Remembrance Sunday 2020. The Rector, Fr Simon.
This Sermon followed the gospel reading : Matthew 25: 1-13, The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
The parable is a call to readiness; a summons to live not in fear, but in anticipation of the arrival of the bridegroom. The only thing to fear is of not being ready and missing the bridegroom – who is of course Jesus. This parable is about being ready to welcome and receive Christ- whether in the flesh as he was 2,000 years ago, at his return at the end of time, or as he shows up to us in the faces of those we encounter in our daily lives. But parables rarely have one application and within this parable lies a warning which,I think, we can apply to many circumstances about the need to be vigilant and ready, both for the things we might reasonably anticipate and the things we might not. As the motto read on my cub scout badge ‘Be Prepared’.
Someone recently pointed out to me that when the Church of England revised its worship books at the end of the 1970’s, unlike all previous prayer books, it contained no prayers to be used in a time of plague or national sickness. It was assumed that the days of such things were over. That particular and unwelcome Bridegroom had not come for a generation and was considered unlikely to show up now. Well, how wrong that has been proved to be. It reminds me of the Roman general Vetegius who famously wrote “in peace prepare for war”. Vetegius’ observation was that, before the fall of the Roman Empire and during a long time of peace it had ceased wearing its protective armour. This made them vulnerable to an enemy for whom they were unprepared.
Vegetius therefore concluded that the time to prepare for war is not when war is imminent but rather when times are peaceful, and indeed a strong peacetime army could signal to would-be attackers that the battle may not be worth trying to fight.
I’m not suggesting that if the Church of England had been armed with one particular prayer, or the NHS stocked with sufficient PPE the coronavirus would have seen us and fled, but we would have been better prepared to face it. But, we had come to imagine we were immune to such things. As in times of peace we should prepare for war, so in times of health we should prepare for sickness.
Today we remember the sacrifice of millions of men and women who responded to the call of a nation that seemed to live alert to the possibility that war could shatter peace-time. Women and men who were prepared: prepared to give themselves for the sake of their country, to fight against evil, to try and secure peace for the loved ones whom they bravely left behind- prepared for the unthinkable reality that they might never see them again. They understood the reality of the threat and were quick to respond in huge numbers; how differently we in our day, have been slow to respond to the threat imposed on the world by this virus, whose approach we were unprepared for and slow to respond to, and which some still need persuading of its danger.
Reading a book about London in the blitz a few years ago I was astonished to read that even as bombs fell across the West End, one of which destroyed the interior of this church and another the fire station on Shaftesbury Avenue, even as the bombs fell buses still trundled along the Strand. The theatres were closed, as they are now, with the exception of the Windmill which famously ‘never shut’, but much of life continued, as people lived afraid but not in fear: alert to the dangers but not paralysed in terror. Those who could, stepped up to fight the enemy, though it must have felt like a very invisible enemy to the Shropshire farmworkers who put down their pitchforks in peaceful countryside to bear arms; whilst those who could not, simply took the precautions they could to protect their neighbours and families, volunteered in their communities and carried on as best they could.
It strikes me, and the omission from some prayer books maybe reflects this, that we no longer live with any sense of things either beyond our expectation or beyond our control. And when I say ‘our control’ aren’t we often working on the expectation and assumption that it is someone else’s responsibility to take control of the situation for us? Those whom we remember today, we do with sorrow at their deaths and also great admiration and gratitude that they did not leave fighting the foes to others, but stepped up themselves to face the horrors of war in the hope of peace for us.
Yes, in peace we should be prepared for war, in health be ready for sickness and I would add in life be prepared for death. But, as before, not fearfully. Though in our youth we may feel immortal and invincible, we know that, in time, death will come to us all – and at a time as uncertain as the bridegroom’s arrival in the parable. We may discern signs of its approach – some bridegrooms after all are very heavy footed- but for many it may creep up unawares. One of my favourite prayers in the long sequence of prayers called the Litany asks that we will be ‘prevented from dying unprepared’. It does so, not just in the hope that we do not leave this world with things left unsaid, amends unmade, or untidy affairs for our next of kin to untangle. It does so because the gospel, the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus Christ assures us that, if we live truly prepared for it, then we need not fear it.
We should, as the line of the hymn puts it ‘live this day as if thy last’. It is an invitation to be prepared (there’s that word again!) fully, not fearfully, making the most of each day, relishing each face, each flower or autumn leaf (each raindrop) as something of life-giving beauty, whilst making peace with any with whom we have been at war. Living each day as if our last, unsure which one actually will be, we will be ready for night to come, and trust that because Christ died and was raised again, we too will see dawn in a new and everlasting morning.
The names of those who fought and died in the ‘Great Wars’, as they are called, are engraved on granite monuments and written on family trees across this country and indeed across the world: for people of diverse colours, faiths and countries joined in the fight for good .
They live on in our appreciation and the collective memory of this nation, even when the individual names fade, obscured by the weathering of stone. They, and all they were prepared to do, live on- our liberty is their living and lasting legacy. But the Christian faith is not only of names engraved on fading stone, but of souls- our essence- living on in the presence of God where each are remembered, known and loved, each name engraved on the palm of God’s hand, as the prophet said. And in a place, as Jesus said ‘prepared for his followers’. Yes, God is prepared… prepared to receive us.
May all whom we remember this day, rest in that place prepared for them …and let us live this day with our lamps lit, in faith and hope and at peace with others, prepared, in time, to feast with the bridegroom in the place prepared for us.