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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday


Remembrance Sunday

Memories are strange things. 

We might think of them as something fixed - like photos in an album, or perhaps like files on a computer. A record of something that happened in the past which we can use to recall how things were.

But it turns out that our memories are much more flexible than that.

A few years ago a psychologist showed that our memories of events can be manipulated by the way questions about them are asked. Participants were shown a video of a car crash and asked to estimate how fast the cars had been going. Some participants were asked about the speed of the cars when they ‘hit’ each other, others when they ‘smashed’ each other.  Those asked about the ‘smash’ reported significantly higher speeds - and a week later when they were asked whether there was any broken glass after the crash, those who were told it was a ‘smash’ were much more likely to say yes - even though there had been none. 

The same event produced very different memories.

And you’ll know the same thing from personal experience. Have you ever listened to two people describing the same situation, and hearing so many differences that you wonder whether they were actually seeing the same things? It’s particularly true around an argument or a conflict. Each person remembers what was said or done in profoundly different - even precisely opposite - ways. These kinds of memories can be the root cause of lasting and irreconcilable differences. 

And of course, what’s true for individuals is also true for communities and nations. Our national shared memories are shaped by the way we are told about the past. When powerful voices tell us that we have been wronged in the past, those injustices - which may be imagined, exaggerated or simply invented - can become the truth, and we find ourselves making decisions that have serious consequences. Think of Germany in the 1930’s.

And look into most international conflicts and somewhere at the root of the problem is a dispute about something from the past. Two nations that have profoundly opposed memories about what happened and why. Just ask a group from Northern Ireland, or the Middle East, or Kashmir - their memories of the past will be profoundly different, different enough to lead to war. 

How and what we remember matters. And so as we remember today, we are asked to make commitments: to commit ourselves to listen to those who see the world differently from us and to be cautious when anyone starts trying to shape our memories using ‘smash’ language about the past. 

And there’s something even more important about remembering.

Who we are today is built on an accumulation of experiences which, as soon as they have happened, become memories. And how we process and interpret those experiences and memories is a key part of our identity. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ And he’s right. We can only understand where we are now, what matters to us, who we are even, by looking back at all the experiences and encounters that have brought us to this point in life. I am who I am because of the people who have shaped me and the experiences I have had. The Hugh of today can only be understood backwards. But I can’t live in the past - the only way to live is forwards. My past, and my memories of it, shape the way I will live in the future.

So I know for instance, that it is unwise to drink artichoke liqueur, because I did that once and it made me ill. And I won’t do it again.

And I know that because of profound experiences of God’s presence in my life, I will always want to follow him and to know him better.

And you will have your own equivalents. Our past makes us who we are, but we can’t live in our memories, we can only live forwards. 

We remember those who gave their lives in wars past, and in wars still going on today, not to try to get back to them, but so we can learn from them about how to live into the future. We try to understand backwards, so that we can live forwards.

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker when the Second World War began. She was a Christian, and when a Jewish woman knocked on her door and asked for help, she and her family began to hide Jews in their house. In 1944 a Dutch collaborator informed on them and the family were arrested, and Corrie and her sister were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her sister died, but due to a clerical error, Corrie was released a week before all the women in the camp were gassed, and she survived the war. 

She knew that remembering the past was an essential part of being human. Remembering the horrors of the war, and all the suffering it unleashed, and the evil that ordinary people could do to one another became her mission in life. She wrote a beautiful book about her experience. But she knew the dangers of remembering as well - the unreliability of memory and the conflict that memory can cause. She chose to remember in order to live well going forward - she wrote ‘Memories are the key, not to the past, but to the future’

After the war she returned to Germany and met two of the camp guards from Ravensbruck, including one who had been particularly cruel, and she forgave them both. She then set up a rehabilitation centre back in Holland for camp survivors and Dutch collaborators. She looked backwards in order to change the future. She remembered, and built something better from her memories.

And like her, we’re here to remember. And that in itself is a profound act. Very nearly 100 years after the promise was first made, we are here to remember and to make sure that those who died are not forgotten. And we’re here to put our memories to work - to look backwards in order to build something better. 

So this Remembrance Sunday, what will you do with your remembering? How will you look backwards, in order to change the future for the better? How will you honour those who gave their lives in the past by building peace in the present? 

Perhaps for you, it’s something personal - maybe there is a conflict or disagreement in your own life, or in your family, and you know, deep down, that’s now the time to sort it out.

Maybe you need some inspiration. Find it by reading Corrie ten Boom’s book - it’s called The Hiding Place and there’s a copy on the bookstall at the back of church to look at - and if you’d like a copy, add your name to the list I’ve left there, and we’ll get one to you.

Maybe you want to do something. You want to put something back to build the kind of community that so many young local men died for; you could get involved with Readycall or Connect. Two village groups that support people who are on their own and need a bit of help. Details of both are on the fliers at the back of church.

Or you could try church one Sunday. Someone once said of church that ‘it’s not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners’. Church is a community of people, from every walk of life and background, who are trying to find God in a complex, messy and often difficult world. It’s a community where we remember the promises of God, as we look forwards and try to build the kind of world He wants for us all.

Or maybe there’s something else that’s right for you. 

As we honour the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and all who have suffered in war, what will you do with the memories that are stirred up in us this Remembrance Day?

How will you dig deep into the past to build a better future? 

How will you look backwards in order to live forwards?

‘Memories are the key, not to the past, but to the future’


Posted: 12-11-2017 at 12:49
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