A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, November 11, 2018.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
On Armistice Day, 1918, this city went almost mad with joy. Crowds gathered in the streets, parades marched all over the downtown, bonfires were lit, bands played, bells rung, people laughed and hugged and shook hands, and wept with joy that the Great War – the War to end all Wars, the war that had cost so much and had been so much more terrible than anyone had ever imagined – it was finally over.
And all that joy and relief overflowed in delighted hatred against their enemies: the German King (the Kaiser), and the Crown Prince, whose life-sized effigies were hanged in front of City Hall, and then burned in celebration.
I am glad that this is no longer how we celebrate our victories in war. I’m glad that following today’s service, we will not gather at Village Square to light a bonfire and burn life-sized models of all the enemies we’ve beaten over the years. I’m even glad that we don’t have joyful processions and ticker-tape parades sponsored by our major department stores with flyovers from the Canadian Air Force.
Instead, we do something entirely different. We dream of a world in which war is no longer necessary; and we grieve the cost of peace: the cost paid by our service men and women down through the years; the cost they pay with their lives; and the cost they pay with their health; and the cost they pay with their mental well-being.
We are deeply grateful for their service in the cause of peace – and we wait with longing for the day when war will be no more.
And so today, on what could be our annual victory day, we mourn.
Our civil Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada are, in fact, based on Christian funeral rites, and images of death and resurrection. The Last Post was the last thing played at night before going to sleep – which is when the vigil begins, keeping watch over night with our friends who have died. And so we have our minutes of silence, which represent the night vigil. And then is played the Reveille, the trumpet call of the morning, of the dawning of the day, the call to awaken; which now symbolizes too the dawning of the Last Day, when peace shall come at last and the trumpet call will sound and the dead shall arise to stand victorious before Christ.
In the meantime, we wait in hope and in grief, never forgetting the cost of war.
We hear these haunting words from John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead.
Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
In 1915, when Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote these now-famous lines, he was mourning the death of his friend just the day before. It was early in the War, and all of Europe was still fired up by the passion and romanticism of dying for a noble cause. Both sides spoke and behaved as if God was on their side, and that their enemies were servants of the Devil.
In the midst of all this, McCrae felt the call to defeat his enemy and avenge the deaths of his friends:
Take up our quarrel with the foe [the dead say]:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
How, now, do we understand what torch it is that the dead pass on to us? Do the Christian dead really sleep uneasily when their side loses in war? No. I think the tragedy and bloodshed of the 20th century teaches us a new lesson. For, of course, everyone ended up losing the First World War.
First was the count of the war dead: nine million combatants and six million civilians, with over 20 million wounded. Then the Spanish Influenza epidemic, spread directly because of the war which killed another 50 – 100 million people.
The peace treaty that was struck utterly crippled the German economy, which in turn undermined economies across Europe. And in 1929 the Stock Market crashed and collapsed the global economy, leading to poverty and homelessness and starvation for millions of people around the world.
And out of this mess rose Hitler and the conditions for the Second World War. And out of that War have led the conditions of every major war, and most minor ones, since.
Everyone lost the First World War. There was no meaningful avenging of the dead, there was no lasting peace and prosperity. There was only temporary delight at the humiliation of the losers.
But there is another way. A way to which Christ calls us as Christians. It is to mourn the dead, and count the cost – not as we would see the cost, but as Christ might see it. To see the cost not only of “our side”, but the cost to the human family when our violent passions get so out of control. To see the cost not only of the dead, but of the lives and bodies that are broken, and the marriages, and the cost to children, and the cost of PTSD and alcoholism and addiction and suicide – the psychological ravages that war leaves behind, on every side.
And we are called to a commitment to pay that cost only in the greatest of need, and only to protect the very highest of ideals.
And there is another commitment too, that we owe to those who have died in war, and those who have borne the costs: it is the commitment that we too should look around us, and do everything we can to work for peace – to protect the very highest of ideals for which they died.
And we can do that, each of us, right here where we live. We can be salt; we can be light; we can be yeast. For there to be peace in the world – that Imam said at the peace vigil at Beth Tzedec - there must be peace in the nation. And for there to be peace in the nation, there must be peace in the province. And for there to be peace in the province, there must be peace in the city. And for there to be peace in the city, there must be peace in the community. And for there to be peace in the community, there must be peace in the family. And for there to be peace in the family, there must be peace in the heart.
So friends, we take now the torch, now ours to carry, and carry it out into the community in which we live. Let there be peace in our hearts, peace in our families, and peace in our communities, as the effort that we make, and the small cost that we pay, in honour of those who have paid the greatest price.
Today, we do not celebrate our triumphs and glory in our enemies’ downfall. We commemorate the dead, and honour those who keep this country and seek to keep this world at peace.
May God bless them, and may God bless us all with peace.