‘Remembering those who have passed’, my sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2018 at COGOP Nechells, Birmingham
Greetings to all of you gathered here today on this significant day, 11/11/2018, exactly 100 years to the day when on 11/11/1918 an Armistice (a ceasefire agreement) came into effect between the Allies and Germany that marked the effective end of the so called Great War or World War 1 at 11am on that day.
I want to thank Pastor Neville Brown and the rest of the Pastoral Team for asking me to come. I can but pray that what I have to say will be a blessing to you, in addition to all the other blessings you will have received and given in this remembrance service.
We here are part of a world-wide pause to mark this centenary and to pray, and commit ourselves to the way of peace. We work and pray for the day the prophet Isaiah saw, when mankind ‘…will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks…when nation will not take up sword (guns, knives, acid, bombs or nuclear weapons) against nation, nor will they train for war anymore’ (Isa 2.4).
You and I know that there is more than one kind of war that plays out in our world, and so today I want to pay homage to those who have passed fighting or caught up in natural wars as well as those who have fought a spiritual war whose legacy we share. Of these the apostle Paul says, ‘Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were called’ (1 Tim 6.12).
So, today at 11am on this Remembrance Sunday, at the Cenotaph and beyond we remembered the fallen. While we do not celebrate wars, we honour those who either gave their lives or had their lives taken from them in war. Jesus teaches us, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend’ (John 15.13).
It may help us to recall the numbers involved. It has been said World War One was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race, in which over 16 million people died, and with an estimated 37 million civilian and military casualties.
Contrary to general perceptions until quite recently, these were not only Europeans. In fact, we now know that the first rifle shot of WW1 fired by a soldier in British service in WWI was fired by Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment in what was then known as Togoland, before separation into Ghana and Togo as today. Two million Africans served as soldiers or labourers in WW1, A million people died in East Africa alone during the First World War and even after the 11 November 1918 Armistice the war continued in East Africa, and elsewhere, ending 25 November 1918. As well as the extensive loss of life and injuries WW1 saw extensive ruination of African farmland from which the region is still recovering, one hundred years on.
According to a project I led, and which was researched by Dr Angelina Osborne, called They Also Served, about the 16,000 men and women from the Caribbean voluntarily enlisted in WW1 serving as the British West Indian Regiment. Some 1200 were killed and 2500 wounded. Sadly, these nameless men and women have been “airbrushed” from history, according to one commentator. We know that 81 medals of bravery and 49 mentions in dispatches we recorded of the British West Indian Regiment. In fact, the Caribbean colonies also contributed to the war financially. Barbados, for example donated £20,000 to the British government ‘to assist in the prosecution of the war to a victorious conclusion’. We also served.
Asian volunteers numbered 1.5 million in WWI and 2.5 million in WWII. They too have gone unrecognised for decades; their contributions only now being fully acknowledged.
Although the focus is on WW1 it is worth saying that a staggering 85 million fatalities were suffered in World War II (1939-45), the deadliest war in human history. And historians tell us the 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history with about 123 million people dying in all wars. So today when we remember solemnly those who have passed, we are talking about a lot of people. We will remember them.
The great cloud of witness
Today we also remember the many women and men who have fought in the war of faith over doubt, good over evil, light over darkness. Since the dawn of time, since Cain murdered his brother Abel for his faith, there have been martyrs whose lives were taken or who gave up their lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us about this kind of war and the kinds of people who died fighting it in chapter 11. It’s not hard to understand why the opposing power of evil wars against the power of the God and people of faith to which we are called.
According to Hebrews 11, this thing called faith is so precious that those who have it have assurance in what they hope for, conviction in things unseen, Faith is precious because it has its source in God and is the material by which God made the world invisible and visible, nil initio, out of nothing and brought order out of chaos. The same way that Europeans tried to conquer Africa because of its minerals, and still try, is the same way an unfaithful, an unbelieving Satan and his armies are determined to defeat and occupy those with this assurance of things hoped for, with evidence of things unseen, because the Devil knows that when this faith takes root its owners are unmoveable, unconquerable, stubborn, steadfast and as the bible says, always abounding.
Hebrews 11 tells us of many of those who have been martyred because of their faith in God and the promises of God. In what has been termed the Rollcall of Faith, or the Hall of Faith, we read of Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, the many who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, experienced resurrection from death.
But also because of their faith, Hebrews 11 tells us some endured torture, suffered mocking, and flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, naked and destitute, persecuted and tormented, wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground. The writer of Hebrews says the world was not worthy of these giants of faith. What is further peculiar about these soldiers of faith is that they died still not receiving the promise of the faith they held till death and right now are on the divine altar of God waiting for us to join them. The scripture tells us that great as they were, without us they cannot be perfected. Together, that great cloud of witnesses (as they are called in Hebrews 12), joined by many more since the biblical text was closed, and us look for the fulfilment of our faith in Jesus Christ who will gather them with us, into the consummation of all things in Himself.
Today we remember them.
We remember too, those soldiers of the faith in our time. Too numerous to mention but known to God in that great roll of faith. And as we are here in Longacre may I remind you of three people. Pastor and Sister Taylor and Deacon Dawkins. I recall Sister Taylor’s broad, beaming smile! I think of the faith Pastor Taylor had in leading this congregation over many years and the acquisition of this property in a time of racial and cultural hostility. I suspect his family suffered for his faithful sacrifice as pastor here. I suspect Sister Taylor and the children went without at times because he saw something many around him could not see.
A man of limited education but not intelligence and faith, one who knew that whatever society may have thought of him personally, and others like him, he held an assurance of the things he hoped for and held convictions of things unseen. And I think of his faithful supporters, including Deacon Dawkins with that moustache and I recall a tambourine! Deacon Dawkins was for me the epitome of the faithful deacon and support. I know he wasn’t the only one, and you will know them all much better than me – just insert their names in what I am saying.
Sometimes we show scant regard for those who laid the foundation. But today I am asking you to remember them, what they did, what they stood for, and most of all the gravity-defying, life-changing faith they had.
And what about us?
Which brings me to my last point. And what about us? As we remember those who have passed, what legacy will we leave behind after our passing? How rooted in the faith of our spiritual ancestors is our own faith?
I leave you with this benediction
‘Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 24,25).