Awake remembrance of these valiant dead, and with your puissant arm renew their feats.
2015 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the time I played a very young looking Bishop of Ely in Shakespeare’s Henry V. This line from the first Act has stayed with me over the last fifty years but its resonance has changed. The valiant dead we honour today and indeed sang about in our hymns. This time of year when we remember All Saints and, in All Souls, those whom we love but see no longer, we do awake the remembrance. These days though we have many reminders as in my childhood when wounded servicemen were quite common sights; so too in the 21st century with casualties from Afganistan and Iraq. What has changed is the imperative to renew their feats.
Something seems to have changed, whether in me or more widely. The bellicose reaction of George W Bush to the twin towers is replaced by the way the west now looks on as Syria destroys herself.
A question that perhaps I never expected to ask is whether we can be sufficiently valiant to say no to renewing their deeds. This is not that we don’t honour; it is that we do. It is about politicians being brave enough to say to the electorate, force will not work; our sons and daughters will lose their lives along with the sons and daughters of those whom we oppose, and nothing will change. This is not something that would command universal support and equally it is not the focus of what we are doing today. I am simply reminded by the death of Senator George McGovern who stood against Nixon over the Vietnam war. He came to politics from a distinguished service career and he said after losing the election that if his standing had brought peace one day closer it would have been worth it.
The reading we heard from St Mark’s gospel is about Jesus calling his first disciples. These men followed quite oblivious to their destination, their route or the hazards they may encounter en route. Those whom we honour today may have found themselves in not dissimilar situations. I remember my Uncle, who with my father fought in the first world war, telling me of the jubilation in the streets following the declaration of war. He then fell quiet.
The same is shown in a film I have watched more than almost any, Richard Attenborough’s a Bridge too Far. This is a crazy thing to do; it is an horrific film, showing as it does in graphic detail the consequences of an overly ambitious decision by a great war leader, Field Marshall Montgomery. There is one sequence in the film that always sticks in my mind. Somewhere in then free France, a hall is filled with British army officers chattering nervously; there is an overwhelming air of expectation. We see why as General Sir Brian Horrocks enters; a huge round of applause and this lauded general takes the stage to his obvious delight. He tells his assembled officers what lies in store. It is an ambitious plan. He tells them, it not the easiest party we have been too, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. He goes on with a joked allusion to Henry V at Agincourt. It is perhaps quintessential fiction, but may well be based on truth. The inspiring speech, necessarily skirting round the fears of what the reality might be and we know he has fears since only a little later he discloses them; you didn’t actually believe all that rubbish?
It is inappropriate to draw on the hype of war movies when we are here to remember those who sacrificed actual lives in two world wars and later conflicts, inappropriate but perhaps revealing.
Our reading was from the very start of St Marks gospel, the shortest of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and one where no word is wasted. Jesus made no great speeches to encourage Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him, simply the request. So why did they? Was he charismatic as, by all accounts, Horrocks was? Was it just an attractive young man with fresh exciting ideas that made sound men leave all to follow him? They had no idea of what was to come.
I am reminded of another film, that of Churchill in the year preceding the second world war, the Gathering Storm. Churchill is talking about the young civil servant who at great personal risk fed him the secret information that enabled him to bring parliament to appreciate the danger that was mounting in Nazi Germany. He said of the young man and of bravery, ‘it is one thing to undertake a dangerous task blind to its dangers, it is true bravery where fully aware of the dangers that the task is undertaken.
This brings us to the essence of remembrance. Who could have watched the Paralympics without a sense of awe at how these people had overcome the difficulties they live with. It all started with those young men at Stoke Mandeville inspired to take up the life that had so nearly forfeited. They, I believe, may have done what they did in the full knowledge of what lay in store. True bravery for which we give thanks.
This all begs a massive question: if they knew so too did their leaders: Churchill, Bush and Blair. Sometimes it feels with this latter group, the politicians, that they don’t truly think through the consequences of their demands. The demand is massive; can the end possibly justify it? It is the oldest question in the world, but perhaps one that is now at last being asked. We sit in agony as we see Syria destroying herself. We should send the troops in, is the kneejerk reaction that cost so many lives in Iraq and Afganistaan. Perhaps the world is learning however painful it may be.
That though is not our focus today. We remember, we give thanks too for those many, I fear probably like me, who were not so obviously brave, but rather were scared and died in fear. For them too we give thanks, but also for those caught up in the cross fire, the innocent victim, as if any victim was ever anything else. Those whose young lives were stolen from them. All these we honour and give thanks.
But what of Jesus and his call? Do we take a reality check and ignore it? Or for the sake of those whom we remember, respond to it in the faith that by doing so we make the world more like the heaven for which we pray.