Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8
When I wrote this sermon before leaving for my meeting this past week, we were thinking about having “In Flanders FieId” as part of the opening of the service. I know how much the poem means to many people – especially on this 100th anniversary of the ending of the 1st World War. I remember memorizing and reciting it proudly as a child. Some have called it Canada’s national poem. The problem for church, though, is with those last few lines. “Take up our quarrel with the foe…. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.” Those words are a call to keep fighting, and that is the last thing we should be calling for as a Christian community, in this time and in this place! God’s dream is for a world where fighting will cease, and military solutions will be replaced with justice and righteousness and compassion. This is the call of God through the prophets, including the prophet Micah we hear from today.
So what does a preacher do? She does some research. The man who wrote that poem, John McRae, was a physician who signed up as a gunner and a medical officer with the Canadian forces during the First World War. He was a soldier through and through. He believed that some things were worth fighting for, even at the cost of human lives, including his own. His poem is not a hymn in praise of war, despite its later use in pro-war propaganda; instead, it is a song of grief at the loss of young lives. It was written after he presided at the funeral for a friend killed in action. “ Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/ Loved and were loved, and now we lie/ In Flanders fields.” Yes, the ghostly dead of his poem call their comrades to keep fighting, because the belief those young soldiers held was that the fighting would eventually lead to peace. It did – temporarily, 100 years ago – until in 21 years, only a generation later, the world found itself again at war.
Indeed, many historians would say that rather than two World Wars, the second was a continuance of the first. The late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have seen many of the divisions created by the powers of WW I and II come back to haunt us, and new revolutions, independence movements, and civil wars are being fought on the territories created, divided or united artificially by the treaties that followed the wars.
War is never a permanent solution, because it does not solve the deep sense of injustice carried by many or the greed of the wealthy or the desperation of the poor or the narcissism of leaders or the willingness of people to be led astray by them. But until the majority of humanity truly seeks the ways of peace, we will find ourselves needing armed forces to protect the innocent and to enforce international law. I wish it weren’t so, but it seems that due to the sin that is so much a part of our world, it is a fact. I am grateful that there are those who are brave enough to take on that call, and I grieve the loss of life and health and emotional well-being that so often comes to those who walk through the fire on our behalf. Today we celebrate the service of our living and serving members and veterans, and mourn the passing of those who made the ultimate sacrifice – a sacrifice which God does not demand, but which human conflicts too often require of our soldiers and civilian peacekeepers, over and over and over again.
So we have heard the voice of the grieving soldier – the voice of one who may have truly believed that the war in which he fought would be the war to end all wars. We also heard earlier a story based on a genuinely healing project in the midst of a country torn by civil war – a project built on forgiveness (The Forgiveness Garden, based on the story of a Peace Gardon in Beirut, Lebanon). Now let us hear a reflection on the voice of God through the prophet Micah:
Voice 1: With what shall we come before the Lord?
Voice 2: We come with grief at the fighting that sees no end. We come with despair at the wars upon wars. We come with longing for all conflict to cease.
Voice 1: With what shall we bow before God on high?
Voice 3: We bow with sorrow. We bow with guilt. We bow with the knowledge of our warring ways. We are bowed by the violent, unkind, divisive words we have spoken; the arguments we have fuelled; the sparks of malice we have not extinguished; the injustices we have silently witnessed and from which we have walked on by.
Voice 1: Shall we come before God with burnt offerings?
Voice 4: Burnt cities, burnt homes, burnt military targets, burnt schools.
Voice 1: Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?
Voice 3: Thousands of missiles, thousands of guns, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dollars.
Voice 1: With ten thousand rivers of oil?
Voice 5: Rivers of oil, rivers of blood, rivers of tears.
Voice 1: Shall we give our firstborn for our transgressions?
Voice 2: And our secondborn and our thirdborn, the little ones and the forgotten ones, the unnamed ones and the unmourned ones, and how many more will die for our transgressions?
Voice 1: Shall we give the fruits of our bodies for the sins of our souls?
Voice 4: Our children’s lives for our inability to dwell in peace.
Voice 1: God has told us, mortal as we are, what is good,
Voice 5: what is wholesome, what is fine, what is constructive, what is life-giving, what is hopeful, what is beautiful.
Voice 1: What does the Lord require of us,
Voice 4: need from us, plead with us, demand of us, insist upon, implore us?
Voice 1: To do justice,
Voice 3: rebalance the inequalities, redistribute the resources, recalibrate the power, until the cry is “Life is fair!”
Voice 1: Love kindness,
Voice 2: cherish the voices that speak gently, honour the hands that help, emulate the hearts that are open, follow the feet that walk the extra mile, celebrate the time that is shared generously.
Voice 1: Walk in humility,
Voice 3: knowing we don’t know it all,
Voice 5: there is always more to learn,
Voice 2: we need each other,
Voice 4: we are made for community,
Voice 2: great leaders are great servants,
Voice 5: and peace is not,
Voices 2,3: peace is not,
All: peace is not an impossible DREAM. AMEN.
(The Litany of Remembrance is from the Spill the Beans lectionary curriculum. Used by permission)