Remembrance Day is not as straight forward as we may think. In the Anglican churches I’ve been a part of, there is usually some observance of Remembrance the week of November 11th. My own role in these services has at times let me to inner conflict. The need to honour those who have risked their lives for others without glorifying war itself has not been easy. In my conversations this week I have found that I am not alone in these struggles.
In an effort to share my own resolution of these issues, here is the sermon I preached on Sunday for our Remembrance Sunday at Trinity Church in Saint John. I hope it helps!
Sermon Given on November 8th 2015:
Today is a day when we reflect on sacrifice. The sacrifice of those who gave up their lives to ensure that the threat of war and destruction would not spread to our land. The sacrifice of those who gave all they had for the sake of others. There is also the immeasurable sacrifice of Christ. God who gave up everything – power, omnipotence, to become vulnerable, to risk his life day after day and finally to die so that we may know what it is to be loved and to have full life.
To give all we have, to sacrifice everything, is something that is far beyond what many of us could imagine ourselves doing. Perhaps this is why we are so moved by complete sacrifices like these. Remembrance day is a time to give thanks for such sacrifice. It is a time where we admire the selflessness of those who give themselves and risk their own lives for the lives of others. But perhaps when we are given opportunities like these to stop and reflect, we ought to include the many different kinds of sacrifices that took place.
I should perhaps note that I probably have have a different relationship to Remembrance Day than many of you here. It is not just because I am young and am more distanced from WWI and WWII. But as the descendent of Mennonites, my family were all pacifists. They came to Canada to get away from war. And while we could debate the issues of their beliefs with the need of war to eradicate evil, the point is that those who came to this country lived, as we live with the benefits of the stability that was bought with the lives of men and women who selflessly served their country.
What may come as a surprise then is that for many Mennonites, thinking about WWI and WWII is still painful. Their pacifism was seen as weakness and there was great contempt for the strong, young Mennonite farmers who refused to go to war. The memories that have been passed down to me are stories of family members who suffered abuse and were assaulted and shamed for not going to fight. A book was published years ago about 3 young mennonite men who went to register as conscientious objectors. They were beaten, mocked and ridiculed, and tortured within inches of their lives. One of these young men was my great grandfather. He never recovered from what he endured and eventually committed suicide.
I speak of this, not to devalue the war effort, but to encourage us to consider all levels of sacrifice that occur in times of war. I also want to add that when I try to reconcile the world that my family comes from with the historical and societal value of Remembrance Day, I find meaning in a few thoughts. I admire the selflessness with which young men and women both here and abroad served others. I value the victory that was obtained, not just over an evil system, but also over fear itself. And I focus on the effort that was made to obtain peace and safety for all people.
After all, the signing of the Armistice of 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is significant because it was the step of peace that ended WWI. Here is where we find common ground. It is this hope for peace that causes us to remember the courage of soldiers as well as the horrors of war. It is this hope for peace, that gives meaning to these sacrifices.
A few years ago my uncle took a trip through Austria and Germany. When he came back he reflected on several of his experiences that changed the way he thought about Remembrance day. The first experience was a plaque near a Church in Vienna that commemorated over 40 families who died when allied troops bombed the city. The apartment building these families lives in was obliterated in an instant, instantly erasing all those lives and memories. The second was a moment by the remains of the Berlin wall, where he recalled hearing stories of family members trying to flee to West Germany. The third and most moving moment was at a museum for murdered European Jews. There my uncle read journal entries of Jews who had been sheltered in a town where my family is from. One journal entry had this short line “there are some German Christians (Mennonites) who have been taken out and shot for hiding us.” It was a strange moment for my uncle to realize that those Mennonites who were shot would have been our relatives.
My uncle writes “As a result – Remembrance Day has taken on a whole different aspect. I include now all the horrors of war that we seldom hear about or see. I include the civilians who through no fault of their own were killed. I include those who tried to help others escape and lost their lives in doing so. That is Remembrance Day for me. Not just the freedom I have, but the freedom we all have – including in Europe. Lest We Forget All of Them.”
In the 60’s a young Mennonite man named Rudy Wiebe saw the issues of peace playing out in his own small community. He wrote a novel based on these experiences called “Peace shall destroy many”. He noticed that while those in his community highly valued peace and were against war, their definition of peace was missing something. He indicated that they had two specific definitions of peace. The first way of looking at peace was defining it as holding one’s peace. ‘As long as everything goes smoothly and we ourselves cannot be blamed, peace is being maintained.’ Peace in this definition is based on just avoiding conflict.
The second definition is a state of safety and blessedness – “As long as God gives us crops and we don’t have to fight in any war we are at peace”. This definition is very pragmatic, but once again, it leaves little room for discussion and for growth as a community. In his novel, one of the characters named Joseph offers a third definition of peace. This one deals with fostering peace within ourselves, so that even when everything goes wrong, we have the strength of God’s love for us to hold onto.
Joseph says “According to Christ’s teaching, peace is not a circumstance, but a state of being. The Christ-follower has the peace of reconciliation with God and therefore the peace of conscious fellowship with God through God in Christ. Peace is not a thing static and unchanging: rather a mighty inner river that carries all outward circumstances before it as if they were driftwood (…) (Christ) brought no outward quiet and comfort such as we are ever praying for. Rather, he brought inward peace that is in no way affected by outward war but quietly overcomes it on life’s real battle-field: the soul of man. By personally living His peace, we are peacemakers.” (p195)
This definition of peace calls us to take on the very nature of Christ. To let peace transform ourselves so that we respond with peace, not just in issues of war and conflict, but in the tumults of our own lives, in everything that surrounds us and in every interaction we have. Howard Yoder says that ‘By refusing to return evil for evil, by living in peace, sharing goods, and doing deeds of charity as opportunities arise, the church witnesses, to the fact that an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence has been made possible by the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus.’ In other words peace is achieved by the way we live our lives, but also is a testament to the world of the power and values of our faith.
No matter how the church throughout history has been marred by violence and has taken part in wars, we are reminded of the peace that Jesus had and that he left for all of us. We must ask ourselves what truth is in our confession, what hope in our faith and what power in the salvation we proclaim, if we do not practice the peace that Jesus has given us, the peace that has overcome the world. As we remember those who have sacrificed everything for our peace, we may ask how we are then fostering peace ourselves.
Kofi Annan who was the secretary-general to the united nations once said “during the cold war, peace and security tended to be defined simply in terms of military might or the balance of terror. today, we have a greater appreciation for the non-military sources of conflict. we know that lasting peace requires a broader vision, encompassing education and literacy, health and nutrition, human rights and fundamental freedoms. We know that we cannot be secure amidst starvation. We cannot build peace without alleviating poverty. We can not build freedom on foundations of injustice.”
We may think on days like this, that our main task is to reflect on the sacrifices that were made and honour those who have died. But there is more. The Mennonites would state that peacefulness takes a lot of effort. During remembrance day, many of them wear pins that read “To remember is to work for peace”. So no matter what our background or family history, we can all acknowledge that in every season we are called to work for peace. The overwhelming feeling that there is nothing that we can do for peace is countered by the words of Christ that are alive and working in our hearts when he said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
So when we pause on remembrance day and reflect on all those who have died for a greater cause, let us admire their sacrifice and selflessness, let us remember the true ultimate sacrifice – that of Jesus Christ who emptied himself of all he had to become a weak and vulnerable baby so that we may know life and know true peace. Let us consider how we can sacrifice our comforts for the sake of the peace of those who have known only war. Thinking especially of the Syrian Refugees and all who have fled home and comfort to find safety. And let us, like the widow in the Gospel story give all that we have, for to Remember is to work for peace.
Let us pray:
We pray this morning for the leaders and authorities of the nations as they make decisions of both war and peace. May we pray every day for those who bear the consequences of those decisions; civilians, troops and their family members. May we remember every day, those who fought and those who have died with the vision of peace before their eyes. And may we live our lives in the peace of Christ, sharing that peace with others and looking together for the day when nations will learn war no more. Amen.
By Jasmine Chandra