Reflecting on Remembrance Day

Matthew 25:1-13

A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

He said that the kingdom of heaven is like this … as he tells the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Jesus tells a parable about five wise and five foolish bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. When the bridegroom arrives, the foolish bridesmaids have no oil for their lamps so they are not permitted to offer him welcome. The foolish bridesmaids are sent away, because those with oil will not, perhaps, cannot, share their oil. And we, the listeners, hoping for insight into the kingdom of heaven, find ourselves wondering about the harshness of this, the worldliness of this. We find ourselves wondering if this is not more the way humanity at its worst behaves, rather than humanity at its best. And we find ourselves wondering just what Jesus is meaning when he says the kingdom of God is like this.

Which is exactly where he would want us, of course. Wondering.

This is what Jesus is always doing when he tells us parables, having us wonder.

When we are puzzled by the scriptures the best place to go, at first, is to the scriptures to see if we can make any sense of things. If we look in the Old Testament we find the Jewish Law encouraging generosity – when you are gathering in your harvest, always leave some at the edge of the fields for the widows and the orphans to glean, the law says. If we look at the way Jesus behaves, we see Jesus faced with five thousand hungry people who have not made provision for themselves, feeding those hungry people from the five loaves and the two fish brought by a young boy. When we read about the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of people sharing all their possessions with one another. The scriptures seem to leave us all the more puzzled about the parable where not sharing seems to be honoured.

So let us look more closely at the parable to see if we can find a clue. The parable closes with the bridegroom saying to the foolish bridesmaids, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And Jesus comments on the parable: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

In the parable, the issue seems to be that the bridegroom doesn’t know the foolish bridesmaids. There is a relationship here that hasn’t been nurtured. And then from Jesus’ warning at the end the issue is about keeping awake. The oil, it seems is about keeping awake. And that is possibly the one thing we cannot share with one another – the fact of having kept awake, a life of having tried and tried to keep awake. A life of nurturing a particular relationship – a relationship with God, perhaps. The spiritual life. That is what Jesus is urging us to engage with here. The spiritual life. The life of waking up.

I have heard it said that Jesus only said one thing to us, really, “Wake up”.

We each have our own way of doing this. For some of us it will be coming to our Cathedral and reaching out our hands for the bread of life, pondering on our own lives as we do so. For some of us it will be walking in nature looking at wildflowers, listening for the song of birds, sensing, in all this, God’s creation. For some of us it will be sitting in silence each day, perhaps, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, allowing the day to drift across our minds, noticing where were loving and where it was too difficult for us. Where we failed. For some it will be music. Just music, that nurtures our reflection. What matters is that we do it, we do what God has made us to do, we allow ourselves time to be awake. We reflect, remembering that we are made by God, and loved by God, and whatever we have done, forgiven by God. We reflect and are made new by that.

Did we notice how it mattered, the election this week? Did we notice how much we cared? How frightened we were, perhaps. Or how grateful we were. Not about the right or left side of politics, this one. Though many of us do believe deeply in that, the right or left side of politics. This election in the United States of America was about truth and honesty and gracious speech. About boundaries between people, boundaries that God would not recognise, boundaries because of the colour of our skin or the nature of our religious faith. It was about peace, not just the lack of violence, but deep peace, God’s peace. But did we notice how much we cared? Wake up, Jesus said. Notice, he might say. Notice what matters to you.

Or as a black CNN reporter said this morning, tears rolling down his cheeks, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning, it’s easier to be a Dad, it’s easier to tell your kids that character matters, to tell them the truth matters, being a good person it matters …”

This Sunday, the Sunday before Remembrance Day, we have a poppy cross and we have poppies grown from the seeds of poppies from the fields of Flanders beneath the flags. And we remember, we reflect upon war. So we will spend a little time being awake this morning to that, how we are affected by that. My father, a First World War historian, wrote his major book entitled “The Myriad Faces of War” on Britain and the First War, and the title came from the following quote:

(Please excuse the exclusive language).

A man might rave against war; but war from among its myriad faces, could always turn towards him one, which was his own.[1]

Which of the myriad faces of war looks at us?  I find myself struggling when I see advertisements for the defence forces on the television because they make the life look so glamourous. One of those “a life in which you find who you are” sort of advertisements. “The most consistent aspect of life in the Navy, Army or Air Force is the tremendous variety, combining stimulating work opportunities with fulfilling lifestyles.” The defence forces website says. I know we need the army and the navy and the air force. I know we need them. I know there have been wars that needed to be fought. But one of myriad faces of war is that of the grieving mother, father, wife, husband, child. One of the myriad faces of war is the soldier who returns so troubled by what they have seen, what they have experienced that life cannot be born. Just a week ago, another soldier took his own life. Just this year, 40 members of the defence forces committed suicide. Some of the myriad faces of war are the faces of lives destroyed by their own hands and the families who live with the relentless grief of that.

“Keep awake,” Jesus said.

So, how do we keep awake to truth of our need to defend ourselves and what that does to those who work for our defence. I think one way is to allow the myriad faces, the myriad voices, the myriad stories of war to sit, in all their contradictions and all their pain, before us. To admit that for some, the life in the defence forces is a good life, does bring to life. To know that for some, profound friendships are made, acts of utter courage are done, persistent loyalties bring comfort and hope. But, also, to know that many lives are destroyed in battle or through the trauma of battle. To know that post traumatic stress disorder sends black ripples through its victims and all who love them. To hear, perhaps, the poems of those such as Wilfred Owen, in his Anthem for Doomed Youth, or the music of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. To sit, when we think we have come to a settled place about it all, with one of the myriad faces, myriad voices that troubles us, challenges our settledness if ever we find such a thing.

To hear Jesus’ voice saying to us “Keep awake” in this.

A person might rave against war; but war from among its myriad faces, could always turn towards them one, which was their own.

What would Jesus have us see? What is our face in this? I wonder if Jesus would ask us to ponder during this time of remembrance, this time when we pray for those whose lives are devoted to our defence about that … about our needing to be defended. About a world of boundaries and the desire to protect those boundaries. Surely the election we are still witnessing in America would have us wonder about that.

I wonder, then, if Jesus would have us look into his face. Be awake to his face in this. The one who walked across all the boundaries with no protection but his trust in God’s love. The one who allowed all the violence that human beings could muster to do its work with him. The one who died forgiving it all. The one who rose with the marks of the violence, the marks of the nails in his hands, the mark of the spear in his side, in his newly alive body. There are no easy answers in this. But we might remember that the parable we read this morning speaks of the bridesmaids waiting for someone. Keeping watch for an arrival, a presence. Is he the arrival, he the presence? I wonder if, as we ponder the myriad faces of war and peace, we might look at his face, Jesus’ face, …and hear his voice saying to us, “Keep awake.”

[1] F. E. Manning, The Middle Parts of Fortune (London: Peter Davies, 1977), p. 182.