Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 10 November 2013: Year C, Remembrance Sunday
SERMON
Texts: Micah 4.1-5
Luke 1.67-80
Remembrance and hope

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

Our church buildings, like many church buildings, are full of memorials. At our evening service at St Stephen’s last Sunday, during a quiet moment, I noticed that the stained glass in the chancel was gifted by a Royal Artillery officer. We have memorials to those who died in the World Wars of the twentieth centuries in both of our buildings. And of course we recently dedicated a new memorial area within the Old High Church, with the Martinpuich cross, for so long hidden away on a stairway, but now the centre of a memorial area dedicated especially to the former Cameron Highlanders regiment.
Such memorials are found in our country, not just in churches, but in parks and gardens and in many other public buildings. The simplest memorials are best; and sometimes they make us come up short. On Friday I led an assembly at the Inverness Royal Academy, at the end of which the Head Girl laid a wreath at their war memorial, which contains a numbingly long list of names. You wonder what it must have meant for a school to have so many of its recent pupils- and some of the staff as well, no doubt- die in such a way in such a short period of time. Once, I came across a stone war memorial in Argyllshire. It was at a crossroads, in the middle of a rather scattered collection of farms and cottages which hardly deserved the name of a village. But this was the parish war memorial for this particular Highland glen. And on three sides of this simple stone pillar were carved the names of the young men who had died- most of them, of course, between 1914 and 1918. Many of them had the same surname- brothers and cousins. I looked around at the few scattered houses in that glen, and wondered at how it must have affected that place to lose so many young men in the prime of life.
A few weeks ago, we were contacted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The War Graves Commission have a project to put a sign on the gates of every graveyard containing one of their graves. We hadn’t realised it, but there is a World War One War Grave within the Old High Churchyard. That’s unusual, because most of those graves are, of course, near the battlefields where the soldiers died. Angus Fairrie of the Cameron Highlanders Association kindly provided the information sheet about this young man who lies in our graveyard.

3378 PRIVATE JAMES McCULLOCH
James Finlay McCulloch was born at 58 Shore Street, Inverness on 15 October 1894, the son of Finlay McCulloch and his wife Flora Smith. Finlay McCulloch worked as a fitter at the nearby foundry.
By 1911 Finlay McCulloch had moved with his family to Foyers where he worked as a fitter for the British Aluminium Company… His [then] 16 year old son James McCulloch had a job as a luggage carter at the Foyers Hotel.
In early 1915… James McCulloch volunteered for military service as a Territorial soldier with the 4th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders… he joined the 3/4th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, which was formed as a reserve battalion at Inverness in April 1915 . On 21 September 1915 James McCulloch was one of a draft of 50 reinforcements sent to France. They joined the 1/4th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders at Le Preol, immediately after the Battle of Loos .
The draft arrived after one of the costliest battles of World War I, in which the 1/4th Battalion Cameron Highlanders, like other battalions, had suffered heavy casualties. As a result of Loos, and of further losses during the winter campaign of 1915-16, the War Office made the controversial and highly unpopular decision to break up the 1/4th Camerons. In March 1916 many men of the 1/4th Camerons were drafted to their regular battalion, the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, among them James McCulloch.
Between March and July 1916, while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, James McCulloch was badly wounded and was evacuated to the UK. He died of his wounds in the University War Hospital in Southampton on 21 July 1916 .

James McCulloch, baggage carter of Foyers, was 21 years old when he died. He is buried next to his parents and other members of his family in the Old High Kirkyard. His story, brought to my attention recently, is a reminder that there is a human story behind each and every casualty of war.
The twentieth century brought war and devastation on a scale never seen before. No wonder we have so many memorials, and ways of remembrance. We all need to remember. But I wonder what we do with our remembrance?
Zechariah remembered. Old Zechariah remembered what God had done in the past. He remembered the prophets- people like Micah who assured the people that God would send a saviour for his people. He remember the covenant with Abraham, in which God promised to be with Israel, and Israel promised to serve the one true God. But Zechariah didn’t just remember. Zechariah had a son, and this son was Zechariah’s hope for the future. This son, John, was the latest prophet, the last prophet, for he would announce the coming of the one for whom the prophets of old had waited:

“You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God.
You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him,
to tell his people that they will be saved
by having their sins forgiven.
Our God is merciful and tender.
He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us
and to shine from heaven on all those who live
in the dark shadow of death,
to guide our steps into the path of peace.”

Luke 1.76-79

Zechariah was a priest of Israel. He knew his tradition, he could remember the story of God’s dealings with Israel- a story of struggle, a story which was very often dark and painful. But he also knew that God meant to guide his people’s steps into the path of peace.
Today is a day when we should pause and remember something of the horror of war, and have a long, hard think about how we minimise the possibility of war anywhere in the world. For Christians, this can be a time to commit to living as peaceably, and remembering all who die when we do resort to war and violence.
Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace is only real if it is accompanied with justice. And the rich and powerful nations of the world have a special responsibility in this regard. For without us being prepared to meet the issues which cause people to go in for extremism and terrorism, there can be not lasting peace. And even with the best military technology, you cannot keep the peace by force alone. You can have the biggest army, the best military technology, and the most dedicated military personnel, and yet still fall victim to terrorism- as happened to America in 2001, when the conflicts in the Middle East suddenly spilled over into Washington DC and New York. Alongside military measures, there are non-military measures which are the just as important- things like improved airport security, blocking terrorist’s bank accounts, or the secret work by intelligence services which we rarely hear about. But we need to do even more.
We need to live, as a nation and as individuals, so that we do not create enemies. It’s usually poverty and despair that causes violence and war. So in order to prevent conflict, we need to tackle poverty. So we need to encourage education, fair trade, good working conditions. We need to tackle the multinationals who don’t pay taxes which could pay for schools and road and a police force. Global warming will probably lead to conflicts- so even care of our planet is part of our peacekeeping.
Christianity is, above all, a faith of peace- that is clear to anyone who reads the Gospels carefully, and takes seriously the words of Jesus. We can never allow Jesus Christ to be the reason for war and violence. If we are going to war, it must be a war against poverty, against injustice. The tools of that war will not be spears, but ploughshares. Our calling as Christians today is a call to be peacemakers- and Jesus Christ called the peacemakers blessed, as you know. So for Christians, there is an imperative to work for peace by working for justice. That means replacing enmity with dialogue- for example dialogue with those of different faiths. And it means supporting efforts at achieving economic justice for the poor, and peaceful settlements in those places where violence and war are endemic.
Meantime, what do we do with our remembrance, and with our memorials? Do we just look back on the past? Or do we despair of the present? No- not if we are people of faith. Because from faith should always come hope. Can we can share the hopes of Micah and Zechariah? Dare we hope for an age to come when people will hammer their swords into ploughs, their spears into pruning-knives? Dare we allow God to guide our feet into the paths of peace? Dare we do our bit to make the prophet’s dream a reality, to work for peace, for justice, for a better world?
Let us look back in order to learn from history. And as we look back, let us remember, but also let us hope for the day there will be on more Martinpuichs. More than ever, our world needs people with hopes for the future, people who will heed Jesus’ call to be peacemakers.
When I lived in Edinburgh, I used to like to take a walk through Princes Street Gardens, where the hungry office worker out for her lunch on a sunny afternoon, or the tourist who wants to sit and admire the view of the castle, can take their rest on one of the many wooden benches, gifted by people who so often wanted to remember- so often, in memory of people who loved Edinburgh, because they lived there all their life, or because they came there every summer. I once found a bench which had been gifted by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, in gratitude for the welcome they had received from the citizens of Edinburgh when they had visited for the first Edinburgh Festival in 1948. This was an orchestra which had seen its Jewish members sacked in the 1930s, and infamously once played at a birthday celebration for Adolph Hitler. Their visit in 1948 was the first time a German orchestra had visited since the end of the Second World War. Yet they were welcomed by the people of Edinburgh, as people sought reconciliation after the horrors of the previous few years.
In 1745, the Old High Church was used to house prisoners of war. They shot some of them out in the graveyard- that would probably be described as a war crime nowadays. It was a terrible civil war, which ended with a vicious battle just a few miles from here. And yet, somehow we got over it, and on this island of ours, people mostly live at peace with one another.
Once, places like on the Somme like Martinpuich were the scene of terrible slaughter. Today, there are still memorials to mark the spots where the slaughter happened. You can still visit the remains of what was once the most heavily fortified border in the world- the fortress of Verdun, the Maginot line. But the French countryside, where the Western Front once lay, is peaceful now. If you drive into Germany, no wants to see your passport at the border, and you can use the same currency on both sides of the border.
And so you see, the prophet’s dream is not impossible. With faith, and hope and love, it can be done. For I am sure that even in the midst of conflict, God is at work, blessing the peacemakers, and making their dreams a reality. After all, if that wasn’t the case, the outlook for our world would be very dark indeed.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo