A Sermon preached at the Annual Remembrance Service
Fiona and I holidayed this summer in Pembrokeshire, and fell in love with it. We spent a good deal of time simply driving around, exploring and enjoying the stunning coastline which is one of the glories of Wales. Driving on one occasion out of Milford Haven we came across the village of Herbrandston. On the surface it seemed like any other village – but one thing intrigued us. As we entered the village the sign announcing that we were entering Herbrandston had another sign underneath it. It simply said ‘Doubly thankful.’ We didn’t know what this meant – and so, in the manner of pilgrims through the ages, we googled it. What we read amazed and moved us. For a community to describe itself as ‘Doubly Thankful’ indicates that no members of that community were lost in either of the world wars of the twentieth century. There is no war memorial, because there was no one from Herbrandston lost either in the Great War or the Second World War.
After The Great War there were 32 villages who lost no-one. After World War 2 there were 14 Doubly Thankful villages. They are all in England and Wales – none in Scotland. There are, at the last count, 4520 villages in the United Kingdom. The conclusion is that over 4500 villages – not to mention towns and cities – lost sons, brothers, fathers. The grief of the entire nation lives on, and growing out of this, a sacred respect and admiration for those whose lives were taken, in the most atrocious of circumstances. Incidentally, there is only one village in France who did not lose anyone in either conflict.
I am always glad when I see children and young people present to mark Armistice, and Remembrance. On Friday I was present at a wonderful Remembrance Assembly at Spring Vale School. Well done to you all for being here. I say this for three reasons. First of all, it is so important that the legacy of these dreadful conflicts – and of conflicts since 1945 – is remembered, and rehearsed, and passed on from one generation to another. That legacy is both loss, and gain. The loss is the dead, taken in the prime of active life. The gain is the world in which we live, the inheritance of the loss, the freedoms which we enjoy and which have been kept at such a high cost. The world in which we live is a markedly different one from the world we could have had if things had been different. But the second, and the quality important reason is to mark the fact that the cost of war is the highest cost possible – the cost of human life. In the Great War an estimated 17 million people died, 7 million of whom were civilians. In World War 2 that number rose to 60 million, which constituted 3% of the population of the entire planet. The scale of the casualty list in both wars takes the breath away.
The third reason is that the casualty list doesn’t end in 1945. Since then, Britain has lost service personnel in India, Palestine, Malaya, Suez, Kenya, Cyprus, Borneo, Vietnam, Aden, Radfan, Omar, Dhofar, Northern Ireland, The Falklands, the First Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in this country. These conflicts bring us right up to the present day. There are still victims, still casualties, whose deaths we remember this weekend, and those whose life-changing injuries affect the rest of their lives. There are victims of post traumatic stress disorder, and those with the unseen scars of mental illness. There are those left behind, those who mourn, husbands and wives, children and parents. We honour the dead, and we remember to care for the living. Our remembrance now stretches back more than a century to conflicts where we have no remaining combatants among us – and it comes forward to those conflicts which sit in the memory.
Our task today is to pray. It is to pray in a spirit of remembrance. We recall that today is about the worst of the human condition – the frailty and sin of the world, its greed and evil divisions. We come to lay those at the foot of the cross on which Jesus died, and we ask for forgiveness for ourselves, and for the whole world. We aspire to make the world a better place; praying for world leaders that they may seek the common good, that they and we might be people of peace and reconciliation, and that all people might live in security, prosperity and peace.
We recall that today is also about the best of the human condition; heroism, bravery under unspeakable circumstances, comradeship, and ultimately the self-sacrifice which reflects that of Jesus Christ. ‘Greater love has no-one than this’ said Jesus ‘that someone lays down their life for their friends’. This, of course, is what Jesus did – a moment forever recalled in the rood above me – Jesus, at the moment of his death, a life given for you, for me, for the life of the whole world; his death destroyed the power of sin for ever, and his life provides the means by which we too can defeat sin and evil in our own lives.
But for today, we, like the village of Herbrandston, are doubly thankful; thankful for all who have lost their lives, or been injured, in armed conflict; and thankful also that in Jesus Christ we rejoice in the ultimate victory – the one which breaks through human sin, and enables us to share in the glorious and wonderful life made ready for us since before the dawn of time.