Centenary of Britain joining the First World War  (August 4th)

If we take the Bible in the order in which it is presented to us, rather than the order in which it was actually written, we pretty soon come across the first act of violence.  It happens quite early in the Book of Genesis – only the fourth chapter in the whole Bible.  The children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel. Abel kept sheep and Cain grew crops.  They both made offerings to God from what they had produced. But God preferred Abel’s offerings to Cain’s and asked Cain to be patient.  Cain, in a fit of jealous rage, murdered his brother in the fields.  God asked him where Abel was and Cain answered in words that have rung out ever since down the ages, “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Today we also considered the story of Joseph.  Joseph was favouritised by his father and given a special robe with long sleeves, or if you prefer, the old translation of a coat of many colours.  As a result his brothers hated him. They eventually got their hands on him and wanted to kill him, but Reuben, who I always think is a greatly underestimated hero of the faith, persuaded them to put him into a pit instead, as he hoped to rescue him and return him to his father.  But then the brothers conspired together and sold him into slavery to a passing caravan of traders.  Because of God’s love for Joseph and his family, that story ended well and one day the brothers were reconciled.  It was a story of redemption.  But these ancient stories tell us much about hatred between people, even in the same family, and where the roots of war are born.  For war is born in the human heart. 

But we all have good news we must never forget.  Jesus – the Son of God himself - died on the Cross and rose again from the dead to give us freedom from the consequences of all of this.  That we can always hold on to, even in the darkness.  God himself knows and feels with human suffering.  He has never promised us an easy life, but he does promise that he will never leave or forsake us.  And he shows us a better way.

Britain joined the First World War on August 4th, 1914, and we are considering that fateful centenary today.  A short chain of events tipped country after country into the fray on one side or another.  We have heard much about it from the war poets and other contemporary writers in the years since.  The men who fought were from every walk of life, led by young officers and older generals.  Some sat in the pews which used to be in this building itself.

Figures, I know can be mind numbing, but let’s just remember the scale of this thing.  By 1918, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million.  There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.  The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians.  At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.  Million, million, million, million. A lot of unimaginable, unquantifiable numbers.  So many of a whole generation wiped out.  And each one person in those millions was precious and special to someone.

This is why thinking about our 15 remembered lives matters so much.  The work that Maggie Brown has carried out with great care and precision on the names on our War Memorial gives that long-ago war a human face. It shows us more clearly than anything else could, the individual suffering in war and the cost to those who were left behind.

We need to remember that history is real.  That it is not just stories, but the real experiences of real people, which cannot be airbrushed out.  As the mother of a son, I cannot begin to imagine how I would have felt if he had to leave to fight.  But leave to fight they did, saying goodbye with enormous courage and resolve on doorsteps or in railway stations, and in the case of our 15, one day dying as a result of fighting.

It affected the world so deeply that the peace settlements and decisions taken afterwards laid not only the seeds of another global confrontation only a generation later but also the seeds of Middle Eastern wars today. But I am not here to give you a history lesson.  I am here to talk about what God would have us do.

Where was God in the First World War? He was there, I believe, grieving beyond measure, because those who died and were injured were all his beloved children.  Jesus gave his life for just such situations as these, that we might all be redeemed from the terrible things that we may be forced to do by circumstances.  And also to redeem us from the terrible things we choose to do ourselves. God was there in people like Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, who was an Anglican priest and poet.  He was nicknamed 'Woodbine Willie' during World War I for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with spiritual aid to injured and dying soldiers.  God was there in those who cried out in anger, in poetry and prose like prophets, at the time and later. He was there in the families longing for loved ones to return home.  But above all, God was there suffering with all the young men who had to fight.

What, you may say?  Jesus was non-violent! Even at his arrest, He didn’t want his disciples to use the sword. He went to His own death almost silently. But Jesus knew, for He had struggled with great suffering in prayer, and He knew that His death was necessary to his Father God.  For it was through Him and only through Him that the world could be saved from the consequences of its violence and hatred and all the other sins humans commit.  He died that we might all be free. And through his suffering on the Cross, God knew human suffering for Himself. 

The men fighting in the First World War had little choice.  Some stood out as conscientious objectors but it took great courage and they had a very hard time.  It is true that many had volunteered or even tried to fight under-age, but it wasn’t a desire to kill that drove them.  It was patriotism and a real belief that they were doing the right thing. The climate at home was also not at all favourable to those who would not fight.  And very many of those who fought were conscripted.  It was something you did for your country, your area, your family.  And you did it with great courage and fortitude.

With hindsight, it looks as though the First World War could have been avoided.  But hindsight is not a teacher – it is a delusion.  It is a truism that what we learn from history is that nobody ever learns the lessons of history.  Time and time again there are wars.  When we think of our fifteen young men who walked away from their homes in this area to fight so long ago, we wish fervently that the war they fought in had indeed been the war to end all wars. But of course it was not so, and all the wishing in the world cannot change it.  But their sacrifice was powerful and they made it for the sake of a free world, which was worth defending. 

All of us will probably have someone in our family who had to go and fight in the First World War. Some came back, some did not.  It is right that those who did not are remembered in peoples’ hearts and in their own communities.  We shall be meeting these fifteen men again on and around Remembrance Sunday, when we hope to offer an even bigger exhibition, but this depends on funding.  

Meanwhile, what can Christians do about war? We must oppose it in any way we can.   We can pray for an end to war and pray for the work of peacemakers.  We can pray for the United Nations and campaign to see that our politicians work through the UN and worldwide relief agencies to help victims of war and to negotiate to try to win peace.  We can protest against war and injustice.

In this church we can look at our War Memorial then at our 15 remembered lives and see the people who went out from our own fellowship to give their lives in warfare.  We can learn about them and remember them.  We can honour them. We can see that other members of our community learn about them too, as we look face to face at our own people who fought for King and country.   Amen. 

Sue Brooks (Sermon for Wanstead URC, 10 August, 2014, edited.)