Remembering Rightly: A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

The following is the text of a sermon I preached at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg this past Sunday for Remembrance Sunday.  The assigned lectionary readings were:  1 Kings 17:8–16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24–28; Mark 12:38–44. 

Our culture today seems to have a problem with remembering. We simply don’t know how to do it. Take for instance, our struggles surrounding Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald is widely regarded as the architect of modern Canada, the Father of Confederation, and the visionary who united the Atlantic to the Pacific by a transcontinental railroad. When MacDonald died, Sir Wilfred Laurier, himself a future Prime Minister of Canada remarked that “the place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing that it is almost impossible to conceive that the political life of this country will continue without him.” Yet today, we know that under Macdonald’s leadership the government of Canada forced the starving indigenous peoples of the plains off of their lands and onto reservations ― a model that would later inspire the apartheid government of South Africa ― and we know that Macdonald’s government instituted the first residential schools. How do we remember Sir John A.? Is Macdonald the unassailable hero who adorns our $10 bill or is he the genocidal maniac whose statues should be torn down and thrown into the fire? The very framing of the question reflects something of our dilemma. It seems like we are forced to choose between valorizing the past or cancelling it. We can offer a sacralized, white-washed version of history where the people or group we identify with is always on the right side of every issue or we can attempt to wipe from the whiteboard of history any person who does not live up to our current cultural standards. There appears to be little place for nuance in today’s public discussions. Similarly, there also appears to be little place for humility. Whether we are reifying or demonizing the past, the one thing we are certain of, is that we are in the right.

Humility and nuance. Perhaps that is what we Christians can contribute to contemporary struggles surrounding remember rightly; for we are a people whose life together is constituted by remembering. And, of course, our primary resource for helping us to remember rightly are the Holy Scriptures. So let’s turn to the assigned lectionary readings for the day and see what they have to say to us.

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark seems to speak quite directly into our present struggles. The Pharisees that Jesus criticizes for walking around in their long, flowing robes, occupying the best seats in the synagogues, and generally making a display of their own righteousness have nothing on today’s leading virtue-signalers. Whether it be cowardly Republican candidates in the United States unwilling to criticize Donald Trump’s bizarre theories and moral failings and even lining up behind him out of fear for how his rabid base might respond or our own Prime Minister who delights in lecturing the public on the need to take responsibility for climate change, women’s rights and reconciliation with the First Peoples of Canada, all the while seemingly oblivious to his own personal and governmental failings in these areas ― there is no shortage of virtue-signalling. In contradistinction to the Pharisees and all like them who desire to be seen as winners or on the right side of history, we hear the story of a poor widow who inconspicuously enters the Temple and quite unceremoniously deposits everything she has to live on into the treasury. Unlike the virtue-signalers who carefully try to manage and manipulate their own images in order to secure a future for themselves, the widow humbly entrusts her future to God.

Perhaps the widow had been praying Psalm 146 earlier that day before she was spotted by Jesus. The words of the Psalm were possibly on her lips as she made her way to the Temple: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” Maybe as the last of her coins clinked into the treasury, the words of the Psalm reverberated in her ear: “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob . . . he upholds the orphan and the widow.” You see, when we turn to Scripture, we don’t simply remember the past, we also remember the future. When we pray Psalm 146 we enter into the confident expectation of the saints that God will be found faithful, He will execute justice for the oppressed.

Moving to our passage in 1 Kings we encounter another widow who trusts that God will be found faithful and offers the last of her food during a time of great famine to Elijah, the prophet of God. It is interesting that widows feature prominently in three of our Scripture readings for this morning. I don’t know why the creators of the lectionary have opted to bring these three texts together on Remembrance Sunday, but it is in some way appropriate, because the one thing that war perhaps most successfully accomplishes above all others is the creation of widows.

On top of being a widow, the woman in our reading from 1 Kings is an outsider. She is a foreigner ― a Sidonian from the village of Zarephath. When Jesus mentioned this story in the synagogue in Nazareth it almost got him killed. His compatriots could not bear to hear the thought that God’s love extends beyond the bounds of their nation to their enemies, so they tried to throw him off a cliff. One clear implication of our text on this day ― and hopefully saying it doesn’t get me thrown off a cliff ― is that for Christians Remembrance Day cannot be a nationalistic holiday. For those of us who worship the God of the prophet who was sent to Zarephath, Remembrance Day cannot simply be about remembering Canadian soldiers. Rather, for Christians, Remembrance Day must be a time for lamenting all the lives that have been lost and forever changed by war. It must be an occasion to remember the widows and orphans left in war’s wake, the numerous civilian casualties who almost always outnumber combatant casualties in modern warfare, and perhaps, most provocatively, even enemy combatants – for we have been given marching orders by our Lord that command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

In the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, we see the greatest prophet of Old Testament Israel sitting down at table to share a meal with a Gentile woman and her orphaned son. The scene serves as an anticipation of the gathering of Jews and Gentiles around one table and sharing a common loaf that happens in the body of the Messiah Jesus ― ancient enemies united in the feast of friends.

There is a story from the opening year of the First World War that points towards this remarkable reality. In September of 1914, Pope Benedict the XV had called for a Christmas truce, but his plea was rejected. However, when Christmas rolled around, the soldiers of their own accord decided to lay down their weapons. According to one account, the truce began on Christmas Eve with soldiers singing carols back and forth across their trenches. The next morning the soldiers began emerging from their trenches to exchange gifts with their adversaries, including cigarettes, buttons, and hats. According to some accounts an international soccer friendly between Germany and England may have even broken out. The truce also allowed both sides to bury the bodies of their fallen comrades in peace. It is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the soldiers or 100,000 men participated in the Christmas truce of 1914. In some places hostilities resumed later that day, whereas in others the fighting did not resume in earnest until the new year. How do we remember this Christmas truce? On the one hand, it appears to be a miraculous irruption of God’s peaceable kingdom in the most unlikely of places. On the other, they did go back to fighting, the truce did not last, so perhaps it is a tragic tale of human failure and what could have been.

My friend Les seemed to have been caught in a similar dilemma when it came to making sense of his involvement in the Second World War. Les was a founding member of the congregation I served in Toronto. Les was a big, bear of man, but if you asked anyone who knew him which species of bear Les was, they would have quickly answered “Teddy.” He was a kind and gentle man, who carried himself in an unassuming way. Les served in the artillery during the Italian campaign; a fact that made him immensely proud. Every November, Les would quietly inquire as to whether we would be recognizing Remembrance Day in worship, because if not he wanted to be sure that he could make his way down to the local cenotaph for the occasion. For years, I tried to get Les to talk about his experience of the war in Italy but had no success. Only in the final years of his life did he begin to share some of the barest details. It seems to me that Les was caught in the cultural currents swirling around our struggle to remember rightly. Our Canadian culture told him that he was a hero, but he couldn’t even bring himself to talk about the things that earned him the designation. Perhaps by the very act of designating soldiers like Les heroes, we stifle their voices and stand in the way of their sharing the things they have seen and lived through, which are quite often things that no human being is meant to see or live through. We think we honour our troops by valorizing them, but what they really need is the space to speak. We want to make them heroes, but what they really need to be is human. They need the freedom to speak of friends lost, of the struggle of being forced to take action in the midst of morally ambiguous situations, and of the spiritual impact of laying down their normal refusal to kill another human being. How we speak of veterans either denies their voice or creates space for them to speak. We Christians of all people should know that war is not a sacred action and that soldiers have not made the ultimate sacrifice. To speak in such a way is both untrue to our central Christian convictions and unfair to those how have served in battle, many who were merely teenagers simply trying to do their best and look out for their friends in the midst of a crisis made by their fathers. War certainly can be a theatre for acts of tremendous bravery and courageous selflessness, but it can also be the setting for unconscionable acts of cruelty and cowardice. Sometimes those acts are even committed by the same person. Remembering the lives of those lost in war requires nuance and humility. It is the same nuance and humility that is required for each of us to take stock of our own lives, shot through as they are with divine grace mixed with human failings. As we review our own lives, and the experience of our congregations, and even the histories of our countries, we see extraordinary moments of achievement, service, and generosity standing alongside spectacular acts of betrayal and petty displays of jealousy and selfishness. If we dare to examine things closely, we are forced to acknowledge than even the most altruistic of actions can be spurred by a mixture of motivations.

How then can we remember the past in a way that allows us to move into the future? The people of South Africa faced this question at the end of the apartheid regime. The relentless critic of apartheid Bishop Desmond Tutu recognized that there could be no future without forgiveness. Tutu recognized that forgiveness does not mean whitewashing the past or sweeping atrocities under the carpet, rather it includes the often-painful struggle to name wrongs rightly. The sins of the past must be truthfully acknowledged, not for the sake of banishing the offenders to the outer darkness, but so that there may be forgiveness and genuine reconciliation.

Such truthful remembering and forgiveness is a lot to ask of ordinary people. That is why our final reading from the book of Hebrews is so important for us today on Remembrance Sunday. For it tells us that there is an extraordinary person who has offered the ultimate sacrifice. He, our reading tells us, “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The Son of God has restored us to communion with God through entering the ambiguity of the human experience and offering the complete and perfect sacrifice of a blameless life utterly devoted to doing his Father’s will. It is Jesus―and Jesus alone―makes it possible for us to truthfully face the past in all of its mysterious complexity and baffling ambiguity, with all of its warts and wonder, without that past destroying us or serving as the justification for our destroying of others. We are freed to remember and remember rightly because Christ has through his own unblemished self-offering passed through the veil and entered into the heavenly tabernacle, where he stands in the presence of God interceding for us. The future has been opened for us because there is forgiveness. And so on this Remembrance Sunday we pause to remember that our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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