Saturday, 24 November 2018

Kingship and Mission

A sermon to be preached tomorrow at Marton, Leighton and Corndon Marsh . . .

When the Common Lectionary was introduced, the last Sunday before Advent was given the theme “Christ the King”. That’s a good note on which to end the church year. This Sunday used to be kept as Bible Sunday, which has now been moved to the last Sunday in October. It was a time to preach about world mission, and I’m still going to do that in this sermon. This coming Thursday is the Day of Intercession for the Missionary Work of the Church; and Friday is St Andrew’s Day, of interest not only to Scots and Russians who claim him as their patron saint, but also to missionaries. Andrew is called the first missionary of the Church, since St John tells us he went to find his brother Simon Peter and brought him to Jesus.

So I want to link kingship and mission, and I’m going to begin with an image popular in the heyday of missionaries in pith helmets and baggy shorts - that of the Christian as a soldier enlisted in the service of God. It’s a New Testament image, but it was made a great deal of in the great days of world mission, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This was the time when hymns were written like 'Soldiers of Christ, Arise' and 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'.

Of course it was also the era of colonialist expansion, and that’s one reason to feel a bit uncomfortable when we sing those hymns today, though on the whole I don’t. “Hymns Old and New” has expunged all warlike language, so that “Christian Soldiers” become “Christian Pilgrims”. There’s nothing wrong with singing about Christian Pilgrims, but it’s a different image, telling a different story. The image of the Christian soldier still has power, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. Soldiers have courage, owe allegiance and follow orders; they’re dutiful, disciplined, and ready to risk their lives.

Pontius Pilate would have understood all of that; as a Roman governor he probably had a background in military service, and he’ll certainly have known the calibre of the troops under his command. He’ll have known a lot about kingship, too. As the emperor’s man he could claim all the honour due to a king in the charge he’d been given. But he didn’t understand this king. “Are you a king, then?” he asked in frustrated puzzlement.

“King is your word,” replied Jesus. But Jesus had said a lot about the kingdom as he taught the people. In those days, kingdoms were as much about allegiance given as geographic boundaries. Yes, a kingdom was the area of land held by a king, but it was also the people who accepted his rule, nobles and commoners who paid tribute and owed allegiance to him.

The kingdom of God is about allegiance. It doesn’t have geographic boundaries. It’s wherever people’s actions, attitude and behaviour prove they’re serving their heavenly King. Its marks are such things as healing, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. People taking risks and living generously in the service of their King. People seeing how Jesus does it, and then doing their best to do the same. Like the disciples after the first Christian Pentecost, they’ll be crossing all kinds of human boundaries; it’s like Jesus told Pontius Pilate: his kingdom is not of this world. A kingdom like that can and must take root anywhere and everywhere. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is recorded as saying to his apostles 'Go, make disciples of all nations' - those are their standing orders, to use a military term.

If we don't like the image of soldiers of Christ, our reading from the Revelation of John gives us another important word:  priest.

Those who follow Jesus and serve him are to be a kingdom of priests. So what’s so special about a priest? Well, priests are called to be a link between the people and God, and between God and the people. Priests are called to speak and do God’s word so the world gets to hear it, and to speak for the people to God, and to pray for those who need praying for, including those who can’t or won’t pray themselves. But that’s not just my call; this is what God’s calling everyone in his Church to be - we’re to be go-betweens and servants. In the things we say and do and in the way we live we’re to bring people to know, right where they are, the saving and transforming love of God.

I spent three happy years working for USPG, one of the oldest missionary societies, founded by a son of these parishes, Thomas Bray. More than three hundred years ago, the first missionaries of his new society crossed the Atlantic to serve congregations in the new colonies of America. And ever since then, USPG has been encouraging and resourcing world mission. You might think of missionaries as Christian soldiers going courageously with the Gospel into new and perhaps dangerous situations; you may think of them as priests, going out to serve and pray and teach. But the stories of their courage and devotion are the real deal.

In our changing world, mission still happens, but maybe not in quite the same way it used to. In our Diocese the links we have with Tanzania and Nuremberg and elsewhere are about belonging and journeying together, doing mission together: so we receive as much as give, and we welcome as often as we send. That’s true for USPG and the other mission agencies too. USPG might send a priest from Brazil to work in Angola, or a Filipino teacher to serve in South Africa. In the a rich variety of modern practice, mission is now from everywhere to everywhere.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to visit mission projects in Brazil, Peru, Tanzania and Palestine. In each of these places I came across some amazing stories of faith. I also found people working with and ministering to people who really do live on the edge: in shanty towns in Brazil and Peru, on the wrong side of walls and check points in Palestine, and in places of poverty in Tanzania, where resources and opportunities are few. And that’s where mission should be, I guess, because we serve a king who revealed his glory in just those kind of places: on the edge of things, and among vulnerable and hurting people whom others often excluded.
“We have a King who rides a donkey, and his name is Jesus,” the children in school will sing around Easter time. Jesus showed his hand most clearly when he rode into town on that donkey. There was a prophecy that God’s chosen one would do that - so Jesus was certainly declaring himself as king - but by choosing that prophecy he also showed the crowds what kind of king he would be. “I am among you as one who serves,” he told his disciples. “So the greatest among you will be the one who is servant of all.” So we’ll serve him by being like him. We’ll serve him by taking his example to heart. God’s kingdom is declared wherever in our troubled and broken world Christian folk are doing that, wherever we’re following the king who chose to ride a donkey, the king with time and good news to share with the poorest who came to him. This world’s kings and kingdoms will fail us; if they don’t fall in battle, they will fall to the ravages of time. But we have a different king, and his doesn’t follow the rules of this world. It’s a kingdom that grows in secret; it’s a kingdom the takes root anywhere; it’s a kingdom that grows heart by heart.

Nature Notes . . . Frosty Mornings and Winter Birds

My contribution to local community magazines for November . . .

I find I don’t much care how cold it is in winter, so long as the air is still. It’s the wind I don’t like! A good frosty day can be great walking weather, and the crunch underfoot is far better than the slurping sound of mud sucking at your boots.

Cold frosty days are really tough for wildlife, though, and we do need to make sure we provide for the birds and other creatures that visit our gardens. As long as we’ve lagged our pipes, we have water on tap, but hard frosts mean there’s nothing for birds to drink or to wash in. If you have a bird batch, keep it ice free and freshly supplied with water each day, and the birds will be very grateful! You can get some anti-freeze additives these days that are designed to be added to water put out for birds, without being harmful to them. I’ve only seen them, and haven’t used them, so I don’t know how effective they are, but I imagine they could be useful.

The winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares, have arrived in some force. Driving over the top of the Long Mountain a week or two back, I simply had to stop the car and watch as wave after wave of fieldfares swept across, bouncing in and out of the hedges either side of the road. Redwings have been in our churchyards in some numbers, tackling the berries. When I had a big vicarage garden I used to get them there too, but these days the weather has to be really hard before I see them in my back yard!

Quite a few blackbirds and mistle thrushes also arrive as winter visitors, so you’ll see more of them in the winter than through the rest of the year. But the bird I’m hoping to see this year is the bright and exotic waxwing. These starling-sized birds arrive in some numbers every winter from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds, but in some years you can get a lot, and some experts are speculating that this could be a “waxwing winter”. That’s when you start to get them this far west in the UK (“our” birds having mostly travelled from Finland).

They arrive and travel in flocks, and are quite distinctive, a pinkish buff-brown in colour, with a prominent crest and a black band across the eyes. The throat is also black, and the very tip of the tail bright yellow. The name comes from the red tips to its flight feathers that look like blobs of old-fashioned sealing-wax.

Waxwings love rowan berries, and this year we do have some in our garden, so who knows? But the place to see them these days is (would you believe) supermarket car parks. That’s because these are usually planted with good berry-producing bushes, just the kind of things waxwings love. So if you see a load of people with binoculars in the car park of your local Tesco or Morrison’s, look out for a mob of pinky-brown birds with crests!

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Such great stones

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, is pretty much all that’s left of the great temple built by Herod the Great. But even though all that remains is the retaining wall of the platform on which the temple was built in about 20 BC, you can still get an idea of the immensity of the original. Visitors will see the huge blocks of white stone, superbly cut and precisely fitted. Some of the stones of the temple itself were more than 60 feet long, and higher than the tallest man. It was a building project so big that the temple was still not entirely complete when Jesus and his disciples were there to see it.

But just a few years later all that mighty building lay in ruins, along with the rest of Jerusalem, following the Jewish revolt against Rome. In its place the victorious Romans raised the city of Aeolia Capitolana. 

We don’t know exactly when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, but probably Herod’s temple was still standing, since the author of Hebrews writes a lot about the rituals that took place there, rituals which had to be repeated day after day, unlike the one perfect and complete sacrifice made by Jesus.

He writes that God’s salvation can’t ever come from the empty rituals and repeated sacrifices done by the temple priests; our salvation is achieved, and God’s saving love made known, only by the blood of Jesus, only in the one true sacrifice he has made, the perfect victim offered by the perfect priest. it is this that has opened the curtain, once and for all. Those who first read Hebrews will have known what curtain he meant: the veil that closed off the Holy of Holies in the midst of the temple. Only those priests who had performed the required ritual cleansing were allowed to enter the veil. But when we read the Gospel stories of the events of the first Good Friday, we find that as Jesus dies on the cross of Calvary, the veil of the temple was torn in two. 

For at the moment of crucifixion all that separated God from his human creation was set aside, in a once and for all act of love. This is the very heart of our Christian faith - that we’re saved by God’s decisive action, and not through our own goodness or achievements, or by the keeping of any law. This is the unique insight of our faith.

“Tower and temple fall to dust” to quote from one of the hymns we sing. When the disciples saw those huge stones, the temple must have seemed the pinnacle of human art and achievement; how could something so immense not stand for ever? But of course it would fall. Nothing built by human hands can stand for ever; all we have and all we are will fall to the ravages of time.

What Jesus said was that not one stone of the temple would be left standing on another. The disciples were shocked and alarmed. When will all this happen, they asked. People are asking the same sort of thing just now, in the political turmoil in which our nation finds itself. What’s going to happen next? Where will it all lead? And those who try and read the signs and interpret the future are working flat out. When will it all happen? Well, Jesus never actually answered that question when his disciples asked it. What he did tell them was to take great care. "Don't be deceived”, he said. “Don't be deceived by those who come claiming my name and my authority, but who would lead you astray."

I think that Jesus is telling us not to fix our minds on what will happen or when it will take place. After all, he says that “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” It’s been rightly said that we can’t re-live yesterday and we can’t guarantee tomorrow. Now is all we have. Of course, not to think at all about the future, or care at all about the past would be foolish. But the essential time of decision is now; no-one should put off till tomorrow what can and should be done today.

Human history is littered with the remains of thrones and dominions, empires that would last for ever, thousand year reichs.  The Romans employed soothsayers to look into the future - their techniques included sifting through the entrails of chickens, which I suspect was hardly less accurate than our modern efforts using think tanks and focus groups and computer models.

How much time do we really have? A couple or three weeks ago, when we put our clocks back, I was once again reminded just how many clocks I own. Wristwatches, clocks on mobile phones and computers, on the cooker, in my car, and of course on shelves and window ledges and bedside tables. Or do they own me? I worry about being late, maybe missing my bus or train or plane. We are I think prisoners of time, only too aware of the clock ticking away. I may carefully measure out the time, the only bit of it I really have is this moment, now. And then this one. And then this.

An African priest once told me, “You Europeans have clocks, but we Africans have time.” But maybe this hour at God's table on a Sunday should be about time and not clocks. Here we replace the clocks that enslave us with the eternity of God. Christ promises to be with us when we break bread in his name; he invites us to meet with him creatively as the present moment connects with the timelessness of heaven. As we meet at his table we’re brought into the presence of his all-embracing and self-offering love. 

And when we respond, when we offer ourselves to him, and set aside our own ideas about how the future should or shouldn’t be, his grace begins a building process in us. Jesus calls us to build a living temple, not made from huge blocks of stone, but from what we are together in Christ. From mutual service, from our regular meeting with Jesus, from our openness to his love. Mere stones and mortar won’t form a temple worthy of his indwelling Spirit. But the plans for the temple he desires are here for us to read, and then to build; and on every page we find the imprint of the cross.

Friday, 16 November 2018


Bone-weary, parched and dry,
lost on a desert road:
thorns tear my shabby robes,
while duty’s dismal load
holds nothing to reveal his face,
nor speaks to me of healing grace.

With living waters, Lord,
refresh my soul from death;
be brightness to my eyes,
restore my failing breath:
draw from my lips faith’s sweeter lays,
disturb my drabness into praise.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Pulling Weeds for Grandad

We were pulling weeds for grandad, on a bright and sunny day,
hunting down the cabbage rows, a mix of work and play:
we’d feed the chickweed to the chickens, thread the daisies into chains,
then get stung by little nettles, find a dock to soothe our pains;
there were pansies, fumitory, shepherd’s purse and pimpernel,
and clocks on dandelions which we blew but didn’t tell,
and at the end of one long row a poppy, bright and red
stood proud among the cabbages close by the rhubarb bed.
I reached to pull it out, but then my grandad raised his hand:
“No, let the poppy stay there, lad - for in another land,
amid the mud and waste and blood, all those long years ago,
when all around was dark and drear I saw the poppies blow.
Their red stands for the sacrifice of those who died too young,
the sweethearts left unmarried and the love songs left unsung.
I’m lucky, I came through it all, I’m here to tell the tale,
but I will not forget those days when all our hopes were frail,
nor friends who fell there at my side, who never made it home.
So wherever I’ve been working, and whatever roads I roam,
I’ll never pull a poppy up, I’ll always let it grow,
for the poppies on the battlefields those many years ago.”

Steps Towards Reconciliation

The meditation presented at Chirbury Church last night, using material made available by the C of E for use this year, with some additions and adaptations.

‘Steps towards Reconciliation’:
A monologue interspersed with words and music

Music  - Welcome and Introduction:                 

[Opening Music  -  "Call of Wisdom" Will Todd]

Welcome. Tonight we mark the centenary of the war that many hoped would end all wars, with a meditation on the theme of reconciliation. Reconciliation requires an honest ‘truth telling’, and the text we use tonight honours the fact that we may only be able to take steps towards that goal. There are seven steps :
Firstly, the need to remember and to look back honestly;
then the voicing of regret and loss;
thirdly that we recognise the humanity of the other, the enemy;
fourthly, that we admit the need first to change our own viewpoint;
then, fifthly, accepting our differences,
sixthly, agreeing to walk together;
and finally, the seventh step, that we come to share a vision.
Each of the ‘steps’ is linked by an imagined monologue, in which, perhaps, a British soldier is speaking to his opposite number in the German army.

An opening prayer:                                                                                   SLIDE 2

O Lord, our maker and our strength,
from whose love in Christ we can never be parted
either by death or defeat:
May our remembrance this day deepen our sorrow
for the loss and wastes of war,
make us more grateful to those who courageously gave their lives
to defend this land and commonwealth;
and may all who bear the scars and memories
of conflicts, past and present, know your healing love
for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

The first step: the need to remember and to look back honestly.

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 3

‘The petals fall and we walk away…But if there is to be any reconciliation, then we must circle back, return to that place where the mud clung to our boots and we shivered, afraid, with enemy fire deafening our ears. We had each other in our sights, you and me, and we cursed to mask the stench of death as we lobbed the grenades and canisters of gas. I could not, would not, picture your face. But, yes, I knew, all right. I’d seen the wounds, raw and bloody red.’

Reading: Wilfrid Owen, Strange Meeting                                          SLIDE 4

Earth’s wheels run oiled with blood. Forget we that.
Let us lie down and dig ourselves in thought.
Beauty is yours and you have mastery,
wisdom is mine, and I have mystery.
We two will stay behind and keep our troth.
Let us forego men’s minds that are brute’s natures,
let us not sup the blood which some say nurtures,
be we not swift with swiftness of the tigress.
Let us break ranks from those who trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
into old citadels that are not walled.
Let us lie out and gold the open truth.
Then when their blood hath clogged the chariot wheels
we will go up and wash them from deep wells.
What though we sink from men as pitchers falling
many will raise us up to be their filling
even from wells we sunk too deep for war
and filled by brows that bled where no wounds are.

 The second step: lament – the voicing of regret and loss

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 5

‘There will be a time, a little distant from now, before the memory totally fades, when we must face the ugliness and disfiguring brutality of war. ‘Oh God!’ we cry, but the sound of our voice is lost in an empty sky…. But evil will be faced, words will wither on the tongue, and we will feel a silent scream deep inside. Such waste, such horror! ‘How did this happen! Why, oh, just why was it allowed to go on and on in its industrial madness – shattering the landscape, razing the town to rubble, and cruelly tossing broken lives aside. The silent cry is irrepressible, and we search here and there for words to voice our complaint: “How lonely sits the city . . . How like a widow she has become  . . . She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; Jerusalem is a wilderness . . . Arise, cry out . . . Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.”
[Lamentations, words from Chapter 1 and 2]

Music:                                                                                          SLIDES 6,  7,  & 8

 ["Agnus Dei" from "The Armed Man" Karl Jenkins]

The third step: recognising the humanity of the enemy

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 9

‘Is it possible for us to meet? Do we have the courage to face each other, to look each other in the eye…Can we meet, as those twins who were enemies from the days when they were in the womb? Can we recognise our kinship, the bond of our shared humanity? With trepidation we take a step towards each other, not knowing what resentments, what recrimination remain in the dying embers of the residual guilt, the anger and the hurt that linger in our hearts. Like Jacob, we walk towards our brother, not knowing just how it will be when we meet. But we will meet, and when we do I will see myself in you, and you will see yourself in me.’

Biblical Reading: Genesis 33, reading from the first verse:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau coming with four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two slave-girls. He put the slave-girls and their children in front, Leah with her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing low to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

Esau ran to meet him and embraced him; he threw his arms round him and kissed him, and they both wept. When Esau caught sight of the women and children, he asked, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob replied, ‘The children whom God has graciously given to your servant.’ The slave-girls came near, each with her children, and they bowed low; then Leah with her children came near and bowed low, and lastly Joseph and Rachel came and bowed low also.

Esau asked, ‘What was all that company of yours that I met?’ ‘It was meant to win favour with you, my lord,’ was the answer. Esau said, ‘I have more than enough. Keep what you have, my brother.’ But Jacob replied, ‘No, please! If I have won your favour, then accept, I pray, this gift from me; for, as you see, I come into your presence as into that of a god, and yet you receive me favourably. Accept this gift which I bring you; for God has been gracious to me, and I have all I want.’ Thus urged, Esau accepted it.

Music ["Thou Knowest, Lord" Bob Chilcott]                                            SLIDE 10

 The fourth step: the first resolve, ‘we must change’

‘This is the imperative of remembrance, the outcome of honestly facing our former enemy. We might protest, and say that it is for them to change. But it isn’t just them. It’s too easy to speak of us and them, to pass the buck and to duck our responsibility. We can’t just load the guilt onto someone else. No, honesty makes its demands. And If I truly recognise myself in you, and you can see yourself in me, then we must both change. For Christ’s sake, I say, I should no longer see, or feel, or think in the way that I did. If I could, just for a moment, see things as you see them, then perhaps, and only perhaps, I could come to act differently.’

Music ["Adagio for Strings" Samuel Barber]                                              SLIDE 11

Biblical Reading: 2 Corinthians 5, verses 16 to 20:

With us, worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer. For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone; a new order has already begun.

All this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us: we implore you in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!

The fifth step: accepting our differences

Monologue:                                                                                         SLIDE 12

‘There is much we share, but in the end, you are not me, and I am not you. This much I now see. So how should I respond? My first word has to be ‘sorry’. But it’s such a heavy, weighted word. It rolls so effortlessly off the tongue, but what a freight of meaning it has to carry! How can it be said? The word just carries too much. But perhaps if we were both to say it, and say it together, then perhaps the word will be heard, the apology will be spoken, received and reciprocated. ‘I am sorry, so sorry’, we cry, ‘sorry for it all.’ There! It is said, and by being sincerely said, the crushing weight is lifted, and we can start to move on.’

Music: ["Lacrimosa" W.A.Mozart]                                                       SLIDE 13

The sixth step: resolving to walk together

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 14

‘You promised to help me, and now I must reciprocate… there will be tasks to share, but first let’s share the stories. Tell me again, where were you from? Where, again, was home for you? Where would you like to travel now? Could we, you and I, journey together, could we keep our feet in step and step out together? Let this be our resolve.’ 

Poem: German Prisoners - Joseph Lee:                                               SLIDE 15

When I first saw you in the curious street,
like some platoon of soldier ghosts in grey,
my mad impulse was all to smite and slay,
to spit upon you, tread you ‘neath my feet.
But when I saw how each sad soul did greet
my gaze with no sign of defiant frown,
how from tired eyes looked spirits broken down,
how each face showed the pale flag of defeat,
and doubt, despair and disillusionment,
and how were grievous wounds on many a head,
and on your garb red-faced was other red;
and how you stooped as men whose strength was spent,
I knew that we had suffered each as other,
and could have grasped your hand and cried, “My brother!”

The seventh step: shared vision - ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 16

‘In what you said I heard another voice, and what I tried to say in a faltering way was to give voice to that other voice. The voice calling us to see. “Open your eyes, cries the voice, open your eyes to see who you could be; open your eyes to see what the world could be. Look out and see, look out and see a world rightly ordered by the mercy, the peace and justice of the eternal Word. The Word that was in the beginning, and that Word that, in the end, will call us home together.’

Biblical Reading: Revelation 21, reading from the first verse:     SLIDE 17

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: ‘Now God has his dwelling with mankind! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!’

The one who sat on the throne said, ‘I am making all things new!’ (‘Write this down,’ he said, ‘for these words are trustworthy and true.’) Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water from the spring of life as a gift. This is the victors’ heritage; and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Prayer:                                                                                                          SLIDE 18

Lead us, good Lord, from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, and from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, and from war to peace.
And so let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.  Amen.                                                                                                           
[Music - "For the Fallen" Douglas Guest]

Saturday, 10 November 2018

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday before Advent

At about this time a few years ago, this description of the “average British soldier” of today was doing the rounds on social media - here’s an edited version:

The average British soldier is 19 years old.....he is a short haired, well built lad who, under normal circumstances would be considered by society as half man, half boy. Not yet dry behind the ears, and just old enough to buy a round of drinks, but old enough to die for his country - and for you. He's not particularly keen on hard work but he'd rather be grafting in Afghanistan than unemployed in the UK . . . He can march until he is told to stop, or stay dead still until he is told to move.

He obeys orders instantly and without hesitation but he is not without a rebellious spirit or a sense of personal dignity. He is confidently self-sufficient. He has two sets of uniform with him: he washes one and wears the other. He keeps his water bottle full and his feet dry. He sometimes forgets to brush his teeth, but never forgets to clean his rifle. He can cook his own meals, mend his own clothes and fix his own hurts. If you are thirsty, he'll share his water with you; if you are hungry, his food is your food. He'll even share his life-saving ammunition with you in the heat of a firefight if you run low . . .
He is the latest in a long thin line of British Fighting Men that have kept this country free for hundreds of years. He asks for nothing from us except our respect, friendship and understanding. We may not like what he does, but sometimes he doesn't like it either - he just has it to do. Remember him always, for he has earned our respect and admiration with his blood. 

I started with that quote, because it reminds us today, Remembrance Sunday, that those we remember from past wars, and those who are there to fight on our behalf today are people; real people. People who feel afraid; people who get hurt, and make mistakes. People who are courageous, resourceful, loyal, obedient, and even heroic.

The readings today are those for today in the church calendar, the Third Sunday before Advent, but the Gospel theme of Jesus calling the first of his disciples seems to me to connect with that image of the soldier. Jesus too called ordinary guys; but what he saw in them and called out of them was obedience, loyalty, immediacy of response, resourcefulness and courage.

One of the hymn books we use in our group, though not at this church, is so anxious not to glorify war that it removes any possible military reference from any hymn. So “onward, Christian soldiers” becomes “onward, Christian pilgrims.” I think that rather emasculates some fine hymns: the analogy between Christian service and warfare is one that goes back a long way, and it’s one that works. Nearly all the first disciples were, we think, martyred, put to death for the faith they proclaimed. They needed the same courage, and the same spirit of sacrifice, as any soldier.

But they, and we, are soldiers in the cause of peace. Today though, one hundred years from the end of what was called the Great War, and by some hopeful people The War to End All Wars, we can’t help but have war in mind. A poem read at a concert I attended on Friday night included the line “every poppy worn stands for a soldier dead”. We remember those who died in defence of our freedom, many of them with the hope of peace and a new world in their hearts.

When you reduce it to the level of real people, war is always a bloody and horrible thing, whatever stories of heroism and service may be told. But the fighting man or woman isn’t there to glorify war. They know too well the reality of it. There's a job to be done, and they do it: not because it's a good thing, and certainly not because God blesses or applauds the wars we fight, but because in the mess that is human life in the real world, sometimes the alternative is even less possible to contemplate. That was certainly true in the two great wars of the last century.

Our God calls us to peace: Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and  at his birth angels sang 'Peace on earth, and goodwill to all.' But what kind of peace? There’s a sort of peace when spears face each other, but are not driven home, or when loaded guns are levelled, but not fired. We remain at peace in this nuclear age just so long as no-one presses the button. That may be the best peace we can manage, but it’s a lot less than the peace God desires for us, and that Jesus called his disciples to teach. Peace in the real world may require the appeasement of tyranny, or that we turn a blind eye to injustice: but such peace can never be God's will.

The peace Jesus calls for begins when we love one another as he loves us. It will rest on foundations of justice and righteousness, in which we aim to be like him. It will require us to care for our neighbour, who might well be on the other wide of the world, or else might be the stranger in our midst. It will need us to be firm in our opposition to all that enslaves, disables or discriminates. It will happen when I refuse to seek my own wellbeing without also  seeking the wellbeing of others. The Bible speaks of spears being beaten into pruning hooks: the things that destroy becoming instead tools for creative activity.

Is that an illusion? In part it is, this side of heaven. But it’s a declaration of the kingdom of God. It’s what Jesus called those first disciples to do. In the real world of real people, it's a risky endeavour, leaving us open to the jeers of those who call us fools. But when Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers" he meant it. He called his first disciples, and he calls us too, to build the foundations on which true peace can stand.

The names we read as we fall into silence today deserve the same of us. They helped to oppose and beat back a great evil. And we honour the dreams they had - of peace, and of a better world, and of an end to war. May our godly passion for justice and peace be worthy of their service and sacrifice. Amen.