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Remembrance… lest we forget!

Remembrance Sunday 2016
Article posted on 13 November 2016 Leave a Comment

Psalm 23
1Thess 4.13-18
John 14.1-8

In early January, just prior to leaving St George’s, I’ve been invited to go on a rather unusual pilgrimage. With about 50 other Anglican priests, I’ll be making a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, and it’s being led by Archbishop Justin Welby. It’s going to be interesting and I’m sure a disturbing visit too. In preparation for this trip, I’ve been reading a book by Laurence Rees about Auschwitz and what led up to its creation and how it operated. As you might imagine it’s a harrowing read.

As I began reading, I sat at first secure in my understanding that these atrocities were perpetrated by evil, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt people. But the book disturbed and challenged me as I struggled to distance myself from what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and other groups during WW2.

What actually is the difference between, Christian Germany, fellow Europeans of the 1940s and us here today?

Surely it’s mainly just the economic, political and emotional post WW1 environment. Am I a different level, a more superior human being to Germans of that time? No, but mercifully for us, the environment that we’ve grown up in is very different to Germany in the 1920s to 40s.

As I read on, the author shows the population wide levels of collusion, active support and the turning of a blind eye that happened not just in Germany but across much of Europe in order that minority groups of people could be rounded up, transported across nations to be killed in such large numbers. Ah, but we Brits are different. We’re made of tougher stuff; we’ve got greater moral fibre!… But then I read that the British citizens of occupied Jersey and Guernsey turned a blind eye in much the same way as those of Poland, Hungry, France, Netherlands and the list of countries could go on. The Danish were the exception who came out in a better light.

So, why am I trawling over this old ground? Come on Paul, we all covered this stuff in our history lessons at school, and besides, we’re here to remember those who died, those who bravely fought for our freedom. Absolutely right. Those who fought saved us from occupation and also rescued Germany from the Nazi regime. But Remembrance loses some of its sobering, healing power if we fail to have the humility as individuals to say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

One of the interviews and testimonies in the book was from a Jewish teenage survivor called Toivi Blatt who was conscripted by the Nazis to work in a concentration camp. Let me read you a short extract…

Toivi was all too well aware, of course, that he was, however unwillingly, helping the Nazis to operate the camp.Indeed, it was obvious to him that the work of cutting hair, sorting clothes, taking baggage from the trains, cleaning the camp- most of the practical duties involved in maintaining the operational capacity of Sobibor – was carried out by Jews:’Yes,’ he says, ‘I thought about this. But nobody did anything. [I was] fifteen years old and had people with grown-up experience all around and nobody was doing anything.People change under some conditions. People asked me, “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind.That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist.Nobody knows themselves.All of us could be good people or bad people in these [different] situations.Sometimes, when somebody is really nice to me today, I find myself thinking,”How will he be in Sobibor?”‘

Again, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.

I suppose I’m taking this tack this year because we’re all aware in our country and in America of so many angry voices at the moment. We are not in the place of post WW1 Germany and I’m aware that I head towards dangerous ground if I start making comparisons too strongly, but we do need to remember and learn the lessons of history. Listen to this list and I wonder which countries come to mind for you…

  • a growing number of the population who are poorer, feeling disempowered and left behind becoming political motivated for the first time in their lives
  • a loud, leading, angry voice that is anti the present ‘establishment’
  • promises to make the nation great again
  • building walls, exiting treaties, separating from others, them and us
  • choosing minority groups on which to heap blame and hatred for the countries ills without recourse to the hard facts, the data

As the saying goes, “Those who do not learn from history – are doomed to repeat it.”  Today we pray that we might remember with honesty and humility and that we might not repeat the painful lessons.

Angry words, peoples and nations corporately blamed for many of the world’s ills, conflicts, wars and the threat of wars are across the news day in day out. Mercifully that’s not the end of the story. Over the years at St George’s I have become fond of reminding myself and you that Good Friday is never the end of any story, and the dark valleys, as our psalm poetically put it, that we see in our world, the wars and rumours of wars are not the end of the journey. We’re here in church today to be helped to look beyond the dark valleys to the hills and to a banquet. We’re here to seek the still small voice of peace amongst the angry words.  So hear the words of Christ now as addressed to you…
Do not let your heart be troubled.
Believe in God, believe also in me.
I go to prepare a place for you.
I am the way, the truth and the life.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Do not judge.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubles and do not let them be afraid.

And hear also Paul’s words of reassurance to the Thessalonians and addressed also to you,
13 [You do not need to] grieve as others do who have no hope.
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

So to end, I think we are doing a host of important things here today on Remembrance Sunday. Let me list them to end,
In humility and gratitude, we are remembering those who gave their lives for our freedom in the WW’s.
We are remembering too those who have died in conflict in subsequent years.
We are remembering and praying for those of our armed forces who are risking their lives for us in the present day.
We are being painfully reminded that we have not learnt and that each generation needs to be reminded of the lessons from history.
We are bringing before God our remorse at the reality of many conflicts, wars and threats of wars across the globe today.
We are praying for a deeper wisdom and peace for the world.
With humility we are looking honestly at ourselves too and acknowledging our personal prejudices, judgements, hatreds, petty disagreements, arguments and feuds.
We are looking at the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and responding to the call to love our enemies.
And amongst all this we can in hope and trust, lift our eyes to the hills, and say with Julian of Norwich,
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”


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