Sunday, 13 November 2011

A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

We had a very full church for our Remembrance Sunday service this morning (though in fairness we have quite a small building). The following are the notes for the sermon I preached, which several people afterwards said they’d appreciated. (Bear in mind  the notes do not precisely equal the full sermon.)

Romans 5:1-11
I wonder what you think when you hear the word ‘euthanasia’. Do you think of your own circumstances at the end of your life? Of someone else’s? Does the word fill you with fear, or a sense of comfort?
As things go, it is highly likely that euthanasia will be made legal in this country, just as it is already legal in Holland or Switzerland, so it is not just a theoretical question.
The word euthanasia comes from the Greek, and is sometimes translated to mean ‘an easy death’.
Literally, though, it means ‘a good death’. And if you think about it, a good death may not quite be the same thing as an easy death.
But can any death be a ‘good’ death? Surely death is always a bad thing? Well, not necessarily.
The Romans, for example, had one view about a ‘good death’ made famous in a line from a poem by Horace:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ...
“It is a sweet and right thing to die for one’s country.”
Yet of course, this was the line that so angered the First World War poet Wilfred Owen that he used it as a title for a poem of his own which ends like this:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie; ‘Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori’.
Horace thought it was a virtue, Owen called it a lie. And it has to be admitted that most people today would sympathize with the latter view. They may not know the writings of Wilfrid Owen, but they know the words of Edwin Starr: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Yet unlike Wilfrid Owen’s anti-war sentiments, this widespread distaste for war doesn’t arise out of an experience of war. Most of us, thank God, have had no direct experience of combat.
No. It is not just that people see war as wrong — as good for nothing — increasingly they see the idea of dying for your country as fundamentally mistaken. It just not worth it.
What is worth preserving is your own individual life within your network of family and friends — the people who like you and whom you like. And it is the loss of this which makes death the ultimate disaster.
This is why we had those scenes of grieving at Wootton Bassett every time a coffin came home from Iraq or Afghanistan. The grief, the flowers and the tears focused on the loss of a loved one.

And the question in people’s minds throughout these campaigns has been not “Are we winning?” but “How many have been killed?” But that, of course, is a hopeless way to assess the success or failure of a military campaign.
If the ultimate value is the preservation of my life and the relationships I have with those closest to me, then death in combat is the ultimate loss. And this raises the question of whether there is anything worth dying for. Certainly if the idea of dying for your own country is a lie, it is completely pointless dying for someone else’s.
The Christian author and broadcaster C S Lewis called this the ‘debunking’ of values. On what grounds, he asked, might someone be urged to die?
Every appeal to pride, honour, shame or love is excluded [...] [T]hese would be to return to sentiment and the ... task is, having cut all that away, to explain to men, in terms of pure reasoning, why they will be well advised to die that others may live. (The Abolition of Man, 23)
And that presents us with a problem.
Let us take the obvious most recent example. From 1939 to 1945, this country fought against two of the worst regimes in human history — Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Few people today would dispute that defeating those regimes was a good thing.
But for that to happen, some people had to die. And the problem is, who’s is it going to be? Because you see, death is a very personal thing. Nazism was an ideology. The Japanese Imperial cult was an ideology. And democracy and human freedom are ideologies.
We naturally think that democracy and freedom are better ideologies than Nazism or Imperialism. But when it comes to dying for democracy or dying for freedom, or dying to defeat Nazism, that’s personal. And the question is, who should it be?
Today, we look back with gratitude on those who gave their lives to win that war. But as we do so, we need to take a close look at ourselves.
One of the things we traditionally read at such ceremonies is the so-called ‘Kohima’ ode — the epitaph on the British cemetery that reads,
When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
For their tomorrow,
We gave our today.
What do we feel when we hear those words? Are we just glad it was them and not us? Are we just glad that we live in a world of peace, not war? Or do we feel that in some sense their deaths were right and good?
That, I think, is a real challenge. But if I am glad that I have benefited from someone else’s death, yet I regard the reasons for their death as pointless, then really I am just be being selfish.
Either I take the view that there is very little worth dying for — and certainly not the uncertain future of other people I don’t know and will never meet — or I acknowledge that there are some things which are worth dying for on principle.
The trouble is, as we know, people have been willing to die for bad causes as well as good. We may question the attitude of the kamikaze pilot, but we can’t question his commitment. So how do we judge what is worth dying for?
As Christians, we actually have an answer, though it one that has been very imperfectly understood and applied. In Romans 5, we heard this:
7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
It is this that sets both death and life in context.
Today, we widely act as if the only that matters is my own, and the only value worth preserving is the relationships of my family and friends.
In former times, it was believed that the same was true for a wider circle of people and values — our fellow countrymen and our nation.
But in Christ, God turned the whole thing on its head: “when we were God’s enemies,” v 10 says, “we were reconciled to him through the death of his son”.
We might die, says v 7, for a good man. God’s son died for sinners. We might give our lives for those who value us most of all. God’s son gave his life for those who valued him least of all.
And that fundamental principle, applied in the lives of Christians, has been able to transform the world.
Today we honour those who died a good death — not because they felt like it or because they wanted to, but because they were willing to do it and because they did it to achieve a greater good.
The choice we face is not the same, but it is just as challenging — to live our lives not for ourselves but for others, and not just others we love and who love us, but for everyone. This is the example of Christ. And his was surely the best death of all.
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  1. I would have liked to hear the full sermon, but you have certainly covered a fair amount of highly contentious territory in this encapsulated version.
    Wilfred Owen is one of my greatest heroes, and for me his war poems are 'the last word' on the futility and tragedy of this senseless 'solution' for the world's problems.
    The one thing I would take issue with over, is the "willingness" to give their lives of those lost to war.
    In many, and certainly in the 2nd World War, conscription was the sole reason why many thousands fought - and died.

  2. I don't want to nit-pick, but in case this ends up in print, you should now that Wilfred Owen's words are very well known, because he was on the GCSE syllabus.

    (Anonymous - in an awkward country)