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My father claims he has heard of a preacher who concluded his sermon on the Gospel passage we have just heard read by asking his congregation “Would you rather be with the wise virgins in the light, or with the foolish virgins in the dark?” which did not, of course, get the answer he was hoping for!
But the point of that reading, as, indeed, the point of the one from Thessalonians, is that we can't see the future. We can't see round “the bend in the road”. We don't know when we will die, or, indeed, whether our dear Lord will return before that happens. We have no way of knowing the future, and therefore, we need to be prepared for almost anything.
But today is Remembrance Day, when we think of the past, rather than the future. Never an easy day for preachers.
You know, of course, that Remembrance Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and Belgium, and barely a family in those countries that were part of it did not lose somebody. Both my grandfathers were involved in this war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost both its sons. Indeed, many families did lose all their sons – it was a hard time. And the flu epidemic that came immediately after caused yet more deaths and unhappiness.
Those of you whose roots are in this country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started, and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job organising the invasion of France. And so it goes on. There are things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next generation. My grandfather, the one who was not wounded in the first war, was career army, and saw service in the desert, I believe. He came through unscathed, except for breaking his leg in a trivial accident that had nothing to do with the war, and was glad of it as he took the opportunity of the enforced leave to visit his family, who had not seen him for four very long years. But many didn't survive – either casualties of war, or of the concentration camps. And I gather the years straight after the war were full of confusion and muddle, as countries tightened up their borders and decided who should, and who should not, live there.
But then, my generation grew up with the threat of the atom bomb over our heads; we knew, no matter how much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.
And, of course, during that time there was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Peace is very rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.
Of course, once we had got past 1989 and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something wrong with this picture.
But then, people forget. There is a saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them. Maybe we do. Our history in this 21st century hasn't been exactly grand, has it? We have been pleased, this past couple of weeks, that our troops have finally left Afghanistan – but over 400 of them never will leave. And should they have been there in the first place? It's a vexed question.
But there was the invasion of Iraq, for which the atrocities of 9/11 were just a pretext. And now there is unrest in so many places in the near East – Ukraine, for a start. And Syria, life must be absolutely awful there. It doesn't seem five minutes since we were watching a documentary about education in Syria, and now children are probably very lucky if they get to school at all.
So, we wonder, where is God in all this? What have all these events to do with God? Or, indeed, why, as Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the other side; well, we know that, don’t we – look at those soldiers who were convicted of torturing Iraqi prisoners. And who knows – they may just have been the tip of the iceberg. If there was a culture of treating your prisoners with disrespect.... and then people wonder why you get extremist organisations like Islamic State – I know, and I know you know, that the vast majority of Muslims feel just as much horror and despair about Islamic State as we do, but I can also see, and I expect you can, too, just how they got pushed into extremism by the behaviour of some of our troops, and the attitude of not only our troops, but also our governments.
It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus. But he also said that there would always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even while we know we will be unsuccessful.
Robert and I visited New York less than a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, back in 2001. We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at its height?
Anyway, the first Sunday we were there, we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out to be a Lutheran Church. And I was glad we went – the people there were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England. They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had happened, and that the future was very uncertain, yet they knew, too, that God was in it with them.
And God is in it with us, too. Whatever happens. God was there in the trenches with those young men in the first War; God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked planes, too. God is there in Afghanistan, and Syria, and Ukraine, and South Sudan, and Palestine and all those countries where there is no peace, and life is very frightening.
We, who call ourselves Christians, sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism – it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
But we must do all that we can to make peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of most of these campaigns were. I do know, though, that people are suffering, through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in Dafur and Jerusalem and Damascus, and other places where they lost loved ones. They are still suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their faith – and, indeed, in places where Islamic State or Boko Harum has any say in the matter.
War causes suffering. It is never noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.
For who knows when it will be our turn? The foolish virgins in Jesus' story were the ones who reckoned it would never happen, and failed to make preparations. We must and will remember those who died in war, but we will also remember that we have asked God to be in control of our lives. So we must be ready for whatever He might ask us to go through. And always, always be prepared to help make peace. Amen.