Sunday 12 November - Remembrance Sunday - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

 Pentecost 23 2017 – Remembrance Sunday

+ ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’.

But they shall grow old, those who are left grow old. They went through the same trauma as those who died in battle, but came out the other side, carrying their memories. Today we are in the month of remembrance, of memories, the month of the dead, when the leaves fall from the trees. Today, we remember those who have died in war, especially the two world wars of the twentieth century and subsequent conflicts; today we also pray for an end to war. Today we stand in the shadow of war in Korea. But today we also remember those who have come through the furnace of war and carry indelible memories, probably including some of us here today.

James Jeffrey left the army a few years ago. He recently wrote an article on army life prompted by the death of his friend Chris Butcher, with whom he had served in Afghanistan. Chris died tragically last month aged 35 after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. James’s article was on the troubles facing soldiers when they leave the army. His problem was that on the one hand the army remains ‘the great lost love of my life’, the comradeship and values (self-sacrifice, loyalty and duty of care) were so much superior to those of life outside; but on the other hand, he remains conscious that in Iraq 2 and Afghanistan, he served in two of the most unpopular campaigns in recent history. He enjoyed Iraq but says ‘the romantic myth of war’ came apart for him in the Afghan town of Nad-e Ali in 2009. There he lost many friends to bombs and attacks but he himself, as he coordinated close air support, was responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians, including children. He writes, ‘I thought I’d escaped Afghanistan when the chinook with me in it took off, homeward bound. Wishful thinking. Its only now, seven years since those six months in Helmand and resigning my commission, that I’m finally addressing my persistent anger and guilt’. It is interesting that he distinguishes his problems from the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by those others who were in the thick of close-quarter battle. He defines his own problem as a moral injury: ‘enormous guilt and shame about doing the wrong thing or not doing the right thing’. Anger and guilt coming from constant remembering. James Jeffrey reminds us that what stays in the mind is different for each soldier, each person, but whatever it is, remembrance can be corrosive. It can even be fatal.

Today, we remember those who have died in war, but we also remember those who live on with the pain of their memories. But war is not the only destroyer of mental peace. The news has been full of horrendous tales of sexual abuse of women, the social media hashtag #metoo has revealed how widespread this is, many of my female friends carry these memories. We’re talking about more than a Benny Hill tap on the knee. Many men too, carry the pain of abuse, and one politician who has been accused of it killed himself last week. The horror of the abuse of children has been in the public domain for years, many of us will have heard or know how it knaws away at one’s self-confidence. Bullying and stalking can do the same thing. We are not talking about isolated cases, I bet most of us here have suffered something like this. The act is done; it may go on, but it stops; the crippling memory, however, endures. So why are we wasting our time having a remembrance Sunday. Being locked in a cycle of remembering can cripple and kill. Why not have a forgetting Sunday? We don’t want to forget those we love, but there is still so much we need to forget. But perhaps remembering can contain within itself the seeds of healing.

Traumatic acts are like death and can’t be undone. James Jeffrey’s story does, however, end with a new beginning. One that gives a glimpse of hope for all those who live with traumatic memories. The new beginning was this July when he walked the 500 mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. In his own words, ‘It culminated in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where in a small church opposite the grand cathedral, I took a drastic and increasingly unfashionable course of action for this day and age: I went to confession. That experience and the priest’s instruction that I ask the forgiveness of the men, women and children we killed proved far more efficacious than any advice or dissolute distraction I had sought during intervening years.’

Memory can be cruel. Today, we remember those who have died in war, especially the two world wars of the twentieth century and subsequent conflicts. We remember those whose memory carries the scars of war. And I make no apology for remembering those who hurt with other scars. I make no apology because here we are commanded to remember by another victim of violence: ‘do this in remembrance of me… this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins’. James Jeffrey, Chris Butcher, and many of us gathered here have found remembering cruel. When forgiveness joins memory, as it does in the sacraments where we encounter the mystery of the cross, the cruelty can be transcended and transformed. James found that experience in confession; may we and those for whom we pray find that in the bread and wine of this sacrament. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, and at this holy table, we will remember them, that all may find peace and mercy in Jesus Christ.