Sunday, November 07, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, November 7, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Joshua 6:15-20 and Matthew 5:1-12

It is always at this time of the year that my mind goes back to when I was a young boy living on Manchester Road in a small town in Lancashire. One of the great joys of my life was to be able to press my nose against the great bay window that was at the front of the manse. There was a ledge along the inside and I used to take my toy cars and run them along this ledge and stare out the window and emulate all the real cars that went along the busy road. But there was always one day in the year when those cars that went along the busy road would cease. For across from the manse there was a garden and in the middle of it there was a statue. The statue was of a soldier. On the day on which the cars did not run, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance, I remember. There were bands and trumpets and bagpipes. There were Life-guards and Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. There were men wearing heavy shiny things on their chests and certain people in strange outfits that were called Chelsea Pensioners. They would gather and walk along the street and then gather in the park opposite my house and on the day that the cars didn't run, there was one other group of people who was present. It seemed to me that despite all the noise and pomp and ceremony and glory on the outside, surrounding all that was taking place were women ? mainly younger women, but some older as well. Unlike the others who seemed very stoic and expressionless, in the eyes of the women there were tears ? tears on the day that the cars did not run.

Ever since those days, whenever I have passed a Memorial such as the one in that garden or we reach this particular day on the calendar, I feel exactly that same pathos, that same sadness, that those women felt as they stood on the day that the cars didn't run. When I have visited the Cenotaph in Ottawa and taken part in the celebrations, I feel that same sadness. When I have gone up to the Peace Tower and opened the Memorial Book I feel that same sadness. When I have gone to celebrate even the creation of the monument to our Peace Keepers I feel that same sorrow. Even when I went in support of the Merchant Seamen, that they should be recognised on Parliament Hill, I felt the same sorrow as on the day that the cars did not run.

All these monuments and all these memorials, although they speak of the past, still grab us now in the present. They are living reminders of our history and what has been. Not all memorials are of the dead, not all are enshrined in stone. Some of them are still living. Not long ago I walked along Bloor Street and at the corner of Spadina Road there is a Coffee Shop and I went in to get a coffee and a biscotti and emptied my pockets to pay for everything and came out on a coldish day. There sitting just in front of the store was a rather forlorn and scruffy-looking homeless person with a beard; he was older that I would have imagined. He looked up at me and had a sign that said simply ”˜Homeless' then underneath ”˜A veteran of the Korean War.' I fiddled through my pockets and realised that I the glutton had spent every last cent that I had on my biscotti and I had nothing to give him. Realising I couldn't just walk away I simply looked at him and said, “Thank you.” His eyes opened wide as saucers and he said to me, “No, thank you.” And I walked on.

Sometimes the memorials to war are living. Sometimes these are the living reminders of what has been and of our past. I know there are those who look upon such memorials, particularly those that are built, as if they shouldn't be. There are those who want to revise history and suggest that such things are no longer appropriate, that somehow memorials are just statements about the victors over the vanquished. Or that they are icons of a past culture or era. But I do not believe that to be the case. I believe that the memorials that exist are simply reminders to us, never to forget. They are living reminders to us that what has happened can so easily happen again. I wish to God that Auschwitz had never happened! I wish to God there had been no Dieppe! I wish to God there had been no battles in the Ardenne and in Burma; I wish to God that there had been no conflict in Vietnam and Korea! But neither you nor I with all the power of our will, can pretend that these did not happen or exist.

The question for each successive generation is: What do these memorials teach us? What do they say to us and what can we learn from them? There are two very powerful lessons, the first of which is that in war there is no outright victor. When I looked at the faces of those mothers and daughters [wives?] that gathered around the Cenotaph outside my home as a little boy, it was very obvious that with a victory there had been great suffering and sorrow and pain. For all that we dismiss and discount him (maybe I'm going out on a limb in quoting him at all) I still believe that Chamberlain was right in 1938 in a speech he gave in Kettering when he said, “In war, despite those who might claim to be the victors, there are no winners, but all are losers!”

Never was this more apparent to me than when I fulfilled a dream I'd had for years to visit the battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. This most talked-about, written-about and in some ways the most studied of all battles in history, is an eye-opener to anyone who goes and sees it. It is a living reminder that in war there are no winners. In this great place of Gettysburg I walked around the battlefields with their thousand monuments and twenty museums. Even the barbaric places that are named where battles took place still are living reminders to us of how brutal war ca be, whether it is Culp's Hill, or Seminary Ridge or the aptly named Devil's Den. When you think of the names of the Generals ? Lee, Stickle, Longstreet, Mead and Picket, these names conjure up all manners of images of suffering and of honour and of loss. But the reality is that when the fighting had ceased, 51,000 people had died at Gettysburg. That is the entire population of my home town!

When I read the two Generals' parting speeches and listened to what Lincoln had said, it was so obvious that pain and suffering had taken place. The losing General Lee had this to say, “But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determine to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.” Lincoln, a few days later in visiting the site, said this, “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” In Lincoln and in Lee there is the tone of sacrifice and loss. Of all the battles anywhere that have ever been fought, there has never really been an outright winner.

What else do these memorials teach us? I think one of the most profound things is that the work of peace is unfinished business. Whenever there is war, there are sufferers; whenever there are those who are victors, they too bear the pain. That is why they understand that when all the treaties have been signed and all the wonderful images of peace have been enshrined and have been written and confirmed, they know and understand that just when the ink is dry there will probably be another conflict. For all the wars to end all wars and the successive wars that have followed, despite all the marches of peace that have ever been held in celebration or in victory, still as soon as the voice and echo has died, there is a new conflict somewhere on God's earth. It is one of the great sins of humanity that we go to war. That is why each generation must continue to be vigilant. The work of peace is an ongoing work. I ask myself repeatedly when I read the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, “All right, Jesus, how then are the peacemakers blessed? How do we create the peacemakers? What is necessary?”

I think there are three things that the memorials stand to tell us about being peacemakers. The first is the need to remember. What we remember is that war requires sacrifice. Last year at this time I was presented with, for my edification, an article that was written about a relative of a member of our congregation who was a Chaplain who died in the first war. When I realise that a man of God gave his own life for the sake of someone else, I believe these things are to be remembered. I tucked it to one side and now share with you this paper clipping. Listen to this:

“There was a time when I hadn't much use for you preacher chaps, but that's all changed now. Out there in France there were a few of them with us and they proved game to the end. One of them, a big, fair chap named Jack Anglin, saved my life. This is how it happened….We were expecting a big show in the morning and I was sent out to do some wiring. Fritz threw up some sheer shells and spotted us and I got hit in the thigh and was rendered helpless. I lay out there in no-man's land in horrible pain; there was the parapet only a few yards off and there was no way I could get help so I could only lie and groan. Then I was dimly conscious that someone was bending over me and picking me up and stumbling forward with me towards our trenches. More star shells were up and machine gun bullets were buzzing all around us. When I was in a conscious condition again, I was told that Anglin was shot in his effort to save me and that his moments were numbered. They took me to him. ”˜Jack,' I said, with his hand in mine, ”˜you've saved my life and it has cost you your own.' ”˜That does not make any difference old man, so long as you live. Perhaps you'll be spared to live for both.' I made up my mind that day to live to be worthy of the sacrifice that Anglin made for me.”

The cross of Jesus Christ lets it be known over and over again that there is no greater love than this, that you lay down your life for your friends. We must remember that war always makes sacrifices.

When I think back, of former ministers of this Church and I think of those like David MacLennan who were here during the war and had to take letters to those families who had lost a son or a loved one, I realise that in remembering there is much sorrow and pain. But we must always not only remember, but must be dedicated in those memories to the cause of peace. In writing his final speech, and one that my students of preaching always remind me was one of the shortest messages ever given, Abraham Lincoln wrote this (and it can apply to any nation). He said at Gettysburg:

“It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

It is always for the living to continue the unfinished work of peace. Oh my Lord how needed it is! How easy it is and soon to forget that just a couple of weeks ago there were gravesites of Jews desecrated in the north of Toronto and that there are wars each and every day and we sometimes treat them as if they are just casual occurrences, that we watch on a TV screen from a distance that costs us nothing. Oh how we must be dedicated to peace! Because if we are not, then those who died will have died in vain. This generation must be dedicated to remembering.

There is one final note. When Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers” he did not expect us to accomplish this on our own. He did say to us “You cannot do this by a matter of your own will or by law, but only through me.” That is what the Beatitudes are all about. It is about the grace of Jesus Christ. That is why I always believe that if we desire peace, peoples' hearts need to be changed.

A few years ago I was invited to a grade six class in Nova Scotia. At the conclusion of the programme, the students were asked to write poems in a book. They were poems of peace presented to The Reverend Dr. Andrew Stirling and then, as the greatest compliment of all, it said: “To a Man of Peace.” This book is more important than anything I have written or have on my office wall. Every year at this time I read through these poems, for out of the mouths of babes there is much wisdom. One in particular I leave with you for it says it all. This is by Jason Mars.

Peace is a dove flying through the air, Peace is all countries living in harmony, Peace is brothers and sisters getting along, Peace is a Church Mass on Sunday morning, Peace is waking up on Christmas Day, Peace is all people no matter what race getting along, Peace is a bird singing in the morning breeze, Peace is walking through a grave yard remembering lost loved ones, Peace is sleeping under an oak tree, Peace is throwing down all guns and stopping all conflict, Peace is watching the sun come up in the west [sic], but what gives Peace the best is Jesus.

He wrote, “These, Dr. Stirling, are my ideas of peace, but why can't the world be at peace all the time?” To that I say Amen. Lest We Forget.