Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2012
Mark 1.14-20

"And immediately..." the most common phrase in Mark's gospel. It' is his catchphrase and crops up time and again. It's as though the whole gospel is shot through with a great sense of great urgency, as though the most significant events of human history are unfolding themselves one after the other, with breathless haste, as Jesus moves through the Gospel narrative.

"And immediately he called them"

"And immediately they left their nets and followed him"

On Remembrance Sunday it is hard to read this Gospel passage of the fishermen leaving their father and the family business and responding immediately to the urgent call of Jesus without thinking of the young lads who immediately left their families and occupations to answer the urgent call of King and Country (and more recently, Queen and Country).

The wartime images of young men queuing up at recruiting offices are some of the most enduring, are they not? Looking at the lively lads standing on the threshold of fate, knowing what was awaiting so many of them is haunting.

It's a feeling that's wonderfully encapsulated in AE Housman's great poem:

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

I grew up haunted by the images of men responding to the call to arms, not least because I fully expected it to be me one day. The generation two before mine had fought the First World War. The generation before mine, the Second. And the Third World War was spoken of with an immediacy and an inevitability that meant that war was no abstract idea, nor something left to professionals in far off lands beyond the eyes of the media, but something that was staring us all in the face. Just as the generations before mine had faced the urgent call to drop everything and follow to war, so the call would come to me one day.

And what would I do when that moment arrived? Would I have the courage to respond? I have to say, it was a prospect that appalled me as a child and I doubted very much whether I could go voluntarily, yet I also knew full well that I might not get a choice. I might have to do it anyway.

So the question of what motivates servicemen (for it was all men in those days) to put their lives on the line in battle was one of the most urgent questions of my younger days - as was the related question of what motivates civilians to leave the safety of home and work to enlist for war.

In the event, the question has become theoretical for me. I haven't been called upon for military service, nor is that now likely. So in my case, I had to find the answers by listening and reading - hearing the stories of others who have been there.

And because of the personal nature of this question, I am drawn particularly to the accounts of servicemen on the ground. There are many books written from that perspective, but if you too are interested in their story, let me recommend two of my favourites. The first is "The Last Fighting Tommy", the biography of the last surviving foot soldier of the First World War, Harry Patch, who died as recently as 2009. And the second is "Quartered Safe out Here" by George McDonald Fraser who served in the campaign in Burma with a group of Cumbrians in the Border Regiment. The latter is a wonderful, funny, poignant and affectionate portrait of the Cumbrian man at war, but both books tell the story of ordinary men caught up in war.

And what is clear, when you hear the accounts of these men, and of our own war veterans here in Morland, is that they are motivated by love.

Not love of Queen and country (though no-one can doubt their patriotism); not love of great political ideals, nor even of hatred of oppressive foreign regimes; but love of family, of home and love of their comrades.

In battle, a soldier, or a sailor, or an airman will put themselves in harm's way because of their comrades. It is as simple as that. Even in the great theatre of war, where history is played out for the highest stakes, it all comes down to love shared between individuals. It is strangely comforting to know that even in war, when humanity is presenting its ugliest side, individual humans are still motivated primarily by love - albeit love that is under severe stress.

And this love is a greater consideration than any of the great questions of state, or history or even morality. George McDonald Fraser puts it very well when dissecting the morality of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. He says that if his section, fighting in Burma on the day the atomic bombs were dropped, had been given the choice between fighting on at the cost of their own lives or dropping those bombs and bringing war to an immediate end, but with the knowledge of what that would cost in human lives, they'd have said "Ah, booger it", slung their packs over their shoulders and carried on fighting. But then there's another side to the question that changes everything.

The dropping of atomic bombs, he says, "was a hideous thing...if it was not barbaric, the word has no meaning...but if the bombs had been withheld...the odds [that I would have been killed before the end of the war were 1 in 4]...I might have been that one, in which case my three children and eight grandchildren would never have been born. And that, I'm afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those eleven lives, I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never blink. And so, I dare say, would you."

It is very easy, especially on Remembrance Day, to moralise about war; to discuss the pros and cons of the atomic bomb, or the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan. But moralising about war is not straightforward. The reality is full of contradictions. For many servicemen, war was the most exciting event of their lives (just listen to Arthur Bird telling you what it felt like to fly a Spitfire), but it was also the most horrific. To kill large numbers of an enemy that would kill the people you love is exhilarating. And lectures on forgiveness and remorse are meaningless in those circumstances. Those people did what they had to, in that moment, to protect the people they love.

And such moralising can so easily overlook that essential human element. I feel for the veterans of the Second World War and the Falklands when a society that once supported them entirely now dissects the war continually and critically. I feel sorry for the veterans of the Balkans conflict when their sacrifices are overshadowed by later (perhaps less noble) conflicts. I feel for the veterans of Iraq when so many question the morality of it. I feel for those who are fighting in Afghanistan when so many doubt the validity of it. I'm not saying that those questions are invalid, but when those questions dominate our discussions, the price paid by men and women who fought simply for love of their comrades is forgotten and devalued.

So let us remember that today is first and foremost about remembering the service men and women who have fought and are fighting for the people they love. Let us salute them.

And on those questions of state, and history and morality, perhaps we should address the lectures on those subjects primarily to ourselves. It is society that places these men and women in harm's way, that forces upon them the ludicrous choice, faced by George McDonald Fraser and so many like him, between enemy lives and their loved ones. The wars they fight are the conglomerated effects of our own morality, our own values and our own power struggles. What goes on in the depths of my heart and finds expression in the way that I live, contributes ultimately to the state of the world in which these valiant men and women find themselves putting their lives on the line for those they love. Who am I to expect them to take impossible moral decisions in the instant of battle, when it is my morality that has put them there in the first place?

That I might be responsible for their predicament (in however small a part and regardless of how many other players are involved) is not a comfortable thought and not one that I am prepared to live with.

And that is why it is important for us also to hear the urgent call to arms of another King and another country which demands a higher allegiance - the highest in fact; Jesus. (We know that his allegiance is higher because our own Queen herself acknowledges ultimate allegiance to him.)

"Come and follow me." In that call, God himself is among us urgently addressing the deep issues of the world, the dark side of human nature; urgently calling us to abandon our nets (metaphorically speaking) and immediately follow him. There is a great battle to be fought in this world: against selfish ambition; against greed; against power wielded by manipulation in our own families, in our own communities, in our workplaces; and against the indifference and coldness of our hearts. These are the great battles of our time and the wars of history are merely the symptoms of the state of our hearts. The great battle of our time is fought here, in the hearts of you and me.

And that is why, if we want to moralise about war, if really care about those who have fallen in war, if we really care about those who are risking their lives right now in Afghanistan (maybe dying at this very moment), and if we really care about those we love at home, it is imperative that we respond immediately to Jesus' call. Enlist in the battle against our fallen selves, against our dark side and against our cold indifference. The fight is very real, the cause is noble and call is very urgent. "Follow me".

Preached: Morland, 11 November 2012