Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sermon for Remembrance Day, 2007

Luke 20: 27-38

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Some years ago, back in the early 1990s, Barbara and I with our two sons, Jamie and Joe, were visiting what was then known in a politically incorrect way as a maiden aunt. Margaret lived alone in my grandmother’s house in Terenure, her widowed half-sister having died over two decades earlier.

Over the years, my Aunt Margaret had been very generous in sharing stories about the Comerford family, who we were, where we had lived, what we had done over the generations.

There was great excitement among two young boys as she solemnly handed over a sword, a family heirloom dating back to 1798. And then she quietly took out an old box of photographs, going through them one-by-one as she made sure we had photographs of my uncles and aunts, my grandparents, two of my great-grandfathers, and even one of my great-great-grandfather … the man who owned that sword in 1798.

The solemnity of that occasion cannot be under-estimated. She knew she was growing old, and that she was going to die without children to whom she could hand on the family memorabilia, the family traditions, the family stories, the family memories. She was handing them on to her nephew and his children, to the next generation and to the generation after.

As she went through those old, fading sepia photographs carefully, one-by-one, one photograph seemed to very precious as she withdrew it from the pack and turned it upside-down, out of vieew, away from our inquisitive, inquiring eyes.

It was indelicate, insensitive, of me to ask to see it. She left it turned down. “No-one you would know,” she said dismissively, and she went on trying to retrieve some more photographs, but perhaps a little more furtively now.

That one mysterious photograph remained on its own, turned face-down. When she stood up from the table and left the room briefly, we wondered whether she really wanted us to see that one, single photograph, without embarrassing her with any questions she was going to find difficult to deal with.

Yes, she was giving us that time. We turned it over slowly and respectfully, and there was a photograph of a dashing, handsome young man in his uniform. We turned it back over. We didn’t ask any more questions, and she never had another opportunity to provide any answers.

We can only imagine. We can only imagine her as a young woman who had many hopes, and many dreams; many hopes and many dreams that were shattered by the awful turn of events during World War II.

Perhaps the memories were bitter-sweet, too difficult to speak of. Perhaps she was thinking as she handed over the photographs and the sword that had the course of events been slightly different, she might instead have been handing over the sword and those photographs, along with the traditions and the memories, to her own sons or grandsons.

Perhaps her memory had been triggered, and she had recalled her own father coming back home from Thessaloniki in the middle of World War I, physically weary and mentally shattered by the evacuations from Suvla Bay and Gallipoli, the battles in northern Greece and southern Serbia, and what would eventually prove to be a deadly bout of malaria picked up in Thessaoliniki in the summer of 1916.

These were the hidden stories of my grandfather’s life and eventually his lonely death in hospital that were never passed on by his widow, my grandmother, or by his children, including that aunt. My father was too young at the time of my grandfather’s death to have remembered how he died.

My aunt’s stories were the hidden stories of a young Irishman who went out to battle, but whose very name is now forgotten, never been passed on. She died without ever telling us who this man was, this man who I now imagine might one day have been my uncle had he returned home.

And so my widowed grandmother, and her daughter, lived on in that house, sold eventually after Margaret’s death over 12 years ago in 1995.

What hopes had these women once had, one for her husband the other for a boyfriend? What hopes had they that were shattered by war. How did they feel as old soldiers paraded out, with their medals and poppies, and as politicians pledged: “We will remember them.”

The way to remember my grandfather would have been to provide him with proper medical care and attention. But he died a lonely death and is buried in a small country churchyard. The way to remember him might have been to see that his widow and children were well looked after. Instead, it was left to charities like the British Legion, Toc H (named after Bishop Talbot’s son) and the Earl Haig Fund to look after those shattered and broken lives.

The best way to look after him was to endeavour to abolish all wars. World War I was supposedly the war to end all wars. But look at the world today, look at the horrors in Europe in the last few decades that we have euphemistically labelled “ethnic cleansing,” look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and we have to ask if the concept of a “war to end all wars” was just a dream that kept hope alive on the beaches of Suvla and in the trenches in France.

When I listen to General Sir Michael Jackson and some of the other generals who have been through the horrors of war, I deeply respect their commitment to ending war, their commitment to their soldiers and their soldiers’ lives, and agree with their judgment that war is the failure of diplomacy and politics.

And when diplomacy and politics fail, the victims are not just the soldiers who die on the battlefield or who return home battered and beaten, waiting to die. The victims include the widows who are left to fend and to parent on their own, the young children like my father who grow up without knowing their own fathers or having a role model when it comes to being a parent. And the victims include those whose dreams and hopes are shattered, like the young woman whose hero never comes home.

The woman in our Gospel story this morning reminds me so much of the many forgotten women who are the hidden victims of so many wars.

The Sadducees are interested in point-scoring. They typify the politics and diplomacy of failure. They come to Jesus as the great point scorers of their day. They pose great political and theological dilemmas that seek to make Jesus captive to one theological or political position of the day.

If Jesus could only answer their interesting conundrum about this woman, then they could decide where he stood politically and theologically. Is he one of us? Or is he one of them? On the one hand, if he frequents the Temple so often, he must be a Sadducee, a supporter of the priestly caste. And the political implications of that are that he supports the political status quo and accepts, however reluctantly, the Roman occupation. On the other hand, as he frequents the synagogues so often, he must be a Pharisee, one of the rabbis, who seeks a purer nation, free and undefiled by the heathen occupiers.

And they bring the sad example of a widowed, childless woman to trap him, to corner him, to box him into one or other of two sides. Is he in the blue corner? Or is he in the red corner?

What is shocking for Jesus here? He was comfortable both in the Temple and in the Synagogue. He knew the traps and snares of both the priests and the Pharisees. And if he limited the importance of his message to one or other party, how could his message be relevant not only to the whole nation, but to the whole world, to the whole created order, the cosmos? And in their efforts to trap Jesus, this sad woman’s story is posed as some sort of legalistic and theological conundrum.

But in using the woman’s story, his inquisitors are abusing this woman. Where is their compassion for her? Had anyone considered what the future looked like for a woman whose husband had died leaving her childless? Instead of having compassion for her, they were seeing her as a negotiable commodity. Without children, she was dismissed as a failure. And without children, there was the fear that the family property would pass, after her eventual death, to her side of the family. She was a threat to the financial, social and economic stability of her in-laws. Her only value was as a negotiable item. For those priests, their only concern was to make sure that the dead man’s family could hold to the dead man’s property.

No one considered that the death of husband before she ever had children deprived this woman of love, took away her hopes for the future, shattered her confidence, left her lonely and feeling forsaken. As she heard the religious leaders of the day using her case as a means of entrapment, as a little in-joke among the religious leaders of the day, would it be surprising at all, if her religious faith, her faith in God, had been shattered too?

In his answer, Jesus affirms the value of every life. Long after the memories of the dead have faded away, and their grandchildren have forgotten them, long after their names are forgotten among those to whom they might have been uncles or aunts, long after politicians and diplomats have doled out their limited dollops of compassion and have allowed old soldiers and old widows to die and fade away, they will be like angels and children of God, children of the Resurrection, and to God all of them shall be alive.

The inquisitors of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel story are caught showing no charity and no love, no understanding of hope and the need for hope. And they are exposed, therefore, as totally lacking in faith.

The test of our faith lies in how we exercise the gifts and faith, hope and love. The test for any society of its core values must be in how it respects and meets the needs, cares, for its most vulnerable members, especially needy children, and elderly people like our widows. The trumpet call at Remembrance Day must not just be about remembering the dead, but remembering the living too. Do we use those on the margins as political footballs, or perhaps even totally forget them? Or do we realise that they too need our compassion, need the fruits of our gifts of faith, and of hope, and of love? For by our actions we will show whether or not we believe in God who is the God of the living, and who sees us all as children of the Resurrection.

+ And now may all praise, honour and glory be to that eternal God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This semon was preached in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Remebrance Day, Sunday 11 November 2007.