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The 22th Sunday after Pentecost; Remembrance Sunday

Many churches keep this Sunday before November 11 as Remembrance Sunday. Here, our formal Remembrance Day observances will happen downstairs after this service, as a video presentation based on the structure of a cenotaph observance. Please come to that, if you can; it will be very much a remembrance of those who gave their lives for our country of Canada. And also come tomorrow, to the observances detailed in your green bulletin.

For this homily, I want to cast my net a bit wider. It struck me that by a coincidence of world history and the Church year, we are only days past All Saints’ Day, the day on which the Church remember the heroes of our church, many of whom paid with their lives for their faith. And the day after that was All Souls’ Day, on which the Church remembers the ordinary faithful, those who weren’t martyred, or wrote great books of theology, nor were notable leaders of the church, but simple humble faithful folks like us. It came to my mind that we share with those who gave their lives in war a dedication to our country, and we share with the saints and all the faithful departed a common baptism. These themes became interwoven, and it became clear to me that there is a common thread to what we commemorate on Remembrance Day, and what we do in baptism, and, more to the point, in life after baptism. Let me see if I can make it clear for you also.

I remember Remembrance Day. In the later 1950’s in my small Ontario town, Remembrance Day was a “big” event. There would be a Remembrance Day assembly in school the day before, and on the day itself a service at the town cenotaph. (Sixty years ago in small-town Ontario, Remembrance Day was effectively a public holiday.) As a soldier in the local militia tank squadron, twice I was one of the four soldiers that stood guard at the cenotaph with rifles reversed, once I was part of the regimental colour party, other years I was simply with the squadron parading to and from the service. Almost always it was cold; rainy or snowy, somehow fitting the theme of the day.

Remembrance Day services have remained much the same over the years, differing only in scale from small towns to large cities. Even the Ottawa service at the National War Memorial is the same, differing only in the level of political and military leaders attending, and some additional pomp and circumstance compared to those in small towns. We will have much the same later downstairs: National and Royal anthems, prayers for peace, for our nation, for our armed forces, a reading of “In Flanders’ Fields”, “Last Post”, two minutes of silence, a Piper’s Lament, and then Rouse. Then an Act of Remembrance, in smaller towns perhaps including reading of the names of those who had died in wars. Usually (but not here today) the placing of wreaths and poppies, and then a march to the Legion to warm up and have lunch.

The service has stayed the same, but the participants have changed. In my youth, most of my older militia comrades and Legionnaires had served overseas and seen conflict in World War II. On Remembrance Day they remembered their comrades who had not come home, or those who had come home minus limbs and health, and they remembered their own service and counted themselves lucky and privileged to be alive and able to remember on Remembrance Day. Today, relatively few of the participants have direct experience of war, and each year there are fewer, although in the last years those who served in Afghanistan have been added to those who have known armed conflict.

For more than a few years last century and even early in this one Remembrance Day seemed to be increasingly ignored; apparently little being taught about it in schools, let alone being marked in any significant way. Rather than a national day of remembrance, it was seen as a day for veterans only, and there were voices calling for its abolition, if not immediately, then certainly after the last veteran was dead. I’m glad to note that this appears to have been reversed in the last decade or so, possibly because of the notable commemoration of the 100 years passing since our nation’s significant contributions in the 1st World War, but also our contribution to the Afghan conflict. It may be that I was just paying more attention this year, but in the newspapers I read, physical and online, there appeared more opinion pieces, editorials, and op-eds which I labelled “in favour” of Remembrance Day observance than in previous years. I also noted in yesterday’s news, that our Ontario government is adding to the Veterans’ Memorial at Queen’s Park a section devoted to those who fought in the Afghan war, including 158 fallen maple leaves to honour the 158 Canadian Armed Forces members killed in that conflict.

I have ambivalent feelings about war, coming out of my direct experience as a young child in World War II Germany, then my limited service in the Canadian military of which I am nevertheless proud, conflicting with my Christian belief that violence, even for the best of reasons, is, somehow, wrong. (And yes, I am aware of “just war” theology, but by those definitions very few actual wars are “just”.) But I do disagree with those who would devalue or do away with Remembrance Day. I have come to see it differently over the years. I no longer think of Remembrance Day as only a remembrance of the dead of two world wars, the Korean War, and Afghanistan, although that is certainly part of it. I have come much more to see Remembrance Day as a celebration and honouring of two rather old fashioned virtues; commitment and sacrifice. These are virtues that our society greatly lacks and sorely needs. Commitment and sacrifice!

In remembering those who went to war from our communities and country, some willingly, some reluctantly, some who did not return, some who did; in this remembering is the valuing of these two old-fashioned virtues. On Remembrance Day we honour men and women in our history who believed that there were ideals beyond themselves to which it was worth making a commitment; ideals like country, and freedom, human rights, dignity and decency. And, not only did they believe that it was worth making a commitment to these, they were worth a sacrifice of at least some years of life, perhaps health, and even life itself, if necessary. Commitment and sacrifice; old-fashioned ideals; yet our world so badly needs them. Remembrance Day holds these before our people, even if only dimly.

That is where I see common elements in Remembrance Day and baptism. Baptism is also about commitment and sacrifice, except instead of commitment, I want to use an even more old-fashioned word; covenant. In Holy Baptism, a covenant is made between the person baptized, the community into which they are baptized, and God. That covenant, among other things, is one of mutual commitment and sacrifice.

From New Testament times the Church has taught that baptism is not simply a charming ritual, but a sacrament that accomplishes what it promises. Thus it is possible for St. Paul to write quite matter-of-factly to the Roman Christians that “all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death,” that therefore “we too might walk in newness of life,” and having “been united with him in a death like his, . . . will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” It is to this that St. Peter alludes in his 1st Letter: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth [baptism] into a living hope … and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you …” And the words of Jesus, describing the promises of baptism: “Everything the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; … I should lose nothing of all that he has given me … all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life …” (Incidentally, those are, in part, the scripture readings for All Souls’ Day.)

The covenant God makes with us at baptism is a covenant to bring us to eternal life. Our part of that covenant is expressed in the baptismal service. We are called to remembrance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We are asked to renounce Satan, wickedness, evil, and sinful desires; and to turn to Jesus Christ as our only Saviour, trusting fully in his grace and love, and promising to obey him as our Lord.

We also promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. With that promise, we make ourselves a member of the community of Christians, the Church, and that community promises to support us in our Christian life. Thus, the covenant of baptism is one of promises between God and person, person and the community, and community and God. God promises to be our God, to love us and not abandon us, God promises to guide the Christian community into all truth, and we promise to be God’s people.

Mutual sacrifice is one of the consequences of this covenant. God’s sacrifice on our behalf is the very essence of the baptismal covenant. God sacrifices God’s very self, the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, to become human and to die on a cross in order that all who come to him in baptism might have resurrection to eternal life. God, in the divine part of the baptismal covenant, sacrifices the life of God’s son, God-self.
Our sacrifice, promised in baptism, is also our life. We promise to give our life, individually and communally, over to God. We promise to continue in regular prayer and worship, especially regular sacramental worship. We promise to resist evil, to repent when we fail, and to renew the promises of our baptism as often as necessary. We promise to be evangelists, to proclaim what God has done for us to others, not only with our mouths, but more importantly and effectively, with our lives. We promise to love and serve others as if they were Christ himself. And we promise to work for justice and peace for all, and to respect every other human person as a loved child of God, made in God’s image. Living up to these promises, if it is done fully, requires sacrifice; the giving to God of our very self, the giving up of our own needs and desires to the will of God.

Remembrance Day. Holy Baptism. Both about commitment and sacrifice. On Remembrance Deay we remember those who lived out their commitment to ideals beyond themselves in armed conflict, and who sacrificed life itself for those ideals. And a consequence of that Remembrance, unstated, seems to me to be a commitment to those ideals for ourselves, and the sacrifice that might require.

On Sundays we remember our baptism, our membership in the communion of saints, our commitment to a life in Christ. In the Holy Eucharist, we renew our own covenant with God, and God his covenant with us. We again dedicate ourselves to sacrificial living as God’s own people, and we pray that God will give to all the baptized, and especially to us, the grace to live the covenant we made with God and with each other, and to make the sacrifices that demands of us.

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller