The Poppy

A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2017

poppyIt seems to happen every year.

The lead up to this weekend has been marked by a series of stories designed to make us think that we are a civilisation going rapidly downhill. It’s a favourite media ploy, which this year takes the form of reports that one in five people between the ages of 18 and 24 will ‘snub’ (that’s the word the Daily Star uses) the wearing of a red poppy. this weekend, believing that it glorifies war. Then again, it depends on what you read. For Daily Mail readers, the picture is worse, because one third of young people will have rejected the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

Symbols – and symbolism – matter to us. The red poppy is a reminder to us, every year, of the horror of war. It forces us to remember an aspect of human nature we would rather forget.  Ask anyone in the armed forces who now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder whether they are glad to remember, and the answer is obvious. They don’t want to remember because the memory of warfare is too painful to articulate. I’ve never met anyone in the armed forces who wanted to put themselves in harm’s way. People do so because it is believed to be necessary, and so they do it.  And a price is paid for that – a price in human life, or limb, or sanity, or forever afflicted by the experience – what they have seen, what they have heard. W.B. Yeats called warfare ‘a terrible beauty’ – terrible because of the sheer horror, beautiful because it demonstrates the very best of human virtue – that of giving away your life for a greater purpose. It is the least selfish thing a person can do – to give up your being, your own hopes and dreams to ensure that others can have exactly what you lose. The Kohima Epitaph, first coined by English classicist John Maxwell Edmonds, sums up what I’m trying to say.

When you go home,

Tell them of us, and say

For their tomorrow

We gave our today.

It’s hard to imagine that the land forces at the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendale, 100 years ago this year, and one of the most appalling battles of the First World War, wanted to lose their lives, or did so on a whim, or found their circumstances glorious. It’s impossible to imagine D-Day landing forces in landing crafts, waiting for the door to be released so that they were cut down by unimaginable enemy fire on Omaha beach, actually wanting to be there. And equally impossible, to my mind, that anyone in their right mind would think the business of war itself remotely glorious. What is glorious, in all those places and many others, is the courage, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the conflicts involved, or the nature of the enemy. They overcame terror, and fear, and appalling conditions, and inhuman circumstances, to do a job. Our coming together today is the very opposite of glorifying war.

We actually have the rest of the year to debate the rights and wrongs of going to war. We will have our own opinions as to whether it is right use force, or violence, in the face of threats to security or freedom. Ironically, this weekend is the one time when that debate should stop, and we should stop too. We should stop and remember: we should count our blessings, the lives we live, the things we enjoy, because of those who went before us. We should stop the wrangling about it all, and just stop.  And in the rare silence, we should allow ourselves reflection, and respect, and concern for those who have paid heavily for the lives we live.

Our second reading encapsulates what it mean to live as a Christian person in this and every age – brilliant, condensed wisdom from Jesus who reminds us that God is with us to bless us, to help us to flourish. Today those who are poor in spirit – the humble, the lowly, are raised up in God’s presence. There is special care and blessing for those who mourn – that great multitude, and especially those who have lost loved ones in conflict. The meek – those who seek to do no harm in the world, but whose presence transforms those around them – they are blessed as well. Those who long for the world to be a righteous and a just place receive blessing from God, as do those who show mercy in the face of the slights of others. Those who seek to live good lives in the midst of squalor are there as well, as are the ones who risk everything for peace, and those who are persecuted and pay a price for who they are.

When I wear the red poppy – the flower for ever to be connected with the slaughter of the Western Front during the First World War – I wear it with sorrow – sorrow for the slaughter, for the collateral damage, for lives destroyed and families cut apart and all the fallout which comes from armed conflict. I have never fought in a war, which makes me admire all the more those who have, those who do.  And so we come together to grieve.

When I wear the red poppy, I wear it with shame, that the species I belong to is capable for such horror. I remember reading somewhere that human beings are one of only two species who declare war on each other. The other species? Ants. I am ashamed that we cannot find a way of resolving our problems without violence, or that it’s the only language we ultimately understand.  And so we come together to say that we are sorry, to ask forgiveness.

When I wear the red poppy, I wear it with pride, for the spirit, the courage, the bravery which those who have been to war display. I am proud to belong to a race capable of such things, and of such acts of heroic self-sacrifice, and I become aware that I owe an enormous debt. Those who died did so so that I could live in a world where I have the luxury of choice as to whether I go to war or not, a luxury they didn’t enjoy. And so we come together to give thanks.

When I wear the red poppy, I do so with an increasing sense of moral responsibility for those who continue to suffer as a result of war: those whose wounds are visible, and those whose wounds we cannot see. So many individuals and families are fighting a new battle every day, as they seek to triumph over the adversity of disability. The Invictus games, so strongly supported by Prince Harry, are a wonderful example of this.  And so we come together to pledge to work together for a better world. We seek to be people of peace. There is no conflict between being people of peace and being people who remember.

When I wear the red poppy, I look back – to the horrors of two world wars, the conflicts across the globe sine then, and the sacrifices made by so many. Inevitably remembering involves looking back. It also involves looking forward, to doing whatever we can to promote peace and prosperity in a  world which seems very troubled. But for now, this morning, we inhabit the present moment, a moment of stillness and recollection in which we contemplate all the poppy stands for, and remember, and give thanks to God, both for their sacrifice, and for his promise of eternal life open to all through Jesus Christ.


Preached at Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, 12 November 2017


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