Remembrance Sunday

A Sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderly
Readings for this service: Jonah 3. 1-5, 10; Hebrews 9. 24-end; Mark 1. 14-20

Today marks the centenary of the Armistice, the moment when 100 years ago the hostilities of the First World War came to an end and peace was made after four long devastating years of war.  More than ¾ million British men and women were killed and countless others were maimed, wounded or emotionally destroyed.   It is an opportunity for us to remember and honour those who lost their lives in that Great War and in conflicts since; to hold silence together; and to allow our remembrances to help us, if we can, face a little more honestly the truth of what it means to be human, and deepen our commitment to making peace in our own day.

Silence, remembering, and peace-making. In all of this we seek the thread of God’s love.  When we look at the dreadful cost of war and the sacrifices made by so many, we wonder if we can truly believe, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, that the Cross was where all of God’s work was done, once and for all, as Jesus gave his life in a sacrifice to end all sacrifices? How does that show us now how to live out of that belief, as a community of reconciliation and peace in the world, if we are to be shaped around that self-offering and generous love of Christ on the cross?

At the Imperial War Museum, as part of the Armistice Centenary events, an immersive exhibition includes a sound recording of the actual moment of the ceasefire. It is created from an original graphic document made at the time. This technique of the graphic recording of sound onto photographic paper was used during the war to work out the exact location of enemy artillery. It records the moment of the ceasefire, at the River Moselle. A barrage of continuing heavy gunfire is heard at 10:58 in the final moments.  By one minute past the hour there is silence. The gunfire has stopped. And into that great silence you hear the sound of birdsong, the first remarkable sounds of peace. The war has ended. Peace has come. It is incredibly moving. [Do listen to it if you can, you can find it online.]

From the sound archive are also the stories of individuals who were affected by the end of the war and that boundary between war and peace. One person recounted, “Well do you know, strangely enough, we wept, because the silence was so awful. You see we’d been used to the noise of guns, all day long, all day long, all day long…it was so strange, to have silence.”

With the incomprehensible loss of life of that Great War, communities back home were in some ways silenced too. Not just by the silence of peace but by the silence of loss: The silence of the Lost Generation, who never returned home to talk and joke, and live and breath. They were silenced by the grief of so many lost in communities, often because their loved ones had signed up with their friends together, Kitchener’s ‘Pals Battalions’ from the same factory, or sports team, or village.

In her book ‘Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God’[1] Rachel Mann describes the First World War as “a people’s war, a civilian’s war, a local war. Whole streets and communities joined en masse, moved by the call of their neighbour, of Country and King…  There was so much death that postmen and post-boys gave up their jobs because they couldn’t bear to be the bearers of bad news to families.” And then there was the silence of the trauma, the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of those who did return but couldn’t speak of the horrors they had experienced. The silence we hold today honours that generation, who were silenced by war, by loss, by trauma.

Into that silence we hear the words of the First World War poets speaking, like Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who gave a way of humanising the war and talking about the war, as a whole generation attempted to process the incomprehensible, and through whose prose and poetry, Rachel Mann suggests ‘the ‘word’ emerged more authentically than from the sermons of the day’. Wilfred Owen, who died just a week before Armistice Day, and whose parents received the news, just as the bells were ringing out to celebrate the peace, (on this day 100 years ago) had, as contemporary poet Michael Symmons Roberts describes, ‘an abiding sense of passionate tenderness for the soldiers he sees around him, on both sides, and deeply critical anger at what has brought them to this point.’ He wrestles with God and the Christ he sees is in ‘no man’s land’.[2]

In a letter to Osbert Sitwell in July he writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work – teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.’ [3]

This is the raw emotion of someone who lived with the horrors of that war and wrestled to seek and know Christ by their side. Wilfred Owen is digging deep into the mud of his awful experiences, to meet the one who gave his life, once and for all, to save the world, from sin and from the horrors of war.

We are encouraged to wrestle and dig deep too, over Syria, over Yemen, over Afghanistan, the acts of terrorism in this city, and the conflicts of our day, to meet Christ who is suffering there. As we struggle, to find words to speak into these silences and horrors of loss and trauma of our own day, we make Christ known.

In the depths, we discover, he gives us words to speak – of healing and forgiveness, and the knowledge that in Christ death is not the end, and love, not violence is the final word.

God can take all our raging and bitterness and in the resurrection shows us the way to peace, the hard won, costly peace of the sacrifice of his Son, who faced war, but didn’t respond with retribution and retaliation, but with mercy and forgiveness and love and gives us a way to be human, not animals.

Remembrance: In our own day we will live with remembrances of war, or the memories of those we or our families loved and lost, perhaps years ago.  Or it may be that back home, your country is going through conflict now, and you’re seeking security and safety and a home here in London.

War and remembrance of war, is not something removed, an experience that took place 100 years ago in another land. It is present, in different ways, for all of us now. My own experience of war is with the war in Former Yugoslavia, as they said at the time, just ‘2 hours from London’. With my husband Loren, we cared for Croatian and Serbian friends coming here in London in the early 1990’s, having left their own countries as the war there was starting. And sadly one friend, took his own life, traumatised at the thought of having to go back, and not knowing how to stay in his own ‘no man’s land’. The sadness of that shook us to the core and another friend suffered PTSD as a result. We found ways to heal from it and live through it but in some ways, as with all loss from conflict, we will never simply ‘get over it’.

In our remembering of these last few years since 2014, as we have mapped these four years of the First World War, the human face and cost of that war has been more present. We have let go of Harry Patch and others. Families have made more effort to connect to their own loved ones who served, to bring the connection with them alive.  The further away it gets the more we have focused on the individuals involved, as if in their receding into the past we are trying to catch hold of them and not let them go.  But as we do that and as they fade away, we come face to face with questions of what would we have done, if we had been in their shoes, face to face with our own humanity.

One chilling recollection from a recording project of those who served was from a gentle man, who spoke about his experiences. And simply said of an encounter in the trenches; ‘All humanity leaves you, it’s either him or me.’  Remembering brings us closer to our own humanity. And closer to our need for answers.

Our gatherings today are about holding silence, about remembering but also about our longing to be formed as people who long to live in peace, now.

In our Gospel for today, we hear of the disciples, Simon/Peter and Andrew, James and John, fishermen who leave their nets, and with radical obedience, follow Jesus. At the beginning of that reading we hear that John has been arrested, there is a sense of foreboding, the shadow of the cross is already present.

The gentle scenes of fishing and the mending of nets paints an idyllic scene but Jesus will call the disciples into deep and raging waters. In the face of that impending hostility Jesus doesn’t build an army, he builds community. He calls individuals to come and follow him. It’s not a drummed up call to go and fight for a nation, but a call to live and serve in a new radical way, as people of a heavenly kingdom. It will mean sacrifice, but not one that is about winning a war, but about being a community that brings peace and makes the kingdom of God come near.

As we hold silence and remember we are invited to be part of that peace-making community too.  At a time when we struggle with a rise in nationalism around Europe and elsewhere, when the rhetoric of public discourse in our world is more brutal, that call to be peace makers, centred on the love of Christ, even in deep water seems more urgent.

On this centenary of the Armistice, we honour a passing age but we live into a future where all they have done is not in vain.  We hold silence and remember, not so that we can forget for the rest of the year, but so we can be reminded of a call to speak and recommit to live as peacemakers, like our patron saint St Martin, ‘a soldier for peace’, as people who through the love and passion and self-offering and sacrifice of Christ, God has come near. And we live into the hope of a world where war will be no more.

We will remember them.


[1] ‘Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God’, Rachel Mann, DLT, 2017

[2] ‘Wilfred Owen: Poetry and Peace.’,

[3] Letter from Wilfred Owen to Osbert Sitwell, 4 July 1914