Sunday, November 06, 2011

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 4
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.* 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.* 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

In trying to describe the passage of time, I might do it like this:

If the first third of your life, say to age 30, feels like an hour, and the second third of your life, say age 30 to 60, feels like 15 minutes, then the final third must feel something like Star Trek warp speed.

I don’t want to bring you down, I’m just fascinated by the accelerating passage of time. I once thought time was scientific, measured by the National Research Council, the long dash after five seconds of silence indicates one o’clock Easter Time. I was wrong. Time is completely flexible and serves only to make us anxious.

When I first came to Toronto, just shy of 20 years ago, I had two World War One veterans in my congregation. A decade later I was in Scarborough, and still managed to find two people who could share childhood memories of the First World War. They were in there 90’s, and could remember (with some terror) Zeppelin attacks on London.

Today only one veteran remains, Florence Green, who served in the Women's Royal Air Force. She’s 110, and lives with her 90 year-old daughter in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. 65 million combatants in the First World War, and one remains. We reach the end of “living memory” and there is a sense that we are somehow diminished, that something real and present to us will soon be gone.

Of course, this has always been so. The last veteran of the War of 1812 died in 1905, the last 1837 rebel died in 1914 and the last veteran of the US Civil War died in 1956. Historians mark these dates and bracket time to record the moment when an eyewitness account is not longer available, when the story of a conflict can no longer be told.

So we are encouraged to ask questions, and encourage the people who were there to tell their story. Even Thucydides, writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, knew that the names and dates of battles paled in comparison to importance of an eye-witness account.

Sadly, access to the first-person account of war will not leave us soon. The nations of the world continue to produce veterans, wars are fought and won, and the long-ago idea of the “war to end all wars” passed along with all those who spent time in the trenches.


St. Paul wrote these words:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

On a Sunday when we remember the fallen, it seems appropriate to hear what St. Paul has to say to the church on the topic of death. Some have suggested that 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest letter, and being largely pastoral in nature, seems to reflect on the real concerns of his audience.

The church was worried about those who passed away before Christ’s promised return. Would they miss the Second Coming? Would they be overlooked in favour of the living? It was a real concern for those who believed that Christ would return at a particular moment-in-time, meet the faithful, and return to God without taking into account those already gone.

In his letter, Paul claims the opposite. It is the dead who have died to the Lord who will be taken up first, and only then will the living meet God in the air. Those who have passed await the end of time, and the living can take comfort knowing that God has not forgotten them.

And Paul, writing these words with the abiding sense that Christ’s return was right around the corner, would not have known that these words still apply today. And even if you are among the many believers who discount the idea of the Second Coming, the question of those who have died is still pressing. We want hope, we want to know that the promise of eternal life is true.


Paul addresses another question, one that contemporary study has confirmed. He says “we do not want you to be uninformed…so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” In effect, he is reminding his friends that there are many who live without hope in the face of death, and that they need not be among that group. He is assuring them, but he is also claiming a kind of superiority for believers.

In our time, and certainly within the United Church, this has become a problematic idea. We no longer triumph our superiority over other faiths, we no long condemn non-Christians to hell, we even have a hard time telling people that the United Church has more to offer than those other churches. All of this is a good thing. Telling your neighbours over potluck to only United Church people are going to heaven seems rude, to say the least.

So we make everyone equal, we nod when people say “it’s more important to be good than to go to church” and we may even believe it. We don’t want to have a lock on the truth anymore, mostly because the other people who claim to have a lock on the truth are just scary. We would rather say nothing than claim to have something, because being better than others seems, well, un-Canadian.

But what if we are better? Reginald Bibby did vast amounts of research some years ago and showed that the church can be broken down in basically three ways: the stuff we wish we were better at, the stuff we think we are better at, and the stuff that we’re actually better at.

Guess what? We think we’re better at all sorts of things that other people do better. Greenpeace does the environment better, Amnesty International does human rights better, lots of agencies do social justice better. But the area we shine, the one place where are the undisputed winners, is in the area of death. When it comes to comforting those that mourn, we win. When it comes to facing our own morality, we win. When it comes to making death a part of life, and gaining a measure of acceptance unseen in the rest of society, we win. We are the best of the best when it comes to death, dying, grief, acceptance and support.

Long ago, when I was a cook in a daycare (my frail claim at a previous career), the daycare teachers decided to show a movie to the kiddies on a rainy afternoon. They picked Bambi. Well, you would think they showed Terminator 2 based on the reaction of the parents. “How could you show that to the children” they said, “how dare you introduce my kid to the idea of death!” I’ve never seen the movie, so I think I may have just spoiled it somehow. Nevertheless, it seems that discomfort with death lived among the parents in this situation, and not so much with the kids.

The one place parents and children seem to be getting it right is in a new appreciation for Remembrance Day. When I was training, we were encouraged to ignore Remembrance Day in favour of some sort of peace Sunday—spectacularly bad advice if I’ve ever heard it. Even the civic commemorations have gone from sparse to plentiful, something that pleases veterans and gives November 11th the importance it deserves.


On a Sunday when we remember the fallen, it seems appropriate to hear what St. Paul has to say to the church on the topic of death. With Paul, we live with the assurance that the fallen are not forgotten, and that all will be resurrected on the last day. We also believe that they did not die in vain, and that the very things that they died to protect are still present to us. And will not grieve as they that have no hope, trusting in God’s presence always, amen.


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