The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Remembrance Requiem      10th November 2019
Peace, Sacrifice, and the Shock of Love
Ayla Lepine


Isaiah 2. 2 - 5

Psalm 46

Philippians 4. 8 - 9

Matthew 5. 1 – 12

(Specially assembled readings)


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


This morning in Hampstead we are in multiple places and multiple times at once. The time of Jesus, among the crowd at his Sermon on the Mount. The time of Isaiah, as God promises that his people will be a people of peace, and that war will no longer be taught. We are in the eternal moment of the Eucharist, too, as our liturgy connects heaven with earth, and we join with saints and angels in thanking God for the sacrifice of Jesus. It is Remembrance Sunday. We pray for those who have died. We mourn with those who mourn. We commit with fresh energy to being peacemakers. We yearn for a peace that seems to never wholly come, as violence characterises too many aspects of human life, and wars continue to tear through frail bodies and fragile communities. We worship the Prince of Peace. We worship the God who took on all the pain and suffering and violence of humanity and offered himself, not to perpetuate war, not so religion could be an instrument of violence, but so that love would conquer everything. The battle with death itself has already been fought. There is already a promise of peace, a path radiant with light, a truth that is built on the foundations of God’s love. This state of utter and total reconciliation does not undo the desire for violence. It does not eradicate pain. Too often, it does not prevent war. Cycles of violence continue. But in the fierce love of Jesus, that will not let us go even in the depths of anguish and even in the teeth of brutal death, we are given an alternative. In war-torn cultures where desolation and despair have taken hold, long ago or in this very moment, God gives us an alternative. The shock of love. The subversively ever-present power of the Prince of Peace.


There is another time and place to visit this morning. Every person involved in war, no matter who or where they are, has a name, a story, desires, sorrows, and a way of navigating the world that is both empathetically human and uniquely their own. 

 ‘fresh supplies of bombs to the battalions who went over the top’

‘I was in action…to support the Black Watch’

‘I got frostbitten feet. I was sent home, and to Reading, and now I write in this book.’

The frostbite was near Loos, where the British used poisoned gas for the first time, and over 60 000 people died across two autumn weeks in 1915. Huge numbers and long-ago dates can keep the voices of history at a distance, as they call to us across generations and appear, ghostly, at events such as this. Amidst those voices, here is one, writing in a small book in a matter-of-fact way in a hospital in Reading. The book did not belong to the soldier. It belonged to the woman whose face you see in her official photo on your handout. Loosely tied hair, an enigmatic Mona Lisa mouthline, a patient gaze. She is Sarah Ellen Arnold, a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. After the war, she married John Bridgeman, a Canadian solider she had nursed. Sarah Arnold’s notebook is filled with letters like this one from the soldier who delivered bombs and had frostbitten feet. She would go from bed to bed, inviting those recovering from war injuries to write down what happened to them. A form of therapeutic journaling. Instead of writing to a parent or a fiancé, they wrote to her. This was not part of what she was trained to do or meant to do; it was an informal act of improvisational and simple kindness, encouraging the injured to tell their stories.


Imagine war-weary people of every generation, whether a century ago or in our own time, sitting on the ground, listening attentively to one voice. He is telling them – telling us – something that is painful to hear. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Comfort – this is urgently needed. But ‘blessed’ are the grieving? Surely not. Where is the blessing in that? Blessed are the poor. Really? Surely the rich are blessed – they’re not afraid of humiliation at the foodbank, or Universal Credit, or making impossible choices about basic needs. Blessed are the pure in heart. What does that even mean? Has anyone ever met a pure-hearted person before she or he was made a saint? Perhaps – but they are rare jewels. They are those whose beliefs and actions are in alignment with God’s love and justice. Wealth, status, victory, being in good health – these things do not ultimately define any of us or anyone else. The basic definition of a human being is someone infinitely loved, held securely, eternally, in the wounded and glorified hands of Jesus.


The Beatitudes are deliberately strange. With each one, Jesus invites us to imagine a different world, to learn about God’s world, and to turn our metaphorical spears into pruning-hooks. The Beatitudes are a mixture of longing for a better future – they will receive mercy, they will see God – and a glimmering hope of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven through Jesus, right now, on the mountain, teaching those who need to hear it most. His message is strange enough that it may seem impossible to grasp. Try.


Turning our actual and metaphorical spears into pruning hooks, and we all have them, is a transformation thing. It takes courage. It cannot be done in our own strength. And we must do it together, with God. Isaiah in our Old Testament reading does not just say ‘put down your weapons’. He says ‘melt down your weapons and change them into tools that feed the hungry instead of killing them.’ The Beatitudes show us empty spaces where love and care should be, but where instead there are vast mountains of swords and spears. The Beatitudes paradoxically shed light on so much darkness. Like Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection for the children of God, who are so, so tired of fighting, and violence, and cruelty, these words, Christ’s poetry, sing out over even the most deafening and most destructive bombs. The theologian Stanley Hauwerwas talks of those who are ‘pure in heart’ as people who trust so fully in God that they can live ‘out of control’ – that is, beyond the controlling factors of fear that are too often the instigators of division and injustice. There is war, so often, too often, within us, surrounding us, and in the times and places before us and after us. Let us pray for peace. If you wish, please repeat after me:


Peace to the whole earth.

Peace to the whole earth.


Peace to one another.

Peace to one another.


Peace within.

Peace within. Amen.

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005