school you could watch one half hour television show. I generally opted for “Hogan’s Heroes,” an American sitcom set in a German prisoner of war camp, staffed by hapless German soldiers who, episode after episode, were outwitted by the clever Colonel Hogan and his little band of equally clever men. Once my dad sat down to watch it with me, but he only lasted a few minutes. He told me that such a show would never work on the BBC, as people in the U.K. would see nothing funny about Nazis and prison camps. It was just too close.

All through high school, our family routine was to meet together in the family room at 10pm, to have a cup of tea and to watch the nightly episode of M*A*S*H. I once asked my father what made that show so different from “Hogan’s Heroes,” and he told me it was because on M*A*S*H they were basically telling the joke on themselves. I suspect, though, that it was also because M*A*S*H didn’t gloss over the realities of war. People died, tears were shed, and characters lost their bearings. In classic sitcom style, most of the characters were in their own way quite dysfunctional, but there was always a sense that the dysfunction was the result of being thrown into something that was beyond comprehension. The surgeons drinking endless martinis made with moonshine cooked up in their tent; Radar O’Reilly from Ottumwa, Iowa still sleeping with a teddy bear; Klinger in drag, trying desperately to get a psychiatric exemption and be sent home. And although M*A*S*H was ostensibly set in the Korean War of the early 1950s, it began to air while the Vietnam War was very much on the forefront of our cultural consciousness, and what it managed to reveal about the madness of war wasn’t lost on its audience.

Vietnam was the other war of which my generation was very much aware. Even in Canada, there were signs of that war all around us; clips on the TV news, pictures on the cover of Life and Time magazines, anti-war songs on the radio. We heard of these people called draft-dodgers, who had slipped across the border, grown their hair long, and joined the hippie counter-culture. And we all had this sense that Vietnam was a disaster; an unwinnable war that was taking the lives of tens of thousands.

It was during my years as a university student that I first wandered into this church, and what I saw first were these flags. As a student at the Mennonite Brethren high school, I’d been introduced to a theology of non-violence and pacifism—and to a corresponding theology of disentangling church from nationhood—and so the flags really threw me. In time I managed to see past the flags and stay, partly because I discovered that there had long been a dissenting movement within Anglicanism.

It was in my last parish before saint benedict’s table that I was faced with some of the harder realities, which gave me a new framework within which to see these flags. It was a mixed Anglican and Lutheran congregation, which meant that it included people who carried stories from both sides of the Second World War; people who had grown up in Germany under Nazism, and people who had been members of the Canadian military. One man’s father had enlisted in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, and in 1941 had been sent to be a part of the defense of Hong Kong against the Japanese army. That defense lasted less than three weeks, and for the next four years the Grenadiers were interred in Japanese prisoner of war camps; many didn’t survive, and those who did returned home scarred for life.

As is so often the case, as they moved through their 70s and 80s, many of these people found that old memories were surfacing with a new force, such that their stories needed to be shared. One day I was visiting with a woman in her tidy suburban Silver Heights home, some two months after we’d buried her husband. He’s been one of those men whose lawns were always perfect, flowerbeds weed-free, and driveways swept almost unimaginably clean. If one of the local kids landed a ball or Frisbee on his lawn, it was worth their life to go and retrieve it. I was sitting having tea with his widow, having already shared together in a simple home communion, and she began to talk. “You know how Sid was always so fastidious?” she asked me. “Do you want to know why?” It turns out that after his death they’d done an autopsy on his brain, and had found a large abscess caused by a head injury from the war. “He spent the rest of his life trying to order and organize everything,” she said. I commented that I never would have made that connection, or thought of him as being a casualty of the war. “We all were casualties,” she responded, and then the story flowed.

I’ve told you I served as a nurse in the war, haven’t I Jamie? Well, what I’ve never told you is that I was on the medical team that attended the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I saw what they’d done to those people, hanging on to the fences like skeletons. I saw all of those thousands of dead bodies, lying in piles. I saw the Butcher of Belsen as they led him away in handcuffs, and I saw the rooms he used to experiment on those people. After you see that, it is hard to believe in anything like goodness ever again.

And then she came back from the memories, straightened herself up, and offered to refresh my cup of tea. I’m sure I mumbled some sort of a response, and I just hope that whatever it was it didn’t sound formulaic or “comforting” in that banal and awful way. I just know that I could now see her—and that fastidious man to whom she’d been married all those years—with very different eyes.

And I see these flags differently, too. They don’t celebrate victory or revel in militaristic triumph. They’re like memorial shrouds—palls placed over coffins at funerals—hung here by shattered and broken men and women to mark all that was lost in those wars. Maybe the time will come when they will be moved to a military museum, but that’s not going to be a conversation until the last one of the people who hung them here is gone. Until then, see them for what they are, not what you thought they symbolized.

And dare to remember. Remember what war has cost for everyone involved—“We all were casualties,” as that woman said to me—but remember, too that hopeful song sung by Isaiah—swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. Most of all, remember the cross, that most radical act of non-retaliation by which God expressed the deepest of love for us all. Remember, and do all you can to live accordingly, even in the midst of the complexities of real life.

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