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Remembrance Sunday 10th November 2019

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I have just finished reading a remarkable book – both inspiring and devastating in pretty equal measure. It’s ‘War Doctor – surgery on the front line’ by David Nott. David is a surgeon who has spent a lot of time working literally on the front line in places like Syria and Gaza, doing the best he can to help those who have been seriously injured with the few remaining colleagues left in such places, under constant threat of death from snipers or bombs. It is a deeply challenging and unsettling book as he describes the sheer horror of war and his own response to it. I commend it to you. And war is something that has never gone away. Just in the last year, at least 86,000 were killed in the 4 worst ongoing conflicts in the world today: Afghanistan, the Mexican drug war, the Syrian civil war, and Yemen. And that number doesn’t include those who have been maimed, injured or affected by loss.

 

Sorry to start on such a bleak note, but it is Remembrance Sunday, and it is appropriate to bring the reality of war, all its messiness and horror as well as the self-sacrifice into focus in a place where we deliberately acknowledge and celebrate another reality: that of God. And the question that I want to place on the table is, where do we find God in all of this mess?

 

As we remember today the two great conflicts of the 20th century, we think particularly of all those who were killed in the service of their country. I am sure there are people here who have lost a parent, a grandparent or other relatives in those terrible wars, so there will be a deeply personal sentiment attached to this act of remembrance. And we are grateful, that whatever unspeakable acts were perpetrated, today, at least in this country and across most of Europe and the world, we have peace. And so, we remember those who gave their lives with gratitude and humility.

 

What I would like to do this morning, is share two stories about two individual people. It’s too hard to grasp those huge numbers, our human brains become overwhelmed and we can block out what that means. But we can meet a person in a story, and perhaps, seeing through their eyes and through their actions to where we might find God. So, meeting and hearing David Nott in his book allowed me to find a trail of light in an otherwise bleak and dreadful story; to be able to say, ‘yes, I saw God at work in him and the brave men and women who worked with him’. Both stories are from the 2nd WW. Here is the first one, found unexpectedly in John Sopel’s book, ‘If only they didn’t speak English – notes from Trump’s America’. John is the BBC’s North America Editor. Here goes:

 

‘When I left Paris in 2003 at the end of my tour there, we took our children to Normandy to visit the gun emplacements where thousands of heroic young men – mainly American and British – gave their lives for Europe’s freedom. To walk through the Commonwealth War Graves and US cemeteries was to see true sacrifice. While we were staying there, we met a fabulous American family at the hotel we were staying in near Bayeux. Janet and her husband, their children and Janet’s father-in-law Bernie, now in his late 80s, who had been part of the 82nd Airborne which had parachuted into Normandy on 6th June 1944.

 

We all ate together that night at a restaurant in Bayeux and Bernie quietly and modestly told us the story of those days. The life expectancy of paratroopers was extremely short. But, incredibly, he had participated in all 4 of the combat jumps that the 82nd were called into action for. So as well as D-day, he was involved in the parachute jump into Sicily, in Salerno as part of Operation Giant on mainland Italy, and finally, at the end of 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge – the most costly of all engagements for the Americans in WW2. He was never wounded in service but served for over 2 years in Europe’s bloodiest conflicts.

At the table next to us were a bunch of British young men wearing replica football shirts. They were boisterous and laddish – and had been drinking. But they suddenly fell silent as they eavesdropped on our conversation. One by one they came to our table and asked if they might shake Bernie’s hand, and each of them with the utmost respect thanked him for his service and their freedom. It was a moment that will stay with me for ever. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Carafes of wine were brought to the table, as the French restaurant owners realised they had a liberator in their midst. History had conspired to make a young man who had grown up in a poor family on the outskirts of Chicago, caddying at the local golf club because there were no jobs in the Great Depression – and who knew nothing beyond his home state of Illinois, let alone Europe – become a figure to be venerated some 60 years later, by all who were in that Bayeux brasserie that night. We, a generation of French and Britons, had never known military conflict but knew what sacrifice meant. And he was the embodiment of it[1].’

 

I wonder where you find God in that story? Was it in Bernie’s offering of himself? In his near-miraculous escape? I think I find Him most powerfully present in that moment in the Bayeux restaurant as that story, and the very embodiment of the story in Bernie, deeply touched all those present – including a group of British lager louts who were humbled, moved, who wanted to reach out and touch with their own hands the body of a man who had offered himself into the most dangerous of situations. That reaching out, that physical touching is a powerful instinct, convincing and persuasive at every level possible that this happened, this man did this, and I stand physically in the line of those who benefit from his act, however muddy the whole business of war is. I’m reminded of the hand of the apostle Thomas as he reached out to the resurrected Jesus. Is this really true?

 

Here’s the second story. Some of you will know this but it bears re-telling as, like so many war stories do, it shows the best alongside the worst of humanity and gives us hope, although mixed with pain.

 

‘On the last day of July 1941 the sirens of Auschwitz announced the escape of a prisoner from Block 14. As a reprisal, ten of his fellow prisoners would die–a long, slow starvation, buried alive in a purpose-built, concrete bunker. All day, tortured by heat-stroke, hunger and fear, the men waited in the courtyard as the Nazi commandant and his SS assistant walked between the ranks to select, quite arbitrarily, the chosen ten. As the commandant pointed to one man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, he cried out in despair, ‘My wife! My children.’ At that moment the unimpressive figure of a man with sunken eyes and round glasses in wire frames stepped out of line and took off his cap. ‘I am a Catholic priest; I want to die for that man. I am old, he has a wife and children … I have no one,’ said Father Maximilian Kolbe. ‘Request granted,’ retorted the commandant, before moving on. That night, nine men and one priest went to the starvation bunker. Normally they would tear each other apart like cannibals. Not so this time. While they had strength, lying naked on the floor, the men prayed and sang psalms. After two weeks, two of the men and Father Maximilian were still alive. The bunker was required for others, so on 14 August, the remaining three were disposed of. At 12.50 pm, after two weeks in the starvation bunker and still conscious, the Polish priest was finally given an injection of carbolic acid and died at the age of forty-seven. On 10 October 1982 in St Peter’s Square, Rome, Father Maximilian’s death was put in its proper perspective. Present in the crowd of 150,000, including twenty-six cardinals and 300 bishops and archbishops, was Francis Gajowniczek and his family–for indeed, many had been saved by that one man. The Pope, describing Father Maximilian’s death, said, ‘This was a victory won over all the systems of contempt and hate in man–a victory like that won by our Lord Jesus Christ[2].’

 

Both of these stories, and that of David Nott, are built on the willing self-offering of people prepared to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, for freedom. To do the exact opposite of our instinct for self-preservation, to not ‘go with the flow’ but to go against it, to respond to something deeper within, a call, a sense of purpose. Each of these men had a distinct call, a vocation: and they were true to it: David, as a surgeon; Bernie, as a soldier; Father Maximilian as a Christian priest. It is through them that I am able to see the presence of God. I don’t know about you, but I cannot read these stories without being moved. The reactions in our own bodies – tears, tightening of the throat, bowing out head, being still, perhaps wanting to kneel, are all signs that these stories are hitting us at a level way beyond the purely cerebral and that there is a message for us. What can the message be? Take a moment now to ask yourself, what is the predominant thing I am feeling now? – pause – It might be gratitude, humility, inspiration, incomprehension, even anger.

 

There is a third story we will share this morning, but I won’t be telling it. It has much in common with these other stories. It is a story set in the Middle East in a small country under brutal occupation by a foreign power. It centres around a young man, the best of men, who put himself in the firing line of all the powers of oppression set around him. Claire will tell the story in the drama of the liturgy which follows.

 

Richard Croft

[1] Jon Sopel, ‘If only they didn’t speak English’, BBC books, 2017 pp. 274-275

[2] Nicky Gumbel, ‘Questions of Life: An Opportunity to Explore the Meaning of Life’ (ALPHA BOOKS)