A sermon given during the 6pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 13th of November 2022

Sunday 13th November

Remembrance Day

The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

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

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was an English poet and soldier. His war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare stood in contrast to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. One of his best-known poems is this poem entitled “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Wilfred Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918, a week before the war’s end, at the age of 25. He chose poetry to write of the truth and lies of war. Poetry, photographs, tears, nurture our remembering of war …

The remembering of the First World War is also nurtured by a particular flower, the poppy. Poppies produce seeds that can lie dormant in the soil for as long as one hundred years. The seeds need light to grow so they only germinate in disturbed soils. The digging of trenches, the bombs, the mass cemeteries that decimated Europe’s landscape during World War 1 brought about the blooming of millions of poppies on the disrupted soil.

And so they are the symbol of remembrance for us, of remembering the lives of those who fell on that soil, of remembering the grief of those who loved them, of remembering the horror and waste of war. Poppies, photographs, tears and poetry, nurture our remembering of war, nurturing our longing for forgiveness for it, nurturing our guilt, our grief that the wars just keep on, that our need for power, our insecurity and fear, means that the wars just keep on being fought.

Poppies, photographs, tears and poetry, nurture our remembering of war …

It might be easy to rage and wonder and believe we would never have a part in it. To watch Ukraine in our time and place from afar and wonder how it could be that in the midst of a climate crisis, in the midst of famine, in the midst of a pandemic, we could watch the brutal destruction of the homeland of one by another.  We could believe we would never have a part in it. We might be careful about that. I grew up watching a historian write his great book on the First World War inspired by the words that informed the title of his book. The words were these:

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

Our faces, our hearts, our thoughts, our beings are not immune from what it is that makes for war.

…war from among its myriad faces, could always turn towards us one, which was our own…

Jesus knew that, knew our hearts, knows our hearts. Jesus knows that each one of us might be drawn into sin that we could not have imagined. Knows that our longing for security, our fear, might clutch at us in such a way that violence, that war is possible.

Jesus knows us. And so he tells us a parable:

‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. …be on your guard …’

His whole message is this really: look! Look around you at what the trees are doing and you will know what the seasons are doing. Look around you at what is happening in the world and you will know what human hearts are doing. Look at your own heart, be on your guard, keep awake. For what is in you and for what is in the hearts of others. Look also for the signs of God. For the sprouting of leaves in the fig trees. Look for signs of God. Signs of the kingdom of God. Look, ponder, remember …

As we gather at this Evensong service dedicated to a time of remembrance for those who died in war, let us look, look at the world far from us and near to us, for signs of human sin and frailty, for signs of God’s redemption. Look and pray. Ponder the reality of war in our time and place.

What flowers will grow in the soil of Ukraine when the war ends. What flowers will grow in the soil dug up by bombs and tears, bullets and blood? Will they be sunflowers? The poet laureate Simon Armitage crafted a poem in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. He thought there would be sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine. He named his poem Resistance.

It’s war again: a family

carries its family out of a pranged house

under a burning thatch.

The next scene smacks

of archive newsreel: platforms and trains

(never again, never again),

toddlers passed

over heads and shoulders, lifetimes stowed

in luggage racks.

It’s war again: unmistakable smoke

on the near horizon mistaken

for thick fog. Fingers crossed.

An old blue tractor

tows an armoured tank

into no-man’s land.

It’s the ceasefire hour: godspeed the columns

of winter coats and fur-lined hoods,

the high-wire walk

over buckled bridges

managing cases and bags,

balancing west and east – godspeed.

It’s war again: the woman in black

gives sunflower seeds to the soldier, insists

his marrow will nourish

the national flower. In dreams

let bullets be birds, let cluster bombs

burst into flocks.

False news is news

with the pity

edited out. It’s war again:

an air-raid siren can’t fully mute

the cathedral bells –

let’s call that hope.

Will it be sunflowers that are gathered, when the war ends, when the remembering begins. Cut in bunches, places in vases on mantelpieces and altars, clung to before they are scattered on graves. Will it be sunflowers that inspire remembrance in Ukraine?

As, when that war finally ends we cry to God, surely never again, never again.

And the poppies and the sunflowers remind us of all the dear souls who were lost in war, remind us of the lives of those who fell on that soil in which the flowers grow, remind us of the grief of those who loved them, help us ponder again the horror and waste of war.

And hear the words of the poem again, that even in the midst of war,

an air-raid siren can’t fully mute

the cathedral bells –

And wonder if we too might call that hope.

[1] F. E. Manning quoted in Trevor Wilson The Myriad Faces of War