While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
For many people alive today, remembrance is something that happens at a bit of a distance. Apart from the war in Afghanistan, most of us have never experienced war, have never had to serve in a battle whether on land, sea or air.
We’ve heard the stories of what it was like on the “home front”: the rationing, the drills, the blackouts, the constant reminder that “loose lips sink ships”, the encouragement to look out for spies and to report them.
The first time I ever saw armed soldiers on the streets was in Montreal during the October crisis in 1970. I was 11 and it was a total shock; like something on the news – but it was real life.
I don’t know what it was like to have a loved on overseas and to worry that the knock might come at the door to announce that they were wounded or killed. But I did grow up near the veterans’ hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and I saw the scars, physical and mental, on some of the permanent patients there who were able to leave the hospital and visit town.
People have remarked that this COVID pandemic is the modern equivalent: the time to rally us together to resist a common foe, to sacrifice things, to endure things for the benefit of our whole society.
I don’t have a problem with that idea if it really does get people to cooperate and be careful. There is real sacrifice happening; people really are suffering isolation and becoming very fearful in some cases.
But I can also see how people are struggling against the rules, resisting the limitations imposed and how that is resulting in more infections. I wonder how much of that also went on during the great wars of the 20th century when the sacrifices dragged on for years.
What we are experiencing is real, and hard, and it still doesn’t compare to the war experiences I have heard about and what some among us remember themselves, having lived through those times.
I can barely imagine what it must have been like at the end of WWI when the world had to deal with a world war and the pandemic of the Spanish Flu at exactly the same time.
We have much greater understanding of things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now and have seen how some individual lives have been torn apart by specific tragedies. In the 1960s I saw soldiers who suffered from “Shell Shock”, survivors of WWII, but my imagination is staggered at the thought of what the trauma of so many years of war and tragedy must have done to our whole society.
Maybe our experience right now can give us a small taste and we can use our imaginations to fill in the gaps; to try to remember in a way that goes beyond facts and figures and reaches towards a real empathy for what people went through. And as I remind us each year –
we do have people among us who can tell us what it was like. Our new experiences might help us listen to their stories differently, and remember better.
Our scripture lessons are not special ones set aside for Remembrance, they just happened to be in the lectionary for this day; but they are so fitting!
Our Amos lesson feels dark. It is a warning to faithful people that empty rituals are not what God wants and that if we live unjust lives God will not be pleased with us.
The second world war became a massive struggle for justice and the atrocities of the Nazis were hard for people to believe even when they saw the evidence with their own eyes. We can trace the rise of the Nazis to the unjust terms of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI which placed an unsustainable burden on the losing powers of that war.
Historically we see injustices leading to worse injustices, which led to very dark days indeed. In Amos we have a passage from thousands of years earlier where we are called to prevent this very kind of thing; where we are told that God wants us to let justice flow freely. That’s a challenging call, especially when making peace after a war: to imagine what justice looks like when we’ve just been at each other’s throats; when we’ve pumped out propaganda with nasty names and built up a climate of distrust and paranoia.
But that is our call and has been for centuries. Think of all we could have avoided if we had truly made this happen.
Our lesson from 1 Thessalonians is also very relevant: Paul is comforting the Thessalonian church about people who have died. They expected Jesus to return and bring in the kingdom of God and yet faithful people who waited in that hope had passed away.
This passage is the one used to justify the idea of the Rapture where some believe that a bunch of believers will be whisked off Earth to Heaven in the end times. But as Brandon Scott told us a number of years ago when he preached here at Knox, this passage is actually quite different than that. It is almost a military scenario: Christ giving a command; the trumpet of God sounding.
What’s happening is like the arrival of a liberating army. Those who have died will be gathered up first, which is an important understanding because it reassures people both then and now that those who have died are not truly gone; they have not vanished from existence, but will share in the resurrection life of Jesus.
Then the faithful still alive are pulled up into the clouds, not to depart but to greet the new king and welcome him and his liberating army into this world that has been ruled by injustice and terror for too long, and set up the perfect creation which is God’s vision for the world.
Obviously, our expectations about the second coming have changed.
We are not living in breathless anticipation as people were then, but some principles from this teaching still apply today.
The expectation that those who die will share in the resurrection life of Jesus is still with us. Paul saw this in terms that he called “a spiritual body”; a new form of living that is as advanced from these bodies as a full-grown oak tree is from an acorn. He even uses the seed and grown plant image to give us a way to think about what is to come. (I Corinthians, ch. 15)
And the expectation that this world is where our job is, is very much alive today. The idea of creating justice has never gone away, even in the vision of a dramatic second coming. It wasn’t to leave a damaged shell of a sinful world behind; it was to create a just and righteous place here, just as has been our calling from the beginning: to establish God’s realm of peace and justice in this, God’s own creation.
This adds some important dimensions to our service of remembrance. Our Thessalonians passage reassures us that those who died, whose names are on memorials, whose lives we are to remember: they are not gone forever, but only for a time. We can mourn their passing and reflect on what they sacrificed, but we can also hold onto the hope and the assurance that God has more in store for them and for everyone who dies from this world.
Both passages remind us of our call to create a just and righteous world: one where we don’t need to raise up armies to defeat the kind of horror fascism created; one where we no longer have to call on people to make these sacrifices.
If we stay alert, if we pay attention, then we can make the quest for justice and righteousness a daily task that encompasses all people and we can save future generations from having to make these same sacrifices ever again.