Remembering and memories

Rev Sue gave this sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2021. You can read it again here:

Have you ever played the memory game? A collection of random objects is displayed on a tray, covered with a cloth. The cloth is whisked away, and you are given 30 seconds to memorise them, before the cloth is quickly replaced and the tray removed. You have to recall as many of the objects as you can. People with a good memory might be able to reel them off – most of us require a little prompting. You have memorised the objects, but you are not really, in one sense, remembering.

Remembering is the experience of placing yourself back in a moment, emotionally as well as mentally. The thoughts, feelings and relationships come back to you as well as the facts. Perhaps you have played the memory game with your family, and recalling it brings back the fun, the laughter, and the people you were with. You can visualise the room you were in, smells and sounds come back to you. It’s as though you are actually back there.

I wonder when we look back on the last 2 years what things we will we remember the most? The facts and figures of the pandemic? Or the emotions of lockdown, the pressures of isolation, the disappointments or griefs or the feeling of relief when the vaccinations were offered to us? For all of us it has been an emotional time, unpredictable and different from anything we have known before. Those memories are ones that we will not forget.

Remembering is important for us as individuals. We need our past to make sense of our present. 18 years ago, Thomas Leeds was knocked down by a car.  He was 19 years old, and about to start university. At first, he seemed surprisingly unaffected, but then he was found to have developed a blood clot on his brain. When he came round after an operation to remove it, he couldn’t recognise his parents or brothers or sisters. He didn’t remember the house he lived in, and all his childhood memories had completely gone. 10 years later he was listening to music from the 80s when a song suddenly triggered a series of flashbacks, and he began to remember a little of his childhood. On another occasion he came across a video of The Snowman on YouTube. The unique images and soundtrack triggered his first memory of school – one lunchtime in the canteen. He said, “It was enough to make me feel like I have an education.” He began at last to recall for himself the things that others had tried to describe him. He began to know a bit of who he was before.

Remembering is important for communities, as well as for individuals. Those of you who were here in 1985 when fire destroyed much of the church fittings, rendering the building unusable for worship for 18 months, tell of a time when hardship and difficulties brought the church together. The shared history is part of what makes us a community.

It is difficult to comprehend the loss of life in the first world war, when some communities lost all their young men. For years many people didn’t talk about, but as time went on the nation needed to remember. The scale of the bereavement and the trauma were so significant that it was vital to remember, not just a list of battles, but the people, their lives, and their relationships. Institutions throughout the country from schools and villages to banks and businesses displayed a roll of honour listing the men that died. It is hard to connect with numbers – we need individual stories to bring meaning. Many families can still name a great uncle who was lost in the war, and our schools often use the stories of individuals to teach children about the past.

We feel we need to remember even the worst times in our lives. When we are at our lowest ebb, we feel abandoned and neglected and we often feel that God has forgotten us. Even Jesus on the cross shouted out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. The men in the trenches in the first world war knew this dread of being forgotten and those who survived knew how important it was to remember former comrades. Isaiah speaks to that fear. ‘Can a mother forget the babe at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you. See I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’. In the middle of desolation, forsakenness, and the isolation of being forgotten, it is being remembered which gives us back our humanity. We feel valued when other people remember us, and more than that when God remembers us one by one. Our names, of each and every one of us, are tattooed onto God’s hands. The greatest grief that many of us can imagine is a mother losing her child – yet God assures us that his love for us is greater and more enduring than even that.

The first world war should have been the war to end all wars. But the second world war followed only 21 years after it’s end. Fewer soldiers were lost, but more civilians were killed. In both wars the soldiers had been called up – they had little choice about fighting. Conscription continued with National Service until 1960. Since then, the armed services have become professional organisations that men and women have chosen to join. War has not impacted our country in the way that bombs destroyed homes and workplaces in the 1940s, and far fewer families have been affected by the loss or disability of their members. And yet the need to remember has not diminished but grown stronger. We know that once we allow ourselves to forget the past, we are in danger of shutting out the horrors of the present and risking a repeat of past mistakes in the future. Remembrance is not about either nostalgia or revenge. It is a sobering grief that the self-seeking, intolerance, fear and greed that infect us all have in the past overwhelmed mercy, compassion and common sense and led to suffering and loss on a scale we can hardly comprehend. And remembrance is about never forgetting our human weakness and sin and maintaining the vigilance which prevents conflict escalating into war.

One of the greatest symbols of remembrance is the rainbow. It reminds us of God’s love for us, but in the context of a flood that destroyed much of the known world. The symbol endures, not because it is pretty, but because it brings hope in the worst possible circumstances. The poppy endures, not because it is a cheerful and attractive flower, but because it is one of the first flowers to regrow in battle fields where all life has been destroyed. It is a symbol, not just of death and loss, but of new life and growth.

At the end of our service, we will observe the customary two minutes silence. There is a point beyond which words, and even tears, are inadequate. We pause even the music that helps us to express our feelings. We stand humbly before God, with nothing to say, but we admit our need of his strength to accept the reality of the wars of the past, and his wisdom to help us build a world of justice and peace. May God give us the grace to never forget.

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