On the panels at either side of the church are a series of photographs by Wendy Aldiss of veterans of the Burma campaign during the Second World War. These were taken to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of that war last year, a project which took her to the far reaches of northern Scotland. This might not seem the obvious place to start a sermon for our Patronal Festival, celebrating the Birth of John the Baptist, but John’s canticle is the Benedictus and that ends with the words:
“To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79)
Some of what those men endured has been brought to popular attention through films like ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and more recently ‘The Railway Man’. I came across the latter walking along the town wall of Berwick-upon-Tweed in 2014 and finding an exhibition of the filming there. I bought the book and was gripped.
‘The Railway Man’ tells the story of Eric Lomax who was a prisoner-of-war in Japanese camps having been captured in Burma. He was forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway line. He was brutally abused by his captors and many of his companions died at their hands in dehumanizing conditions. Many years later, long after the war, he discovered that one of his torturers had dedicated his life to trying to make amends for how the Japanese army had treated their prisoners-of-war. He was so amazed that a man who treated him with such cruelty could do this that he set out to make contact. It is a journey in which he seeks to put to rest “demons” that have haunted both men over the years: the need to forgive and the need to be forgiven. The prompt came in the hint that he gets that the former guard has changed and is living a new life. It is not a tale of easy forgiveness or of pretending the consequences of the torture are easily forgotten. The pain is palpable and real, but the ray of sunlight, giving “light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death”, is the sign of a changed life and this makes him think it is a journey worth embarking on, worth the incredible emotional effort that will be required. Hated enemies turn into blood brothers. The book ends with the powerful statement “Sometime the hating has to stop” (p319).
So for me these pictures are a reminder of that book, of the journey for reconciliation and the call to have our feet guided into the way of peace. And it is not easy, especially when the emotions are high and the pain is raw. But being people of peace is what we are called to be. And this church is set in the heart of this city as a symbol and vehicle of the peace that comes through Jesus Christ. A major part of our call is to follow our namesake, to be John the Baptists, who point to that peace by living it, proclaiming it and making it tangible especially when there are heightened tensions around.
Yesterday there was one of the Great Get Together picnics to remember the murdered MP Jo Cox. It was delayed by a week because of the Heritage Festival last week. In her maiden speech in the Commons Jo Cox observed “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us”. That motto, “more in common”, now adorns her memorial in Parliament. And one of the surprising elements to emerge from recent terrorist attacks has been the signs of cohesion and community, of people pulling together, of people from all sectors of the community and from different cultures and faiths coming to one another’s aid. This is the very thing that the terrorists wanted to destroy, but they seem to have achieved the opposite. And there is a great mood to pull together, to stand together and ask what kind of society we really want to live in – one which is divided and hostile or one which aims to have its steps guided into the way of peace.
Now before that starts to sound too idealistic, there are differences of opinion and ideology, and these are real. They cover our political vision, views on economics and the story we tell. How we disagree well, rather than dysfunctionally and violently, so that debate can be fruitful and lead to robust outcomes, is a major question for our age. If we want to obliterate all who see the world differently, we will all die in a terrible blood bath. But disagreeing well does not mean that we pretend we don’t disagree either. John the Baptist was no diplomat, and neither was Christ. They were straight speakers who did not bury their message in the foggy tones of understatement. They were clear, unequivocal and direct, sometimes bluntly so. It did not always make them popular when their challenge was sharp and pointed. But they did meet with those they felt needed to change and clearly listened because they knew what the others said. The way of peace requires deep listening and understanding, pausing to take in what is being said, and then applying critical evaluation and having the confidence to share why we see it differently. The idea that those who voted to remain in the EU should keep quiet and fall in line is deeply flawed. The onus on those who voted to leave is to put forward convincing arguments and visions of how this can now be, and so far they are not doing a very good job of that. Winning hearts and minds is always a better option. The pen is mightier than the sword because it can inspire restraint, prevention of battles and the just peace we all long for. There are deep divisions here and they will not be brushed aside or bullied into silence. Our General Synod next month will discuss where we find ourselves after the General Election and what it means to walk in the way of peace.
So today we have a reminder in pictures on the panels around the walls that this church sits in the heart of this city as a place that speaks of peace and the light that shines on all who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That is, of course, all of us. Our purpose is really quite simply to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, like John the Baptist to say ‘behold the Lamb of God’, to point to Jesus, and live his way so that the world around may see it and be guided into the way of peace. We start though with our own steps and our prayer is the Benedictus that light will shine and guide our feet into the way of peace.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, Patronal Festival, Sunday 25th June 2017