Remembrance Sunday, Lincoln Cathedral, 2022

I was privileged to spend a weekend with Her Late Majesty the Queen at Sandringham. I hadn’t been prepared to play cards with the Queen. She told me to keep up. As I reflect on and give thanks for her service over her whole life, those words resonate with me as we are all called to give our best in the service of our country, whether in the armed or civilian services or as volunteer citizens.

 I have no direct experience of a conflict zone, although listening to my grandfather talk about being both at Dunkirk and D-Day brought the sound and fury of war very close. If you want a fictionalised but vivid picture of war, you only have to turn on your television tonight at 9pm to watch Rogue Heroes which tells the story of the creation of the Special Air Service, or SAS, taking a decisive role in defeating the Germans in North Africa by suddenly appearing out of the desert which even the Romans had never attempted. We remember with thanksgiving all that they achieved and what they contributed to turning the course of the North Africa Campaign which, in turn, speeded up the liberation of Italy and Greece.

Undoubtedly, these were remarkable and rather maverick people. A friend of mine is a padre to the Special Boat Service who tells me that they are very quiet men. It’s what makes them special in our protection – alongside their fitness. In this fortieth anniversary year of the South Atlantic conflict, I recall that at the beginning of the Falklands War the Chaplain General had to bring a padre out of retirement because he was the only priest in the Church of England physically fit enough to accompany our special forces and commandos.  In Lincolnshire we particularly give thanks for the Royal Air Force, not only for its courageous and gallant guardianship of our skies, but for all the humanitarian relief and medical support it provides under fire. My best friend’s son is a pilot officer in the RAF and I am amazed how human beings are able to deploy the most extraordinary technology for our safety.

In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, God is described as the one who takes our hand in righteousness, making a covenant with us to be good and just. My grandfather used to say that soldiers, sailors and air crew won the war by seeking to save one another, by giving their hand to their comrades under fire. That carried with it – as it still does when our forces are on operation – the readiness to gather to pray for safety, for family and for the liberation of the people whom our forces are seeking to protect. The God whom we have come to worship is the God who comes to set prisoners free. We have seen successive efforts by Ukrainian forces not only to free prisoners of war but whole populations under repressive occupation by Russia. We remember with sober thanksgiving those who have given their lives so far to liberate their country, the countless innocent civilians who have been killed, injured and displaced, and the poorly-trained Russian conscripts who died for no purpose other than to serve the hubris of their leaders.

In about 2007, my beloved goddaughter Alice came to stay. She took her mother and me to see 300, a film based on the comic of the same name which re-told in graphic detail the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. I’m not sure what Herodotus would have made of the screenplay, but 300 Spartans with other Greek allies held off 100,000 Persians. It is a very violent film, with limbs and heads being hacked off. Evidently, I began to look disapproving. Alice misinterpreted my misgivings and sought to reassure me that most of the men’s six-packs were CGI and my super economy pack was lovely. Anyway, critics of the film claimed that the film claimed that it over-glorified war as a game for heroes. We remember the many brave women and men who have been heroes, whether known to us or unknown. But none of them would say that war is heroic. As we are seeing vividly in Ukraine, Yemen or Congo, conflict is brutal. Atrocities are perpetrated by badly trained soldiers as has happened in Ukraine, and sexual violence is used as a tool of war against women and men, as the Countess of Wessex has been highlighting. War may be necessary when all other options are worse, but only in defence of freedom and human flourishing. I had an elderly mentor who had served with distinction in the Second World War before being ordained. He decided to visit the Dardanelles and Gallipoli where his father had been a liaison officer with the Australians in the First World War. He visited the Greek island of Skyros on the way. His eyesight not being what it had been, he was surprised to be waved at by a young man in the distance. When he got closer, he realised that he had been waving at a statue of Rupert Brooke, the Great War poet who died of sepsis before he ever got to Gallipoli. Brooke’s most famous poem, Grantchester Vicarage from 1912. The parish now makes good money out of the vicarage not now because of Brooke but because of a certain TV detective show. We know that filming is afoot when fake wisteria appears on the vicarage front in November.

What isn’t fake is the experience of soldier-poets in the First World War like Brooke, but even more notably Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Sassoon wrote “Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go” and, in another poem, “…and how, at last, he died, Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care/Except the lonely woman with white hair.” Wilfred Owen was killed just days before the Armistice in 1918. His poems at the beginning of the War suggested that it was passing sweet to live at peace with others, but sweeter still and far more meet to die in war for brothers.” By the end of the War he was writing poems like his Anthem for Doomed Youth: “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.” This still has a contemporary feel to me having stood so many times on the main street of now Royal Wootton Bassett during the Second Iraq War as we honoured the repatriated remains of members of the Armed Services, most of whom were under twenty-five and closer in age to the cadets here this morning than to most of the rest of us. There is glory but so much sadness that they gave their today for our tomorrow.

That is why we must live the paradox of fighting for peace. Again, and again in the Christian gospels, Jesus sends people out in peace after they have been forgiven. More, he sent his close followers out into the world to preach the reign of God, in peace and justice, is growing in secret and bursting out wherever men and women are ready to be people of peace. In the Beatitudes of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount which we have heard this morning, he celebrates those who mourn, for they shall be comforted in all their loss; and he also celebrates the peacemakers who will be children of God. To be a peacemaker is to have the character of God because you are not just striking a deal or making a compromise, but looking for reconciling what seems like unreconcilable people. This is not in a zero-sum ‘winner takes all’ scenario but one in which A and B are taken to Q via Z to a new place of mutual flourishing. That was the hope and great success of the Good Friday Agreement until now.

My grandfather, like any veteran, lamented the loss of so many of his chums who were killed in action. He could still see their faces and hear their voices. He only hoped that their loss generated the will which created the Welfare State and new hope for the poor. We pray not only for peace in Ukraine but for as much investment by allies in the rebuilding of the country as there is in armaments and tactical support. As we live some of the consequences of that war in food and fuel prices, we recognise that no one is immune from the impact of war. As human beings made in the image of God, we are called to pledge ourselves to the service of peace, in the name of Jesus Christ who is our peace So dear friends, as the Queen said, let’s keep up. Let’s be inspired to serve.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.