Mary’s address: Flower Festival Evensong

Deuteronomy 2
Revelation 21

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…..
One of the great things about Christianity is that we have the remarkable promise of a new heaven and a new earth, our world renewed and redeemed – the kingdom of God – to look forward to, AND that we are encouraged in our faith by glimpses of that kingdom all around us as we go about our lives.

This weekend we have been surrounded by those glimpses, in the beauty and ingenuity of flowers, leaves, branches, objects, images and words and music, brought together by the skill and imagination of so many people to tell a story, to lead us into the experience of remembering the Great War, and to preach the message that such a catastrophe must never happen again. And there has been more to it than that – the whole business of working together, of encouragement and coffee and cake and difficulties shared and overcome, disagreements resolved and friendships begun over oasis and spreadsheets….. of using known skills and developing new ones – all these things have been signs of the presence of the kingdom.
And, whether you agree with me about that or not, I’m sure you will agree that all these things – every detail of the setting for tonight’s service, and all that has gone into making it a reality – are a triumph of working together for our community. Each display, each idea, is wonderful in itself, but the whole Festival has turned out to be so much more than the sum of its parts, and that is because it is the product of collaboration in community. I know that Frances and the other organisers are as amazed as anybody by what has been achieved.

There are so many aspects of the Festival that have moved us – to tears in more than a few cases – and you will all have had your own moments of emotion. For me, one of those was building up as I read the biographies of the dead, posted up outside in the garden – the realisation that so many of them had lived so near to where I was standing, the familiar street and village names – Lion Lane, Shepherds Hill, Bridge Road, Klondyke Villas Grayswood, Weyhill – and even particular houses– Cleeves, Strathire….
They brought that world of 100 years ago very close, and yet it’s almost unimaginably far away…. There isn’t a poem for the display in the garden but one by Philip Larkin examines in characteristically humane, ironic, nostalgic fashion the generation represented there, on the verge of change and, for many, catastrophe…. Here’s part of 1914 by Philip Larkin.

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
……..

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Another aspect of those potted biographies that struck many of us was how persistent the men were in trying to sign up – up to 12 times in one case. We can’t know how much of this was the product of idealism and how much of peer and other pressure, but there is much evidence of idealism – many of you will have read Lt Noel Hodgson’s poem Into Action, movingly evoked by …… on the windowsill over there….
Hodgson had enlisted in 1914, and won the M C at Loos…. He wrote this on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. 
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Noel Hodgson was killed on the Somme, the day after writing this.
His idealism had survived the reality of trench life, of barbed wire in no mans land, advances hampered by thick mud, the camaraderie and exhaustion of the dugout.

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

Who would have thought that Siegfried Sassoon’s poem could have been so powerfully evoked in a church pulpit?

Of course, the Great War was supposed to be the war to end all wars. 100 years on we are probably more painfully aware than any previous generation how much conflict there is in our world. WE have been blessed that no war has touched our country directly since 1945, but so many of our soldiers have fought across the world since then, and a quick search of Google yields the information that There are currently 10 official wars and 8 active military conflicts recognized by the United States with other violent conflicts involving 64 countries and 576 militias and separatist groups.

We owe it to the dead and to the living to be idealistic ourselves, to believe in a better world and to work for it in any way we can. And that includes activities that may seem remote from the battlefields we are remembering today, or the killing fields of Yemen, Syria, Iraq…. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain is a beacon in this, because though we can’t bring these things to an end we can try to make them less widespread, to reduce their impact, to offer comfort and healing. And we can model, here in our own community, the friendship and cooperation that on a global scale can make all the difference to the prosperity and peace of the whole world. That for me is the achievement of this Festival, bringing people together to create something beautiful and powerful and entirely good, not shirking the difficult things but full of love and promise and the joy of creation and imagination.

I want to end with the poem that begins and ends the experience…. Another by Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath, written in 1919. It carries in itself evidence of healing and hope. Another outraged evocation of the pain and almost mundane horror of war, with the recurring call not to forget in peacetime, the last lines were originally
Look up, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
But after the poem’s first publication Sassoon thought again, and subsequent versions have all included the revised line – Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

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