A homily for Remembrance Sunday 2016
Of the building of walls there is no end.
There are walls that mark out territory — what’s mine from what’s yours. There are walls that support palaces to show the grandeur of kings. There are walls to keep people safe, like the walls round mediaeval cities.
And there are walls to keep people apart, often people of the same race who have fallen foul of history and politics — Berlin, Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine. One of these has already come down, in Berlin, in 1989. The others will surely follow: they will fall because they must. They fall because people rise up against them and in their unity assume a power greater than their builders’.
It may take time. A wall built by Hezekiah in 701 BC was at that time strong enough to repel the Assyrians. Now it is a row of stones for tour guides to point to as they take pilgrims through the streets of Jerusalem. Nothing is for ever. All returns to dust.
The stones Luke is referring to in the gospel (21.5ff) — the stones of the Temple — were reduced to rubble by the Romans in 70 AD. The additional vast buildings erected by Herod the Great, designed to sustain the illusion of his boundless power, have since been reduced by armies and earthquakes to a pile of rocks.
This is not in itself tragic. It simply marks the passage of time. The real pain and grief of our human story is that, generation after generation, men and women are called upon to spill their blood at the call of king and country for causes that — even when they appear entirely noble — are in the end revealed to have been concerned more with the gaining and guarding of power.
It is therefore right that every year we pause to remember the loss of life often made with unimaginable bravery and in unendurable hardship by irreplaceable fathers, brothers, sons — and increasingly their wives and sisters, too. It is right not just to give thanks for their courage, but also to ask ourselves why their sacrifice was called for. In what kind of world did these deaths take place? In what kind of world do we live today? And what must we do to ensure that the conditions in which distrust and suspicion thrive are minimised so that peace may triumph over war, and love prove stronger than hate.
This is a time at which it is doubly necessary to ask these questions. Many are bewildered by the fact that (in the same year that Britain voted to turn its back on an organisation which has maintained the unbroken peace of Europe since 1945), the electorate of the United States last week put the world’s future in to the hands of a man who plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico, separating people from people, all to create the illusion of a strong and powerful USA.
Of the building of walls there is no end. But one day, like the wall of Hezekiah in Jerusalem, this wall will come crashing to the ground as is the destiny of all walls, and people will mix and mingle again in peace and friendship.
We can hasten this process by reaching across the walls we find —the divisions of class and colour, creed and gender, social position and sexual identity — and clasp the hand of those we find reaching out to us, and greeting them in the name of Jesus, ‘who has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2.14).
We do this not only because it follows from our belief that all are made in the image of God, but because we know that we are so utterly fragile, in need of each other. This past week in Croydon, we have seen heart-breaking evidence of this, in the derailment of the tram last Wednesday, in which seven of our fellow citizens, our brothers and sister in humanity, all lost their life, while fifty others were wounded, some of them gravely.
Is their flesh more tender than ours? Are their bodies injured more easily? Do their families mourn them less keenly and miss them less grievously?
Of course not. Their flesh and their lives were as fragile as ours, as fragile as those who follow the summons to battle, for whom we lay our wreaths and wear our poppies. They were all as fragile and as precious as any whom others would keep behind walls, whether real walls or walls of prejudice, the sort that are built and defended whenever human beings fail to see the face of God in one another.
Let us then renew our commitment this Remembrance-tide to holding out the hand of friendship and solidarity to any whose humanity is dishonoured, and to all who weep tears of grief, that we may support each other in our shared human fragility, to the glory of God, and till the walls come tumbling down.