Greater love hath no man…

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

Last November, the Rev’d Fr. Blake Sawicky invited me to preach for the Remembrance Sunday Requiem Mass at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. I had a wonderful time with the people of S. Stephen’s, and was particularly struck by their generous warmth in leading me through the dignified dance of the liturgy as it is offered in that fine parish.

A Sermon Preached at S. Stephen’s Church, Providence, Rhode Island

On Remembrance Sunday, November 10, 2013

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 8:31-39; John 15:9-17

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.[1]

So did Wilfred Owen, soldier and poet of the First World War, begin his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Today, his bitter words must give us pause. For today we are gathered to keep Remembrance Sunday—we are gathered to amend the maimed rites of those who died not in the bosom of family and friends at the end of a long, full life, but suddenly—violently, amidst the noise of war and in the heat of battle, with

…no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.[1]

The question before us, then, is: can we do it? Can we here assembled—and all of those assembled across the English-speaking world on this Sunday before November 11—by our prayers and praises fill up the measure of what was lost—of what was taken from them? Can we complete, by solemn rites this day, the hasty orisons of the battlefield dead?

Can we even grasp the scope of our task? For before all else, we must recognize that our duty this day is made more difficult by the ever-expanding reach of this day. Remembrance Day—Veterans Day—comes on November 11 each year. Tomorrow we will mark ninety-five years from the Armistice: the cease-fire, the peace that followed the Great War which was called “the war to end all wars.” But how mocking, now, does that name sound! For the war to end all wars was not the last of its line. The war to end all wars begot many sons and daughters—numberless children of violence, a vast family of suffering—who made the twentieth-century the most costly of human life in the long history of the world.

And war’s dread family thrives still: breeding, growing, spreading, killing. So it is that the ranks of the honored dead this day are not restricted to Wilfred Owen—himself killed just one week before the Armistice—and his fallen comrades of the Great War. For to their company has been added the dead of the Second World War, and the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War, and the ongoing War in Afghanistan, and the Second Gulf War, and all the other conflicts and all the other wars that have demanded of this nation and her allies the tribute of blood.

So, beloved, I ask again: what can we offer this day? What can the Church say in a world where wars do not cease, where Death’s long reign goes unchallenged, and where so many die still without passing-bells or proper prayers?

The answer, I think, is: nothing. Or at least, nothing at first. The only real response to the horror of war begins in silence. That’s why silence—a deliberate, conscious, long silence—is always an important part of Remembrance Day observances. That’s why silence is at the heart of the Act of Remembrance that we will offer together in just a few moments.

And indeed, a Remembrance Day that does not begin in silence will fall too easily to the temptation—ever-present in the capricious hearts of humankind—to make this into an “us-and-them” day: a day to celebrate “our glorious dead who fought for freedom and truth and goodness,” and to scorn, “their wicked drones who fought for oppression, and tyranny, and degradation.”

But to begin in silence is to avoid the jingoism and the blind nationalism that might bedevil this day, and to see instead the horror of war as it spreads its pall evenly over the guilty peoples of the world. For each passing year reveals more clearly the difficult truth: that heroism and horror are found always on both sides of a conflict; that my capacity to commit atrocities is matched by my enemy’s capacity to show humanity; and that the dividing line between good and evil runs not along the shifting borders of national boundaries but through the very middle of each human heart and soul.

This, at last, is what war reveals: not that we are good and they are bad, but that our common humanity is profoundly muddled, eminently corruptible, and deeply flawed. And in the silence of remembrance—as we recall the toll of war and count the cost of violence—that is a truth from which we cannot hide.

But out of that same silence, a truth greater than our brokenness rises to meet us. Out of the silence of remembering rises the assurance of a promise. While war in its horror seems strong, it shall not hold sway forever. While hate and its minions surround us, their power shall not stand unchallenged. While Death and its forces appear triumphant, they will not reign at last.

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The promise we hear from the Prophet Isaiah is not rooted in the failing memories or the faltering aspirations of humankind. It is not a promise asking us to remember well enough or to try hard enough or to mourn deeply enough. Indeed, the promise of peace that comes this Remembrance Sunday is not dependent on us at all.

For the promise that rises out of our silence this morning is founded in the everlasting purposes of the Living God. We find strength this day to offer our prayers and praises—strength to commend to God our departed—strength to work for a world wherein nation shall not lift up sword against nation—because we know that these things will be accomplished not by the strength of human power nor the perfection of human might, but by the will of the Lord of Hosts.

So runs the promise. But how, dear people, can we keep faith with that promise? Where do we find our hope in a world still riven by war and hatred?

We keep the faith—we dare to hope in this promise—because that which was announced in the words of the prophets has been fulfilled in the Word made Flesh.

God’s promises have been fulfilled, not in spite of our sorrow but in the midst of it. God’s purposes have been carried out, not in spite of this world’s violence but through it. God’s assurance that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” has been made manifest not in spite of our blind hatred but by our blind hatred.

For if you would see the price of our warring madness, look to the crucified Jesus! If you would seek for peace in this broken world, cleave to the Cross of Calvary! If you would know the depth of the greater love, hold fast to the Lord of Glory reigning from the tree. Know with fear and trembling that your sin and my sin and all the sins of our vicious race have put him there. Then hear in awe and wonder as he calls you, “Friend.”

That word of love is spoken by the God who would not hold himself apart—who did not keep himself aloof—who would not abandon us to our brokenness, but who came down into the muck and mire of this life; who came down to the bloody front lines of human pain and loss; who came down to die the death of one lonely, forgotten, abandoned, and forsaken. And just as the promise of peace rises out of the silence of our remembrance, so too does the hope of fulfillment—the hope of a new creation—rise from the borrowed tomb of God’s own Son.

Beloved, we are given no assurance that life will be easy—that this world will be kind—that the horrors of war will suddenly become sensible—that every life lost in battle will have served a greater purpose. But what we hear this Remembrance Sunday is the holy promise that nothing—neither pain nor sorrow, neither horror nor hate, neither changes nor chances, neither accidents nor indignities, neither senseless loss nor bitter disappointment, neither inglorious death nor degraded living—nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For into the trenches of this world, Jesus has come. Onto the battle-scarred face of this earth, God has stepped. In his flesh meets the violence of the victor and the rage of the vanquished. In his body has he borne all our griefs and carried all our sorrows. By his death, we have died. In his life, we are made alive.

So let us pray that, by the tether of his Holy Spirit, he will bind us one to another, and the living to the dead. Let us pray that, by the strength of his grace, by the might of his love, we may rise from the silence of this Remembrance Sunday to commend to his faithful keeping the honored dead. And then let us join our voices with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing their unceasing hymn to the praise and glory of his Name.

AMEN.

[1] “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. New York: New Directions Books, 1965.

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