On 8th November, Remembrance Sunday, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 62:5-12, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 1:14-20.
It’s odd the things that stick in our minds – snippets of memories from various parts of our lives. Sights, scents, words, people can suddenly pop up in our minds for no apparent reason. In among the jumbled memories of favourite toys, grandparents, pets, camping adventures, marriage, birth of children and so on, I still recall my exams taken at the age of sixteen. I still have the exam papers all these years later. One question particularly sticks with me from my history exam: “Describe the causes and effects of the Boer War.” Our history syllabus covered 1890 to the present day, being at that time 1969. It was a pretty miserable chunk of world history to study, mostly defined by war it seems to me. The Second Boer War ushered in the 20th Century. That faded into insignificance compared to the First World War. The Second World War followed just two decades after the First had finished. Sadly, we didn’t get time to study beyond WWII so we didn’t reach any really good news at all.
This year there have been celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. In Britain we remembered VE Day on 8th May. Victory in Europe Day was when Germany surrendered in 1945. The war carried on in the Far East, until 15th August which was called VJ Day. On that day this year while the Queen was attending a church service and meeting veterans in Britain, there were commemorations in Japanese and US cities and a memorial service at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.
It would be nice to think that finally war is over, that humans have learnt better ways to deal with their conflicts. However, from probably as far back as can be reliably traced, perhaps around 4000 BC, there has been conflict between people groups. From 2925 BC there has been nearly continuous conflict in the world. For just 26 days since the Second World War ended in 1945, there has been a lack of war in the world. That does not mean a lack of conflicts on those few days, as war is defined as a conflict in which 1000 or more people die in a given calendar year. Lower casualty figures would not class as war.
A brief look at or listen to the news soon informs us that war continues in much of the world. There is a Wikipedia page dedicated to recording ongoing armed conflicts. Several of those which are producing too low a level of casualties to be called war, have been ongoing for decades, such as in Kashmir and Myanmar. A map shows where the various wars are currently being waged. Major wars, in which 10,000 or more have died this year, continue in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Wars affect Mexico, Ukraine, African countries from Libya south to The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.
Despite these facts, there is evidence that less people now die in war than they did in the past. Just after the Second World War, around half a million people a year were dying in conflicts. In 2007 that number was just over 22,000. As you might imagine, the numbers began to climb after that. So far this year casualties are around 125,000 and the year is not finished. That is still a long way from the worst years.
Of course, if we relied on the figures about casualties in war to determine how we feel, our mood would go up and down, from hope to despair, like the graphs that have been produced. For Christians, we have a more solid basis in which to put our trust. As the psalmist counsels: “Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul; for in him is my hope.” We can rely on God, not because we are ignoring the facts but because “power belongs to God.” Christian hope is based on something more solid than wishful thinking.
Despite the fact that we have this hope, we are not ignoring the sacrifice in the past and ongoing of those caught up in war. Sacrifice is as much a part of the Christian faith as hope is. As the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Jesus understood sacrifice; he understands what those who have fought in war have done in sacrificing themselves for others. If human beings could deal with their own sin, there would have been no need for Jesus to offer himself as a sacrifice. If we could perfect ourselves, there would be no war and no one would die in conflict.
We are, however, not stuck as we are, powerless to change anything. Prayer has the power to change situations. It brings God and his power to bear on whatever we pray for. Even when we feel overwhelmed or without knowledge of what to pray, we’re promised that the Holy Spirit will do the praying for us. We can bring every situation of conflict to God, whether it be war between countries, disagreements in families or internal struggles within ourselves.
When we pray for peace, it’s important that peace begins with each of us. We cannot ask God to sort the world out without in the process expecting him to sort us out as well. All situations of conflict start with individuals and it’s only when enough individuals choose the way of reconciliation that our world will become more peaceful. Each of us is called by Jesus, as he called those first disciples, to follow him. Following Jesus means to notice his every move and seek to do likewise. This was the way those ordinary men gradually changed from fishermen, tax collectors and so on. They watched, they learnt, they were transformed.
One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth. One day the vision of Isaiah and Micah will come true: people will beat swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks and nation will not make war against nation any more. What a glorious hope!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor