To whom shall we go? A sermon for the Anniversary of the Battle of Loos

On 27 September 2015, the Colours of  the 4th/5th Battalion, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, were laid up in the Old High Church. The Camerons were the local regiment, and the Old High was their Regimental Church, and now houses the Camerons Memorial Area. The service took place at the time of the anniversary of the Battle of Loos (1915) in which many Camerons were killed and injured. The Loos commemoration was previewed in the Inverness Courier

Scripture Readings: Ephesians 6.10-18 (King James Version)
John 6:60-69 (Good News Bible)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today our congregation is delighted to once again play host to the members of the Cameron Highlanders Association. I know that you will enjoy the comradeship of your reunion weekend. Yet a service like this has a more sombre tone, especially when, as we do today, we recall an event which led to such loss of life for the regiment- and, of course, for many others. Some of you here served in the regiment, and heard about the Battle of Loos alongside other stories from your regimental history. Others of you are descended from family members who were at the battle- for you, this is family history. And then some of you will be here because of your connections with the battalions whose colours we receive into safekeeping here at the Old High today.

When, later, we hold an act of remembrance, there will, I am sure, many individuals who will be remembered- those who fell at Loos, even although it was so long ago, but also others, known to you through your association with the Cameron Highlanders Regiment, or through your family histories. Hardly any family in these islands was left untouched by the great wars of the last century. The loss was enormous, and for some, the gaps still remain.

Those of you who are members of the regimental association will also be remembering, I’m sure, your friends and comrades who have died more recently. In that, of course, you are no different from the rest of us, who watch people we’ve known and loved grow older. Yet there is something about living and working together which creates a special bond. I’ve never experienced military life, but I know, for example, the friendship I made during my student days remain very precious to me, for with those people I went through a very important phase of my life. I’m sure the bond that is formed among military men is even stronger.

So it is good to pause and to remember and to reflect at a service like this- it’s important, and it’s human, and it’s good. Take time, today, to pause and reflect and remember- and pray.

TheWarThatWillEndWar-01Thinking the Battle of Loos, and those other terrible First World War battles, there is phrase which haunts me, as I’m sure it must haunt anyone who has any sense of history. As I wrote this sermon I looked up the phrase in my dictionary of quotations- always a useful book for a minister to have at his fingertips. It’s a famous phrase, but I did not know exactly where it came from. I thought it had been coined in the aftermath of the Great War. But its origin appears to have been the title of a 1914 book by HG Wells. And I found it was used in a slightly different form as part of the speech given by Prime Minister Lloyd George in the House of Commons at the Armistice, on 11 November 1918:

At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say thus, this fateful morning came an end to all wars. (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations 496.15; Wells- 846:25)

‘The war to end all wars’. A haunting phrase, for we now know that the Great War was not to be the war to end all wars. Yet at the time, you see why everyone from the Prime Minister downwards must have hoped and prayed it to be. And you’d have thought that after the slaughter on the Western Front, there might have been a chance that humanity would be so appalled at what had happened, nations would find new ways to settle their differences. But it was not to be. The guns may have fallen silent on the Western Front, but war and turmoil did not stop. The consequences of the Great War continued to affect millions, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Around the world, wars did not stop, and it all blew up anew in 1939.

Even after 1945, the horror of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not enough to bring is to our senses. And the Cold War which followed has now been superseded by more wars. For the people of Syria, and other parts of the Middle East, for example, war continues to have devastating consequences, including the tragedy of the refugee influx to Europe, which has seen thousands drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years. ‘The war to end all wars’ now seems like an empty phrase.

Why is it so hard for us to truly end wars? The Bible has a strong sense that we constantly live with conflict. Our Epistle today reminds us that that conflict is often seen as a spiritual conflict. The Letter to the Ephesians was written when Christianity was a new religion. There were no great church buildings, no long spiritual tradition to draw on. Christians were suspect, for they did not owe allegiance to gods of Rome. Indeed, before long they would be struggling with persecution and martyrdom. Meanwhile, there was a spiritual conflict.

For all Christians know that it is a struggle maintain their faith, whether today or in the ancient Roman Empire. We often have a sense that there are forces within us, and outside us, which seek to shake or destroy our confidence in God. The author of Ephesians personifies the enemy- he speaks of the devil. And he uses a military metaphor to speak of how we might defend ourselves- ‘Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil’.

It is a colourful passage, which speaks of Christian virtues and compares them to the familiar equipment of a Roman soldier- the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and so on. And he does so because he is sure that there are spiritual enemies out there.

And here, perhaps, is a clue to why the evil of war and the wickedness of the hatred which causes it, always seems to be with us, and why we find it so hard to end war. We read:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ultimately, the enemies of Christians are not human (‘flesh and blood’) but spiritual. We may no longer quite think of the world in that way, of the world being affected by angels and demons. And yet we still, do we not, have a sense that we are often subject to forces we cannot control. Political decisions, economic developments, technological change, scientific developments, economic changes- all these things affect us, for good or ill. New medical research might prolong our lives, but an economic downturn might wipe out the pension we need to enjoy that life! Forces we can’t control seem to buffet us- and that does call for us to have some kind of defence, a spiritual armour, with which we can face whatever the world throws at us.

Above all, Ephesians suggests prayer: ‘Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit’. Now, we might be used to praying in church, on the parade ground. We might even pray in panic when the shells burst around us, or at the bedside of a loved one. But praying always? Or as St Paul puts it elsewhere, ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17). That might seem strange, even extreme. How can we pray all the time- how would there be time for anything else?

But what I think Paul means by praying without ceasing is that we learn to develop a sense of God’s constant, enfolding presence with us. Whatever we are doing, or wherever we are, we should be aware that that God is there, and God goes with us. Our Celtic ancestors understood this very well. They were aware that they did nothing in which God was not present. They had prayers for everything, even the humdrum, ordinary things of life- lighting the fire, milking the cow. The ancient Celtic hymn we are about to sing expresses this so well:

thou my best though, in the day or the night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

We need, in our day, to rediscover that sense of living surrounded by the presence of God. It’s our best spiritual armour! Pray without ceasing- for as an old Yiddish proverb puts it, ‘Prayer goes up and blessings come down’ . Be like the man who was asked, ‘What is prayer to you?’, and who replied

Prayer is working in my garden. Prayer is sitting in my garden. Prayer is sharing food from my garden. Does that make sense?’

In this world, where we are buffeted by forces we cannot control, we are offered God’s constant presence. That, I think, if what we learn if we can pray always.

Our Gospel reading today sees Jesus in the midst of conflict. He is trying to teach the people, but many of them will not, or cannot, understand. Some of those who had been following find it all too hard, and turn back from following him. And so he turns to his closest friends, his disciples, and in what I imagine was an exasperated tone of voice, says, ‘And you- would you also like to leave?’

Simon Peter, however, cannot imagine any other way. ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life’. I share Simon Peter’s sense that there is nowhere else to go. The Gospel of Christ, which speaks so eloquently of peace and forgiveness, is surely still the only place to go in this world of forces beyond our control.

As today we reflect and remember and pray, and also as we enjoy the company of old comrades, may we know the presence of God in it all. For to whom else can we go with our memories of the past, and our concerns for the future? And as we go from here, as we continue to travel in an uncertain world, buffeted by forces we cannot control, may we be surrounded by prayer, keeping us in the presence of the Christ, who offers peace beyond our understanding. May God bless us all.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

(Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo