Sermon – Remembrance Day 2017 : +May I speak ….
The tension rose, the ringleader-guy’s face right in my friend’s face.. “right, lets have it, right now, right here, you and me”
how did we get here – let’s go back!
Many (many) years ago I helped lead a church youth group with the youth worker and (still) great friend Barry. We had taken the young people – all of us friends and in our late teens – to the skate rink in Slough.. much fun ensued, (despite my total inability to skate and my various collisions with both wall and floor). As we left however, laughing and joking, we were approached by a large gang of local youth, who clearly wanted trouble. A ringleader stepped forward and asked what we doing in their area… my friend Barry, (who was not scared of a confrontation), stepped up too…. The atmosphere was tense, our laughter turned to that creeping sense of unease, and wondering how we would get out of this. Barry explained ‘we were a church group – Christians’, we weren’t expecting a big scrap in a Slough car park. And worse still if Barry was decked- I’d be next up! This wasn’t what we were imagining. The tension rose, the ringleader-guy’s face right in my friend’s face.. (oh no) “right, lets have it, right now, right here, you and me”
Now Barry wasn’t afraid of a fight, as a boy he loved nothing more that a good scrap. But we had spent some time together thinking about how the gospel affected all of our lives, how the inspiration of Jesus called for something new. He recognised that this was a key moment, he was a leader and how he responded was important…
“I’m a pacifist” he said, “I don’t believe in violence.. but I do believe in running; if you want to prove yourself against me, I’ll challenge you to a race.. lets run around the carpark, and we’ll see who wins”
The reaction was one of stunned awe.. “what?!” Barry repeated himself.. clearly his response was so unexpected the first time it needed repeating! The aggressive gang laughed among themselves.. they could believe this.. “are you serious?” said their leader.. laughter spread. He began to laugh too. Not at Barry, but at the absurd turn this confrontation had suddenly taken. The guy backed down. “nah your alright mate; I don’t want to race, you must be mad.” The tension eased.. Barry turned the table, “scared of a race? C’mon!”
“nah don’t worry. You are crazy” the laughter continued among them – and us.. the ringleader shook Barry’s hand and the gang walked away. The confrontation was resisted.
What had happened was not by an accident. Barry had for years recognised his own delight at a good fight, but also recognised it wasn’t consistent with his faith. He had begun to ‘prepare’ and ‘rehearse’ alternatives.
On this day of remembrance we gather to recognise the outcomes of direct conflict. We give thanks that we are most privileged to live in a free country, and we give mourn for the many lives, ordinary lives, lost in the task of defending such freedoms. We give thanks that fascism was defeated, that the many aggressive forces across the world (which still seek to dominate and oppress) are resisted. And we recognise realistically that we are still protected in many respects by a military presence – and military history.
However we must also acknowledge a problem; and the problem is violence. Violence maims, kills, destroys families and communities; violence brutalises and dehumanises; it scars communities and creates long-standing division. And in the lives of the armed forces – as I have seen even in recent years – it leaves young children and grieving partners placing poppies before memorials where they would much rather their husbands, wives and mummies and daddies could be.
Violence, can never the answer – surely we must lament. There must be a better way to resolve conflicts. It cannot be right in this day and age that we settle disagreements by sending young people to war.. and in this context of church – where we hear the words of Jesus telling us to love our enemies – we must ask what the churches response is.. We attempt that uncomfortable straddling act where we try to reconcile violence which has helped us, and a quest for non-violence and peace…
I’m not here to offer easy solutions as much as to recognise the problem … to name it. In the end, as obvious as it might be to say; violence kills, it kills our humanity and sense of compassion, it kills the planet and the earth resources too, our capacity for violence could well be the end of us all.
And we often see no alternative; ‘what would you do if you saw someone attacking your family?’ We see no alternative I want to suggest because maybe we’ve never considered an alternative. We rehearse the same story again and again that conflict is tackled head-on… and that violence can be redemptive.
Human culture is steeped in the history of war and conflict; lands and nations often exist because of war; our comic books, films and story books tell us over and over again about violence being overcome with – you guessed it – more violence. We even allow religion to be guided by this with talk of and angry god calling for divine justice, (and yes, read that as the killing of another). We are prepared and rehearsed to use violence.
But can we prepare ourselves to resist in different ways, can we rehearse a different story?
In the parable of the ten virgins Jesus/Matthew is telling us about being prepared for the coming kingdom, though we don’t know when it will arrive.. Matthew tells this to an already waiting community who have witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection and are wondering, ‘what now?’. The parable has many interesting layers.. but for today lets stay at the simple message – be prepared for the arrival of the kingdom… the same kingdom which Jesus said was already in their midst…
So hold on… be prepared for the kingdom – which is already here… hmmm
We are now in kingdom season and our service sheet (at the back) expresses that strange tension which theologians, priests and all of us wrestle with all the time; the ‘already but not yet’. The tension that exists between an ideal world and the one we live in; and the implied message from Jesus that the kingdom might just come if we act like it has…
So back to violence, and the simple question I wish to ask – on this day when we mourn the terrible tragedies that violence and conflict brings – can we prepare ourselves for the kingdom by preparing a different response to violence? And if so – how?
How do we resist the oppression and violence of others, whilst not repeating the same patterns of violence and abuse.. or as far as we can?
The theologian Walter Wink speaks of the cross as the ultimate act of non-violence. Whereby God resists all the powers of domination and violence through – not giving in – but resisting; by subverting the notion of fighting fire with fire, force with force. God’s nature is the opposite of force and God empties Godself because (despite the stories of the OT) God is not in the business of ‘defeating opposition’; instead God’s love overwhelms us; reaches to all. In God’s reign their can be no enemy – no other; only the power which seeks to create enemies through domination and violence.
There are times when it seems that violence is unavoidable.. (for example) Dietrich Bonheoffer was aware of various plots to kill Hitler but he never suggested that this act was anything other than sin. He refused to allow himself the comfort of thinking this was somehow divinely authorised.
Last year Fr. Vincent spoke about how we come to church to be overwhelmed; the place where our ego is silenced by an awe which goes beyond us.. and this we remember each week by feasting on the body and blood of the same. This day is an overwhelming day.. when we face the terrible things our species can do to each other. And to reflect on so many battles and wars is overwhelming.. yet we are overwhelmed too by this presence which calls us back to being more fully human; which forgives, restores, heals and entices us into something new.
So can we learn from the ten virgins preparedness – or lack of? Can we become prepared for an alternative way to think about conflict. Is there an alternative to violence and can we prepare for it by rehearsing a different story? Well I suggest a yes… I mentioned the skate rink story, as a way of describing the disorientation and diversion of something new and unexpected.
There are powerful stories of people prepared for non-violence. Martin Luther King & and the civil rights movement; Ghandi and non-violent resistance; the Suffragette movement… and when we look there are many small acts of non-violent resistance all over the world. Violence is not the only way to overcome oppression.
But how can we make a difference when moves to war are made (usually) by men in power or with uncontrolled twitter accounts. Men who – unlike the military – have no real idea of what conflict actually means. How can our voice be heard, (especially when we remember the vast numbers who marched against the Iraq war to (seemingly) no effect?
Well maybe in the same way we face many challenges in life. We recognise and act out the small steps, whilst still challenging the big things. ‘Be the change you want to see’ – goes the slogan; we all face conflicts and challenges.. but can we begin to plan, to prepare, to imagine and rehearse alternative responses? Sometimes we’ll fail; sometimes we’ll do well. But how do we begin?
First we see the other as human.. ‘love your enemy’; they may be different but still deserve humanity.
Maybe to love an enemy is to remind them of their own humanity.
Then look for ways to break the cycle of violence against violence, look for a third way. And this helps when we may already have practiced ideas in our head, or read stories of non-violent resistance.
Walter Wink, (again), points to the subversive and disorientating nature of Jesus teaching on going the extra mile, giving a cloak as well as a coat – an alternative reading if you like;
“Should anyone press you into service for one mile,” Jesus says again, “go with him two miles.” Roman soldiers forced the poor to carry their heavy packs for them. By law, however, the soldiers were not permitted to force the poor to walk more than one mile with their packs. Jesus shows them a way to nonviolently resist the soldiers. “Go an extra mile”, he says. His audience would understand that any soldier would be shamed and possibly arrested for breaking the law. He teaches creative nonviolent resistance to transform the situation.. he empowers the oppressed.
Again, if a poor person was sued in court for their outer garment, and gave away his inner garment too, they would be naked before the court, which was not only taboo in Judaism, but criminal, it was illegal to look upon a naked person. Jesus teaches the oppressed not to be awed by power, but to respond creatively, disarm their opponents and nonviolently liberate themselves. Jesus offers, in Wink’s words, “a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed.”
Indeed; satire humour and imagination, reveal and embarrass the power of oppression for what it is.. It’s one of the reasons why totalitarian regimes often imprison artists, writers, intellectuals (and even comedians) first.
And as we gather here today; we recognise the subversive– even absurd – nature of the Christ’s crucifixion. Taking a sideways step, (a third way), which resists the forces of oppression without de-humanising.
When we feast on broken bread and wine outpoured we are already beginning to rehearse and participate in a non-violent resistance; God’s desire drawing all to the feast.
So here we are… on Remembrance Day. The day when we remember that we fail; we remember that to achieve the hope of peace we have often used the very opposite. The day when we give deep thanks and gratitude for the sacrifices of many; as we remember to avoid complacency and to resist the militaristic arrogance of leaders who don’t think. The day when remembering is met with love, forgiveness and understanding. The day when remembering stirs our conscience and challenges us to be both prepared and preparing for something better.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed. God help us… And maybe it’s right to feel overwhelmed. God help us all. Amen