Sunday, May 17, 2009


In Delville Wood
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I had to preach this morning. I was relatively unprepared, for I only learned about it last week, while I was in France - in the very heart of Delville Wood, to be precise. Not having a bible or lectionary with me, I wasn't in a position to do more than fret, briefly, and put all thought of sermons aside until I was home again. By the time I was on the coach driving through England, I knew I'd be preaching about my experiences in France, whatever the readings for the day.

In the event, the Gospel was ideal - greater love hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friend. What a gift. And because it was Morning Prayer, the response to the gospel reading: Death is swallowed up in victory. So for once I didn't write a sermon. A page of bullet points served to remind me of the order in which I wanted to arrange my thoughts, and a poem I'd just written to finish off with. And from the moment I stood up and looked at my hearers I felt that this was what I needed to do on this day.

I spoke of the question which had troubled many of us as we looked at the inscriptions at the foot of the gravestones: where was God in all this? For on every stone where a soldier was named, there was this additional line supplied by his family at a cost of 31/2d per letter, to a maximum of 60 letters. On the stones of the countless unknown soldiers were the words "Known unto God", but on the others? Not cries of anguish and loss, but words of hope and faith and belief.

And I spoke of the lack of preparedness on the part of these soldiers - for who could be adequately prepared to walk uphill, carrying a 60lb pack and rifle, slowly, into a hail of machine-gun bullets? To watch the first rank of their comrades fall and then hear the whistle and go over the top to share their fate? Why did they do this?

I recalled the title of a book I saw in a museum shop: You can't shoot a man with a cold. This chimed so wonderfully with the thoughts I'd been having, the notion that just as it seemed important to feel well to go on holiday, to cope with the rigours of travel, so it would be important to feel in top form to fight in the trenches - which of course the soldiers emphatically did not. They were cold, wet, muddy, suffering from trench foot and diarrhoea, with no respite at the end of the day if they survived - just more of the same. Not in a fit state to die, really.

And it came back to the inevitability of God's love, in which our lack of preparedness makes no difference. No matter what circumstances distract us or make us feel unworthy, no matter how unready to face God we may feel, God's love is constant. Nothing we can do will change it.

Written like that, it looks bald and abrupt, and part of me wishes I had a written copy somewhere. But I couldn't have read this sermon; it needed to be spontaneous and alive. I'm glad that despite all the distractions and metaphorical minefields I didn't back out of delivering it, and I'm humbled by the response from my listeners.

And at least one of them thought my poem was by someone well-known!

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