Courage and Cost
Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
On September 13th, 1916, a young lieutenant called Leech wrote a letter home to his mother in Canada. It is without doubt one of the most moving and one of the most insightful letters ever written from a theatre of war. He wrote:
Just a wee note. I am going over the parapet and the chances of a sub getting back are about nix. If I do get back, why you can have me the horse laugh. If not, this will let you know that I kicked out with my boots on. So, cheer up, old dear, and don’t let the newspapers use you as material for a Saturday magazine feature. You know the kind, where the sweet-faced, grey haired, little mother, clutching the last letter from her boy to her breasts sobbed, ‘A, ‘e was such a fine lad!’ as she furtively brushed the glistening tears from her eyes with a dish rag, etc.
I am going to tell you this in case my Company Commander forgets: ‘Your son is a soldier, and a dog-gone good one, too’ if he does say it himself, as shouldn’t. And if he gets pipped, it will be doing his blooming job!
In a way, it is darned funny. All the gang are writing post-mortem letters, and kind of half ashamed of themselves for doing it. As one of our officers said: ‘If I mail it and come through the show, I’ll be a joke. I tear it up and get killed, I’ll be sorry I didn’t send it.’
S’ there y’are.
Your loving son,
If ever there was the epitome of the paradox and the pathos of war, it was in this letter. On the one hand, both the selfless courage to go and face the unknown, and on the other, the tragedy of death. For this young lieutenant did not come home. He was killed at the Somme and his mother only has this letter.
War is a paradox. It shows humanity often at its greatest and most courageous and at its worst and most sinful. It shows the power of going into the unknown, the courage of the human soul, the tragedy of death, and the sorrow that trickles through life because of one death. Here we are remembering an event in 1918, a signing accompanier ratified a year later in Versailles that a war, a most horrible war, had come to an end. While we hear and we know the refrain, “It was the war to end all wars” simply because it was so horrendous, we know that its memory was all too soon forgotten. Sometimes, I am asked, “Why would a Christian church on a day such as this hold a service to remember those who had died? Why not just go the Cenotaph? Why not let secular powers have their say.” The reason is that “We are here to remember so the world does not forget.” But more than that, we are here to pray it never happens again. We are here to stand on the shoulders of those who have given their lives for us, and we remember them by name. And, we are here to invoke the power of God so that we may never have to live again through something like that.
In many ways, this very act of worship, this very act of remembrance, is rooted not in war and hatred, not in the lust of violence and the thrill of conflict as is often the case with war, but we are here to remember the power of love. It may in and of itself seem like a paradox to remember a war is to remember love, but it is that very love that makes it so important to be here today. It is founded of course in today’s text. It was there in Christ’s last great conversation with his disciples. He knew that he was going to face death and that the Cross was before him, and in this last real opportunity to be with his disciples, Jesus reminds them of the suffering to come. He knows that they will have to join him in that suffering, and that they will abide in him and he will abide in them. Then, amongst all of these words there is this immortal line, “Greater love hath no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends” – a portent of things to come. For the Cross and the death of Jesus Christ is both the greatest indictment of human sin and conflict and avarice and aggression and the greatest affirmation of the grace and the forgiveness and the self-giving power of the love of God through the Son.
There needs to be no other creed, no other reason on Remembrance Day to do so in the power of the love of Christ, and to remember that in that love there is both courage and cost. Courage was plentiful; courage is to be celebrated. The great William Faulkner once wrote: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” Over a hundred years ago, from this very place there came the Bantams, who eventually became the 261st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Their uniforms were made by members of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. They had their colours presented at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. If you do not take my word, over on that wall they have resided ever since. The Bantams were so named because according to the laws you had to be over 5’ 3” to join the Army, but these were all shorter men, and still they wanted to show their courage and represent their country. Along with others in Vancouver and elsewhere in the Empire, Bantams were created, and then on one remarkable day, on April 18, 1917, the Bantams left this shore from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to go fight in the Great War. They gathered on the docks and boarded the Scandinavian, ready to fight. It was just after the events of Vimy Ridge, and word was probably trickling back about that battle, but it preceded the Battle of Passchendaele. These Bantams must have had the most incredible courage. We think of victories and we think of successes, but we scarcely give a thought to what must have been going on in their hearts and minds. Faulkner was right: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” We are proud of them in this church! We do not know them by name. We do not remember them personally. But, we are here to acknowledge their courage and to say “Thank You!”
We are here to acknowledge one person from amongst our midst who married Margaret Eaton Burden, a name that most Canadians know – Billy Bishop. From this place his marriage began. Yet, his trials, his life, his victories began well before. Well known as a rifleman, with what we would call today “laser-like vision”. On board the ship Caledonia, he went over to fight in Europe. He did so, this Owen Sound lad, and found himself in the trenches. He spoke of it; of horse manure, and used others words to describe it! He saw the dirt and the death, and he looked up to the skies and saw the planes above and thought, “It is clean up there! If I die, I will die clean up there!” So, on March 17th, he joined the 60th Squadron. The first time he went up, his plane crash landed – not an auspicious start! From that moment on, there were all the incredible victories that we hear about – some 72 perhaps. We hear the accolades, his presence looking down on Vimy Ridge providing air support or taking on the Red Baron. He was a Canadian icon, a Canadian hero, and the powers that be were so frightened of losing him, and of him being shot down because they felt it would have the most devastating effect on the psyche of the whole nation. But what we sometimes forget is the incredible courage that he must have needed to go into that unknown sky. Canadian Flight lieutenant, John Brophy, wrote a letter in 1916 describing what it was like to fly in World War I: (I paraphrase)
There are many ways in which you could die. You could fly into a cloud and not know what was on the other side of it – an enemy and their plane! You could fly in a mist above a battlefield and not see anything below, but know that a gun from there could take you down. You could fly into the bullets of an enemy aircraft. You could fly at 10,000 feet, but your engine could cut out and you would plummet to the ground. You could face disorientation (similar to what John Kennedy, Jr. faced, and simply crash because you don’t know where you are).
When Billy Bishop signed up to join the Air Force, the estimated average number of days to exist was eleven! Eleven! If that does not take courage, what does? For all the accolades, plaudits, and victories, it was courage that is the most noteworthy. When Billy Bishop received his Distinguished Service Order, the following was said, “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, while in a single seater, he attacked three hostile machines, two of which he brought down, although in the meantime he was himself attacked by four other hostile machines.” His courage and determination has set a fine example for others. Courage is the example. If that kind of courage is not love, I don’t know what is! Going into the unknown, the unfathomable, not knowing what might occur: Courage!
Look at the cost. Years ago, as a lad, my father took me to a war memorial in East Chevington in the north east of England in Northumbria. We were living in County Durham at the time. My father was a veteran of World War II. He took me to see 74 graves – that is all – that were there from World War I: some of them belonged to Germans who had died in the UK, some Polish soldiers, some Scottish soldiers, and some English soldiers. Just 74, nothing like Vimy, nothing like Arlington, and nothing like many of the great hundreds and thousands in many others, just 74. Yet there was a plaque next to one of the graves, which simply said, “This was one of 40 million who died or were wounded in the Great War.” Forty million individual human lives! John Steinbeck put it so eloquently when he wrote: “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” It is a failure!
In a lecture I attended this week, the actor R. A. Thompson talked very eloquently about the need to remember names, not just remember “them”, to remember the names of those who lost their lives on every side, and to realize that this was a human event of the most incredible devastation; the effects of which affected families, countries, cultures, and societies for decades to come. It reminded me that every single human life, every single person is a mother’s child, and every single victim, either maimed or deceased, is a child of God. Every one of those names is precious. David Temple read for us the names from our church as we always do and must continue. Each name is precious and to be remembered, but there are names that we do not know and there are sacrifices that we will never understand. There are people who have laid down their lives for whom we will have no contact, but that we are here ourselves to be able to remember them is an honour. The cost of war and of humanity’s sin! No one knew this more than Jesus himself, when on the Cross he bore the sins of humanity, when he took on the frailties of the human condition, when he took it all, when he “became above all”, then every single human life becomes precious and meaningful and is remembered.
One name that is often not remembered I suspect anywhere was Bertha Bartlett, who was from Newfoundland. In 1916, she felt the call of God to go and be a nurse in World War I. She too got on a ship, and sailed to the United Kingdom. She ended up in Bermondsey in London, where the most severely injured from the front were brought. Along with 80,000 similar nurses, she cared for those whose limbs had been shorn off, and whose eyes were blinded by gas. She cared for them in such a way that she herself contracted influenza, which was rampant and killing many. On November 3, 1918, just days before the end of the war, Miss Bartlett died. It said on her gravestone these words: “She died for those she loved.” She died for those she loved! Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this: that they lay down their lives for their friends.” Jesus also said, “Now, you must love one another as I have loved you. If you wish to keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, and I will abide in you. This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you.” The very call, it seems to me, of a day of remembrance, courage and cost, of both bravery and the sad reality of human conflict, is to commit ourselves body and soul to the love of our neighbor, as Christ loved us.
There is no purpose in remembering if the world that we make now is not better than the world we inherited. If we only remember those who gave their lives, they remain a distant memory frozen in time, but if we commit ourselves body and soul to a better world, their memory lives on and their sacrifice and their courage and their death is vindicated. One of the most powerful expressions, put in poetry more eloquently than I could ever muster are the words of Timothy Dudley Smith, who in 1926, wrote these incredible words:
Teach us to serve our neighbor’s need,
The homeless help, the hungry feed,
The poor protect, the weak defend,
And to the friendless prove a friend;
The wayward and the lost reclaim
For love of Christ and in his Name.
So may our hearts remember yet
That cross where love and justice met,
And find in Christ our fetters freed,
Whose mercy answers all our need:
Who lives and reigns, our Risen Lord
Where justice sheathes her righteous sword.
To this, we are called in courage and in love. We will remember them! Amen.