We have gathered together today to remember before God those who have gone before us, who gave their lives in war in order that those whom they loved would be saved, and be enabled to flourish in their lives and homes in peace. This year we especially mark the passage of 90 years since the foundation of the Royal British Legion. How can we best honour those who gave their lives for us?
Well, in a simple sense, we can honour them by what we do today – simply by remembering them, and naming them. Anything beyond that runs the risk of being superfluous – but I would run that risk today. Clearly it is in living out our lives freely, making the most of the gift that we have received as a result of their sacrifice, that we do honour them. A straightforward example will demonstrate this point: in Afghanistan today there are girls being educated who would not be were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those men and women serving there. For those schoolgirls to honour those soldiers simply requires them to take advantage of their education, to have and to enjoy better lives. That is enough of a purpose and an honour. Sadly, what seems straightforward thousands of miles away seems much less clear closer to home. For what does it mean in this country to enjoy such better lives? What might it mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought? How can we here, today, best honour those who have given their lives for us?
Earlier this week, as part of his homework assignment from Mersea school, my eldest son has been tasked with learning something about the First World War, most specifically about the trenches. Now the trenches were a barrier, there was the enemy in front, and there was the home to be protected behind. I expect to be going through his homework with him this afternoon, and what I am wanting to teach my son is that the place for battle, the place for military excellence, for courage and skill, is on that front line. But the most important thing is that those virtues are placed in service of something larger – something larger than any one soldier’s own interests or personal advantage. This is what makes the difference between the heroes and the villains in all the stories that he has become familiar with. For example, my son greatly enjoys the Harry Potter stories – Harry Potter fights on behalf of a community and, in the end, he accepts his own death in order that they might flourish. His enemy, Voldemort, is simply pursuing his own immortality, and he is quite willing to dispose of his closest allies if it allows him to get closer to his wish. What I want to do is tie together what he has been learning through reading such fictional stories, with what actually has happened, and does happen, in our world.
It is this sense of serving something larger than our own desires that makes the difference between the hero and the villain, and it is this sense of something larger that I think our society has been forgetting for several decades now. It has become unfashionable to say that there are objective values, that some things are definitely right, and some things are definitely wrong – irrespective of what anyone might actually think about them. It is because our society has been so corroded by this moral relativism that we have the spectacle of young men hanging from the Cenotaph in London during the student protests last December, whose defence was that they didn’t realise the significance of what they were doing. They hadn’t been told the stories, their community hadn’t insisted on the importance of telling them the stories, of saying – this matters.
I asked earlier what it might mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought – and that is Christian language. As Christians we claim that in Jesus is our fullest and truest freedom – and that it is in so far as those who laid down their lives for us did so in resemblance to Jesus laying down his life for us that we honour them, and we remember them. What that means is that their stories find their meaning and purpose through being a part of the larger true story, the story of the creation of the world in love, the breaking of that world through our own sinful mistakes, and then the ongoing healing of that world through a loving sacrifice. As Christians we insist that there are values that are independent of our own judgement or preference, values that are woven into the fabric of this world by the one through whom it was all created, and it is by tuning in to those values and aligning ourselves with them that we start to touch the real and genuine freedom which is God’s intention for us. Freedom is not license, the ability to do whatever pleases us. True freedom comes from recognising the nature of the world and aligning ourselves with it: the truth shall set us free. This is the overall story that binds us together and within which all our own individual stories find their meaning. This is the story that gives us the fabric of our common life – and it is that fabric that has been unstitched over several decades by those with no awareness of the havoc that they have caused – Father forgive them for they know not what they do.
I asked at the beginning of these words what is it that we can do to best honour those who have given their lives for us. I believe that I can now offer you an answer: the answer is simple, but very hard to live up to. We honour them best by telling their stories, and we give those stories meaning by embedding it within the larger story which gives it sense and purpose. We honour our heroes – those who fought for something larger, something bigger than themselves – by also telling the story that is bigger than them themselves. It is this bigger story which allows us as a community to live together and to enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned peace. This is our common story, within which the stories of the veterans and fallen take their place and within which they find their meaning – and we honour them by continuing to tell all of those stories, from the stories of Jesus in the gospels through all the different stories of those who at different times in different places have given their lives and health that we might enjoy our lives and health. As the Kohima declaration has it: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today. That is the essential thing, to best honour those who have given their lives for us: keep the story which structures our lives alive. So today, when you go home, tell them.