Sunday, November 6, 2011

Remembering forward

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (God will raise the dead); Matthew 25:1-13 (parable of the 10 bridesmaids)

Ministry is a great privilege, I believe. But it also carries big responsibilities, which sometimes can feel like a burden to me. And today, Remembrance Sunday, is one of those times when I feel this burden.

I felt the responsibility and the burden in a particularly sharp way three years ago today in 2008. I was in the second year of four years of training to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. And one of my courses that year involved a one-day-per-week field placement in a United Church congregation in east Toronto.

On Remembrance Sunday that year, I read Scripture in that church, and the readings were the same ones we just heard today. This is not a coincidence since most of our churches now follow a repeating three-year reading list. And as I read from First Thessalonians that morning -- the reading with Paul's assurance that we will be reunited with our dead loved ones on the Day of Christ's Second Coming -- I looked up and noticed a woman listening to me. It was a mother who had lost her 14-year old daughter on New Year's Day earlier that year, 2008, in a brutal and senseless murder. And as I saw her, the words of First Thessalonians swam before my eyes, my knees became unsteady, and I felt exposed and foolish.

Who was I, I thought, to read these strange, controversial, and lovely words to a woman who had suffered so much? What did I know about the pain of the death of loved ones compared to a woman whose beautiful daughter had been taken from her, her husband, and their three other children so senselessly and violently?

Patricia Hung came to church virtually every Sunday during the time I was at Presteign-Woodbine United Church in 2008-09. She and her two sisters were pillars in that small and friendly neighbourhood church. And the siblings and cousins of her murdered daughter, Stefanie Rengel, were central to its Sunday School.

I never said more than a few words to Patricia during the eight months of my field placement. When I had asked her older sister about visiting Patricia, she had told me that Patricia was not ready for pastoral visits yet. But her gracious presence in worship each week made a big impact on me; and never more than when I noticed Patricia listening to me as I read from First Thessalonians about the Second Coming of Jesus three years ago today.

I learned more about Patricia Hung in media interviews that next spring during the trials of the 17-year old former boyfriend who had murdered her daughter and the 15-year old jealous girlfriend of the murderer who had goaded him to stab Stefanie to death on New Year's Day. And everything that I learned from those interviews confirmed what I had sensed from Patricia's presence in Sunday worship, that she was one of the most appealing and impressive people I have ever met. What a privilege it seemed to me to read Holy Scripture to her and to later preach and serve communion to her. But what a burden it sometimes felt to me as well.

When I said farewell to Presteign-Woodbine United at the end of my field placement in April 2009, nothing meant more to me than a simple hug Patricia offered me. I felt as though I had been embraced by a living saint . . .

We live in a world of too much violence, and a world where history seems to lurch forward most dramatically in times of war and revolution. And each November 11th, we remember this violence and war. We remember young lives that have been snuffed out too soon. We remember the sacrifices made by combatants in wars on all sides. And we pray and work for different ways of resolving disputes than violence and war.

And so now I stand here as your minister with the privilege and the burden to try to say something challenging and comforting in the light of our tradition and our faith on this difficult week of remembrance.

For many of us, Remembrance Day is the most sacred day in the year. In a world of pain, there are few subjects more painful than war and the violent deaths that result from it. Soldiers who have killed others in war and families who have lost loved ones in war want nothing more than to know that their sacrifice and loss have not been vain. And a key role for the church over the centuries has been to provide solace and hope in the face of the losses of the war, and sometimes to provide justifications for those wars. But surely not all wars are justified, and certainly not on all sides. And therein lies part of the difficulty for the church on Remembrance Day.

In Canada, the remembrance of war is probably easier than in some countries because so far, we have always been on the winning side of our wars. But what about a country like Japan, which was our ally in victory in World War I, but which was our enemy in World War II? Do Japanese people extol the sacrifices made by their victorious soldiers from WWI but say nothing about their defeated soldiers from World War II? And just imagine the difference in feelings between France and Germany on November 11th!

Beginning next year, our federal government has big plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. It was a war between Great Britain and the United States that lasted from June 1812 until early 1815, and it was largely fought in what is now southern Ontario and Quebec as well as parts of the United States. But from what I know of this war, it strikes me like many others – a war with good and bad points on both sides, and a war that was mostly a pointless exercise in death and destruction. So I feel skeptical about attempts to commemorate the supposed glories of this war over the next three years.

World War II, given the unique horrors of the Nazi regime in Germany, can more easily be cast as a just war for our side. But we might also remember that one of Canada's key allies in that war was the Soviet Union, which has its own rather horrible record of the mass murder of its own citizens and the oppression of the countries of Eastern Europe, which it dominated for 45 years after the war.

As for Canada's 10 year engagement in Afghanistan, today we give thanks that Canada's combat role finally came to an end this past summer -- although the tragic death of Canadian Cpl. Byron Greff two weeks ago in a roadside attack shows that the dangers to our troops still stationed there have hardly passed.

Remembrance Day itself was first created in 1919 by King George V, the British Emperor, to commemorate the First World War. So I will focus the rest of my remarks on the history of that war. The question I will try to answer is this: why did the war end on November 11, 1918 and not some other day?

Well, the simple answer is that after four years of slaughter and stalemate, the Allies -- Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan -- had finally defeated the Central Powers -- Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. The war had been a stalemate until the United States, encouraged by the overthrow of the hated Russian Czar, Nicholas II, in March 1917, entered the war on the side of the Allies the next month.

The United States had been reluctant to join the Allies when that coalition included Czarist Russia, which murdered and tortured its own citizens and oppressed many smaller nations. So when ordinary soldiers and citizens overthrew the Czar in the first phase of the Russian Revolution and replaced him with a liberal government, it opened the way for the U.S. to enter what they called a "War for Democracy" with a clean conscience.

By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Bulgarians, the Turks and finally the Hungarians surrendered to the Allies. And throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, seeking honourable terms for an armistice.

But Wilson was a democratic idealist. Unlike the empires fighting in the war, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy. And Wilson insisted that the Kaiser -- who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of King George V -- abdicate as a condition for peace.

However, the abdication of the Kaiser was not acceptable to the German military. So on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch another submarine and battleship attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. But this time, the elite sailors of the German fleet said, "No! We refuse to kill any more British, or French, or Canadian or American sailors. We won't go."

After the mobilization of 70 million men on all sides; after the deaths of 10 million of these men; and after the deaths of five million civilians, the German sailors said "no more!"

Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 9th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution, and the German Socialist Party took power. And it was the socialists who then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.

Now, without the rebellion of the sailors and subsequent revolution that swept the German Kaiser and his government from power, World War I would still have ended. But without it, the war might have limped on until December or January and many more 10s of thousands would have died. It would also have meant that the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month of each year would not have had the sacred significance it has held for us these past 93 years.

After years of obedience to empire, the German sailors said, "Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war." They had realized that their English, French, Canadian, Russian, Japanese and American foes were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours, and as neighbours, they deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, who along with his government and his church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In essence, these German rebels received their own salvation in that moment of rebellion and led the world a huge step toward peace and reconciliation as well . . .

Still what does the German rebellion have to do with the murder of Stefanie Rengel in 2008 or with our Scripture readings on the Second Coming of Christ? Well, the connections I perceive are that all three involve violence, death and sacrifice. And all three involve rising to new life in the face of the tragedy of death.

Jesus of Nazareth showed by his life, death and resurrection that he was the Christ, which is a Greek word for King. So in a war like the First World War where most of the combatants were led by an Emperor titled King, Czar, or Kaiser, the rebellion of the German sailors can be seen as a rejection of empire as an idol and a recognition that their true Kaiser was the Christ who lives in their hearts and in the hearts of their so-called enemies. Of course, the move of the German rebels from obedience to an earthly emperor to obedience to a divine inner spark might not have been a conscious one, but I think it was real nevertheless. Their rebellion, which brought the horrors of World War I to a quick end, strikes me as a moment of resurrection . . .

Our readings from First Thessalonians and Matthew today are about unexpected delays in the Second Coming of Jesus. And even as we still wait for the Day of the Lord's coming today, we also know that Christ returns to live within us innumerable times.

In the church, baptism symbolizes the death of the ego of a child and the rebirth of Christ in the child's heart. As St. Paul says in Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." When the German sailors rebelled in October and November 1918, it showed that for them sovereignty no longer lay with the Kaiser in Berlin, who had sent them to kill and be killed, but with the Risen Christ living in their hearts. Likewise, when ordinary Russian soldiers, workers and peasants overthrew the Czar in March of 1917, it showed that for them sovereignty no longer lay with the Czar in St. Petersburg, who had sent them to kill and be killed, but with the Risen Christ living in their hearts.

When Stefanie Rengel was baptized 18 years ago, it symbolized her family's wish that she not follow a Caesar, a Czar, a Kaiser or a King. Instead, it symbolized their hope that she would follow an inner Christ. And I am sure that Stefanie became aware of this inner Christ many times in her short life . . .

Perhaps salvation will look like the glorious images we heard from First Thessalonians today, images of meeting Christ in the air with our dead loved ones. But salvation can also be found in any moment, I believe. I am sure that Stefanie Rengel was with Christ as she lay dying on a snow-covered street in Toronto nearly four years ago. And I am sure that the German sailors who brought the horror of World War I to an end in 1918 felt God in Christ within and between them whether they died in their revolution or survived it.

So this November 11th as we honour and remember the fallen soldiers of too many wars, we can also remember where our deepest allegiance lies, with the Christ living and dying within us and rising to new life with us beyond this world of violence, wars, and false gods.

On Friday, I will also remember Stefanie Rengel, her mother Patricia Hung, her father Adolfo Rengel, her stepfather James Hung, and her three younger brothers, Ian Rengel and Patrick and Eric Hung. I will remember the love they all shared, the pain of their early separation, and their hope for new life together in God. I will also remember the ordinary Germans rebels who secured for the world an early end to war on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918. And finally, I will try to remember forward to an era where all the world's emperors have been overthrown and replaced by the Christ within. It is this inner divine spark that can unite humans from every nation with the God of peace and justice.

For followers of Christ, this world's emperors -- whether given the title of Caesar, Czar, Kaiser or King -- are nothing beside the sovereign God who has humbly come to us in Jesus and whom we worship as a divine spark within us. And we know that no empire, no war, and no death -- no matter how violent -- can ever separate us from the love of God, which flames within us now and always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


  1. Hi Ian,
    I'm not sure how I came across this post of yours but you've left me speechless. First and foremost let me apologize for not being more sociable. I always thought you did a great job and your sermons were fantastic. (We spoke often of hiring you once Scott left).
    Looking back I realize that I was truly struggling with my faith and needed to come back on my own - come to my own conclusions. It wasn't that I didn't want a pastoral visit from you, per se, so I hope you didn't take it personally. I was very angry at God but I knew that if He was as I believed, then He could take it and would still be there after the dust settled (so to speak).
    I'll be sure to follow your blog and pass it along to those at the church. I'm sure they'll be thrilled to know about it (unless they already do and I'm the only one out of the loop).
    I have my own blog and I write it for others who are struggling with grief (with a few other things thrown in). If you know of anyone who might benefit from it, please pass it along.
    I'm so pleased to see that you are doing well and please come and visit us if you're ever back in the city!
    God Bless,

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Patricia. It means the world to me. I will certainly pass along word of your blog to people who are grieving . . . and that is pretty much all of us at some time, of course. Blessings, Ian