Sermon for 18 August 2013 Cameron Highlanders memorial dedication

Photographs of the new Cameron Highlanders Memorial Area will be online shortly.

The Memorial may be visited when the church is open, usually Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 12 noon and 2-4pm

You may download this sermon as a PDF file here .

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 18 August 2013: Year C, Proper 15
SERMON Texts: Hebrews 11.1 & 11.29-12:2
2 Corinthians 10.1-5
Remembering… for the future
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

 Rev Peter Nimmo (right) and Rev Alasdair MacLennan dedicate Cameron Highlanders' Memorial Area


Rev Peter Nimmo (right) and Rev Alasdair MacLennan dedicate Cameron Highlanders’ Memorial Area

Almost the first time I was in this building, I found, tucked away on the East Stairway, the evocative Martinpuich cross which we have now made the centrepiece of the Cameron Highlanders Memorial Area. We know remarkably little about this object. We have not yet discovered when, or why, it came to this church. But the basic information is painted on the cross:

In memory of officers and men, Sixth Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, who died in the capture of Martinpuich, Sept. 15th 1916.

It is a rather crude construction, made of pieces of wood which must have been what was available on the battlefield afterwards, fashioned into something like a Celtic cross- a reminder of the Highland home of those who died. There are metal strips on which we punched the names of the fallen. Some are missing because, it is said, they were thought to be dead, but turned up later, in field hospitals, wounded. There are many fine sculptures and plaques in this church, some to local worthies, and many associated with the Cameron Highlanders. But this cross, which could almost have the mud of Flanders still sticking to it, is, for me, the most moving of them all. It is a sharp reminder of a terrible conflict, and of how, even when the horror of the battle was still fresh, the soldiers in the field sought to remember their fallen comrades with whatever they had to hand. It is a deeply moving object, and I am glad that more people will see it, in the context of the rolls of honour and other memorials which we have now brought together in the Memorial Area, with its beautiful glass screen designed by Gordon Harvey.

Memorials are for remembering, and remembering is something all human beings want to do. We want to remember people, places, events which are significant to us. Especially people. We don’t want to think that those whom we have known- family, friends, comrades-in-arms- will simply fade from memory. That’s especially true when we lose someone in a sudden, or terrible, way.

I remember once coming across a war memorial in a remote Highland glen. A simple stone Celtic cross, at a crossroads, with a long list of names inscribed on it. Such a long list that I wondered where they had all come from. I looked around, and there seemed to be far more names than there were inhabited houses in that glen. Perhaps losing the cream of their young men had been a blow from which the community had never recovered.

But there was also, on that memorial, a shorter list, of those who had fallen in the next great war- a war of which some you here might be veterans, the war of 1939 to 1945, the Second World War. Just twenty years later, and the crofts, the villages, the towns and cities were once again called upon to make sacrifices for another gigantic struggle. When the First War ended, they had called it ‘the Great War’, and people hoped that it would be the war to end all wars. Somehow we never seem to reach that point. We have not reached it yet, and our television screens continue to show us that people have not learned the lesson that war and violence is the worst way to resolve our differences.

As I prepared for this service, the Rev Alasdair Maclennan kindly gave me a copy of a previous service in this church for the Cameron Highlanders Regimental Association, which perhaps many of you attended, in August 2000. The order of service describes it as ‘A Service to Commemorate the 20th Century’. At a time when many people were partying to celebrate the beginning of a new century, a new millennium, you chose to commemorate the 20th Century which was drawing to a close. We do well to remember that century. For the 20th century saw unparalleled progress in technology, science, and in the standard of living for many ordinary people in this country and around the world. But it was also the worst century in human history in terms of the numbers of people killed in war, or murdered by dictators. For the technological developments included machine guns, bomber aircraft, and gas chambers, to name but a few.

People nowadays, especially younger people, sometimes say that they think religion is the cause of all the wars in the world. Such people seem sadly ignorant of the causes of the wars, and the massacres, and the pogroms of the twentieth century. The causes of the disasters of the 20th century were many, but the ideologies which caused the wars and drove the murders and the massacres rarely had religious roots. Too often they were the ideologies of the nineteenth century, taken to terrible extremes, especially the ideology of extreme nationalism and chauvinism. These ideologies, such as communism or fascism, were usually anti-religious. They sought to supersede Christianity. Those who sought to implement them believed themselves exempt from the old rules. And so the gulag and the concentration camp developed. Sometimes they conscripted religion to their own ends, and some Christian people were tragically misled by they. But religion was not the fundamental driving force behind the wars of the twentieth century.

I was once showing an interfaith group around this building. I pointed out the Cameron colours, the war memorials, the rolls of honour, Donald Caskie’s communion set, and, of course, the Martinpuich cross. Eventually a Moslem who asked me why there seemed to be so many military artefacts in the church- he was genuinely puzzled by that.

The answer, of course, is that in the horrors of the twentieth century, after two great wars and many other conflicts, our churches in this country were often places where we wished to memorialise those who had died. It is as if we can bring to God our memories, our losses, our horror at all which happened in that last, terrible, century. We will continue to need memorials, not just remember people long dead, but to stand as testimony to the horror of war, a warning to each new generation.

Today Donald Maclauchlan read to us part of a great passage from the New Testament about the meaning of faith. Faith, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That has always seemed to me to be a rather wonderful definition of faith. Churches re buildings which are raised in faith. If we create memorials in churches, perhaps it is because Christian faith has a sense in which, even as we look back, we are encouraged to look for the future.

And so the writer of the letter to the Hebrews looks back as he describes the ways in which people in the past kept the faith. Just as we look back today, so also when this first-century writer looks back to heroes whose courage enabled them to overcome adversity. And yet this is a difficult passage to read, for it speaks of people caught up in war, mothers seeing their sons killed, men and women subjected to torture and violence, being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword- because they kept true to their faith, to what they believed in. The writer is using the stories of the sufferings and the perseverance of these past heroes of the faith to encourage today’s disciples in their faith. His stories are memorials- to remind us to keep the faith, as our ancestors have done.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. We dedicate this memorial in faith, perhaps because we also still need the assurance of what we hope for, the conviction that what we cannot yet see might still come to pass. We hope for a world which will no longer need war memorials, for war will be on more. Christian faith looks to a future era when God’s peaceable kingdom will be established on the earth, and conflict will be no more. As the prophet Isaiah put it:

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2.4)

To believe that God might finally bring peace to the world is truly an act of faith- something to be hoped for, even if we cannot yet see it happening. But in Jesus Christ, it begins to happen. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the birth of Christ was proclaimed by angels who sang of ‘peace on earth’ (Luke 2.14). When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, his disciples cried, ‘Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven’ (Luke 19.38). And yet as he approached the city, he wept, for he saw that war would destroy the city before long, because the people of the city had not ‘recognized on this day the things that make for peace’. So Christians are called to recognise and encourage the things that make for peace. Jesus calls those who undertake the difficult work of making peace ‘God’s children’ (Luke 5.9) and call his followers to find ways of being reconciled to their enemies (Luke 5.21-26, 38-48).

Many of the New Testament letter begin or end with a greeting of peace (for example, Romans: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ’. The promise, here, is of an inner peace, which comes from knowing God, whom Paul often describes as ‘the God of peace’ (e.g. Philippians 4.9). Yet for all the talk of peace in the New Testament, there is often imagery of struggle, even violence. In the second passage, read for us by Alan, St Paul writes to the Corinthians about conflict in the church. His enemies tried to portray him as weak. And, indeed, there’s evidence that Paul was a rather short man, with not much of a voice, who was often sickly.

But Paul often spoke of the paradox of Christianity, which is that weakness is strength. So, he says, has his own, spiritual weapons, with which he can fight his battles. But there are not the weapons of war which people in his day were familiar with. Paul’s time was the age when the Romans had conquered almost the entire known world with a ruthless military machine. But Paul says, ‘we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds’. The weapons of the God of peace are powerful, but they are not violent.

We like to think of our gods being powerful. Yet the central image of Christianity is that of a young man, his body bloodied and broken, nailed to a cross, dying. It is an image of weakness and defeat. We are told that when his disciples saw it, most of them ran away, for it of course seemed to them that his enemies had triumphed. And for Christ to die in such a brutal, violent way must have seemed the ultimate negation of his message of peace. Yet Christ, says the Letter to the Hebrews, chose to endure the pain and shame of the cross. For the faith of the church is that on the third day after his death, Christ rose again. Now, we believe, he sits at the right hand of the throne of God.

And so, at Martinpuich, and in so many other places of violence, brutality and tragedy around the world, we have placed crosses. For the cross speaks to us are reminds of the brutality and violence of war, but also the perseverance, and courage of those who put themselves at risk for the sake of what they believe is right. And the cross also speaks of the possibility of redemption, the promise of peace, the hopes which we all share- regardless of our creed or nationality- for a better world, a world where there will be war no more. My prayer is that this memorial will be a place of pilgrimage and remembrance, but also a place of hope and faith. May our memories of the past encourage us to work today for a better future.

Ascription of Praise

Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!

From 1 Peter 1.3-4

Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo