Saturday, 11 November 2017

The poppy and the cross. A talk for remembrance Sunday

Romans 8.31-39



The poppy is a great symbol for today.

In a few minutes we are going to read Flanders Field – it is the poem by John McCrae, the Canadian, which more than anything else has linked the poppy with remembrance

McRae wrote the poem after he performed a battlefield burial service for his friend Alexis Helmer. And he saw that it was the poppy which grew on the graves of those who had died at Ypres

It is red – a symbol of blood given, and a symbol of sacrifice.

And as we wear the poppy, we come to remember and honour those who gave their lives serving their country, in the First World War, in the Second World War or what is known here as the Great Patriotic War, and in subsequent conflicts.
And we also remember and honour those who have been willing to make that sacrifice, who have put their lives at risk in the service of their countries. We honour you, и уважаемые дорогие гости, мы очень рады что вы здесь с нами сегодня, и мы почтим вас за вашей службы для вашей страны

Today is about a general remembering, a recognition of the horror of war and all that it causes: the massive casualties, the broken lives and the utter devastation.

On Friday we had an act of remembrance at the British embassy. Friday, 10th November, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the battle of Passchendaele. It was a battle which left about 700000 men, from both sides, dead or injured.

But it is more than that.
It is not just a general remembering. It is about a specific remembering. It is about individuals.
In St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds we had the funerals of two men killed in action – Lance Corporal Adam Drane and senior aircraftsman Luke Southgate, and I saw the devastation that it brought to their families.
And for many of you today is very real. Some of you were telling me of comrades and of friends. People you knew, who you served beside, and who were killed, some even on Remembrance Sunday.
And here in Russia, where the sheer numbers of the dead are unimaginable, those numbers are given faces, quite literally, in the march of the immortal regiment.

The poppy is a good symbol for this day.
It is a symbol of blood given, of sacrifice.
But it is also a symbol of hope.
It was the poppy that first grew on the war-scarred fields of Flandersю
Beauty growing out of devastation. Life coming out of death.

And for those of us who have a Christian faith, there is a substance to that hope.

I guess we can put alongside the symbol of the poppy – the symbol of the cross.

The cross and the image of Jesus hanging on the cross speaks to us of death.
The cross was an instrument of torture, and an instrument of execution. We need to be aware that when we wear chains with small crosses on the end, it is a bit like wearing chains with the hang man’s noose on the end.  
And the cross speaks of hatred and cruelty, of our blindness to God and to each other, and of political cowardice and judicial murder. It exposes our self-centred pride, our lusts and our fear.

But the cross also speaks to us of love, of blood given, of a life laid down for others.
It reminds us that God loved the world so much that he sent his only son to die for us.
It speaks of how precious each human life is to him, of how precious you are to him.
And the cross speaks of the incredible courage of Jesus who was willing to go through the humiliation and agony of crucifixion, even though he didn’t need to, and it speaks of the victory of humility and service and self-sacrifice.

And the cross, as our reading from Romans 8.31-39 makes clear, speaks to us of hope.
We have, on the Lord’s table, an empty cross. It is empty because three days after he died and was buried, we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And that means that life has conquered death, and he is alive: “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who [or what] will separate us from the love of Christ?”

Three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Passchendaele memorial when our choir went on tour in Belgium. We saw the fields of Flanders. They were green and beautiful.  So very different from what they would have looked like 100 years ago.

James McConnell, an American pilot, described the scene as he flew over one of the great battlefields of World War 1:
“Immediately east and north of Verdun there lies a broad, brown band ... Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago... Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. it seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together... On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked that they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.”

And yet in the midst of this hell on earth, this ecological and human wasteland, the first flower began to grow, the poppy – a sign that God had not given up on us


And our reading speaks of how the believer can be certain that God has not given up on us; that he is with us, that he is for us; and that nothing, not even death, can separate us from his love - that love which does not simply wish to take us and cherish us, but that wants to work in us and change us, which wants to take the wreckage of our barren and twisted and torn lives and transform us into the likeness of the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ. 

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