Remembrance Sunday is two things. It is something we do together and something which is intensely personal for each one of us. We each bring our own thoughts and experience to it.
I am wearing my Somme poppy in memory of my Grandad. I knew he was a soldier in the First World War but I only found out this year, in a chance conversation with my cousin, that Grandad fought in the Somme. Men of his generation did not talk about these things. By the time I came along there had been another war, the Second World War and people were tired of it all. They wanted to leave war behind as the nation set about rebuilding itself after the loss and the trauma and the bombings. Poor Grandad. His was the war that was meant to end all wars and it had failed.
I didn’t understand. To me he was just Grandad, genial and rather overweight with a ruddy complexion and a liking for cheese; the other half of Grandma’s Darby and Joan act.
Because my father was disabled Grandad would come and help with decorating and any heavy jobs that needed doing in our house or garden. I had no idea I would come to regard him as a hero.
Grandad used to like an afternoon nap and he would tend to sleep with his mouth open. One day this was just too tempting for a mischievous little girl with a small, plastic submarine in her hand. In went the submarine and I’m ashamed to say Grandad woke up rather abruptly, spluttering. I wouldn’t recommend it – it could have been quite dangerous!
Grandad was simply part of my childhood and yet, perhaps like some of us here today, Grandad carried inside him a burden too terrible to be spoken about.
My cousin told me that she and her father once visited the Imperial War Museum with Grandad. The entered a room with a large painting depicting soldiers from the First World War, walking in a line with their hands on one another’s shoulders because they had been gassed and couldn’t see. The memories came flooding back and Grandad broke down and cried.
That’s the point isn’t it? All those who volunteer or are conscripted to serve our country in time of war are someone’s child, someone’s husband or wife, someone’s brother or sister, someone’s mum, dad or even grandad. Ordinary people called to dig very deep in time of trouble; to face unspeakable fears, unspeakable dangers. This comes at a great personal cost and changes us forever.
Perhaps it is easier for us to think about and talk about the First World War because it is one step removed us. And yet the cost of war, the senseless tragedy of war remains unchanged.
My son did a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. He told me that on Remembrance Day he always remembers the member of his patrol unit of four, who took his own life on Christmas Day a couple of years afterwards.
Despite what they went through, the region continues to be ravaged by violence, with many innocent lives being lost and people, many of them children, fleeing for their lives. My son will be asking himself the same question his Great-Grandfather asked before him. “Was it worth it?”
Whatever doubts we may have, however, we must never doubt the courage and integrity with which our young men and women have gone to war, nor the price that they have paid for doing so; the very fact that in the prime of their lives they have done this on behalf of all of us this and have been ready to lay down their lives if necessary in defence of freedom and to protect the innocent.
Greater love than this hath no man but that he lay down his life for his friends.
We come into church today with all our troubled thoughts, hurts and dilemmas as we ponder these things in today’s war-torn world. We can’t know the answers. But we can put our trust in the one who knows what is in our hearts. The one who alone can bring healing, forgiveness and peace to both people and nations. The one who has overcome death for us and who promises that one day swords will be beaten into ploughshares and the wolf will lie down with the lamb.