The Beginning of the Birthpangs

Remembrance – 14 November 2021

Daniel 12:1-3; Ps 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver

YouTube recording of the service – Bertrand’s sermon starts around 23:00

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

As the regimental chapel to the Canadian Grenadier Guards, this Cathedral of Christ Church is inextricably linked to the military history of this country.  We are glad today to welcome the commanding officer leading a delegation from the Canadian Grenadier Guards, as we commemorate in sorrow the end of the First World war.  We remember specially all those 620,000 men and women from Canada who crossed the ocean to join the war effort.  Out of those, 250,000 were wounded and 67,000 were killed.  These were men and women like you and me and yet their life was changed or cut short in the cause of freedom, in a place which many had never seen before.

I was born in Dunkerque, in the north of France, a place which was almost within hitting distance from the front in WW1, and which was razed to the ground in WW2.

The names of the many battles of WW1 were the names of local places where we had family, towns and villages that I visited as a child, mostly unaware of their significance in history and in the history of families across the world.

War is a terrible thing, and while everyone hoped that World War 1 would be the War to end all wars, our history books and the images we regularly see on our screens today remind us that the task was not done and, whilst we might be lulled into complacency behind our digital devices, we continue to rely on men and women to dedicate their lives to the service of freedom that we might continue to live in the way we expect and take for granted – in prosperity and peace within our borders – a luxury not afforded to many in the world.

The Anglican Journal, the paper for the Anglican Church of Canada, in its latest edition, featured an interview with a former Army Chaplain, Canon Doug Friesen.  Now retired after 31 one years of service, and attached to Christ Church Cathedral Victoria, he served in Afghanistan as the senior task force chaplain.

In the interview, he talks about his experience in Afghanistan, especially in the light of the events that have unfolded there since the withdrawals of the US troops earlier in the autumn.

As a former chaplain, Canon Friesen is cautious in what he feels able to say.  After all, members of the armed forces are trained to be ready for the tasks that are asked of them, and it is not their role to ask questions of the politicians.  But it is obvious, as he speaks, that for the men and women sent there by the government initially to sort out a bad situation, the priorities shifted and became transformed by getting to know the locals.  As they lived among them, their task focused on trying to help them, as fellow human beings, build a better future for themselves and their families.  The grace of God was shown there, in and amongst the challenges of conflict.

Maintaining the peace was not a cost-free enterprise, and some Canadian soldiers died.  But in the words of Friesen: ‘Those Canadians that died in Afghanistan, they were laying down their lives in service of others, literally.  How do you get more meaningful than that?”

For soldiers who served in Afghanistan, there is now real sadness and heartache that what they worked for did not come to pass after their departure, and that much of the progress achieved has been rolled back.  But Friesen believes that it certainly was not in vain, because – just like with the cross – “we cannot predict the final outcome, and so therefore there is still hope”.

Even in the midst of the worse conflict situation, there are many acts of selflessness and heroism that transform lives and remind us of the presence and love of God at work.  The Grenadier Guards have their own rich and gallant history, and examples such as Private John Francis Young, awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the front, continuing to bandage and treat the wounds of soldiers under continuing enemy fire, is but one of them.

And every year on Remembrance Day, we call to mind those who joined – and join – armies and navies and air forces and are sent to fight, and who dedicate, and sometimes have to give up their lives, in that cause.

We remember those who died, for their sacrifice, but also all those who fought, for the terrible cost to them personally because of the things that society requires them to do in its name in war.   Often, they come back different people, and post-traumatic stress disorder is one issue highlighted by Canon Friesen, an issue which can blight the life of many returnees.

The purpose of our armed forces is service, and we have seen how they rose to the needs we faced of a newer foe in the early days of COVID, supplementing the staff of CHSLDs and looking after the needs of our elderly.

War casualties continue to be a daily reality in our world today, and the need to stop and pause to reflect on peace and reconciliation continues to be as urgent as ever – as we remember the dead and pray that there should be no more.

Of course, our Holy Scriptures are filled with the stories of wars and conflicts, and Jesus knew that they were inevitable – as he confided to the inner circle of his first followers, Peter, Andrew, James and John who were asking for more explanation about the end time of which he had been talking.

What he tells them is not reassuring and not for wide consumption.  And it does not necessarily mean a great deal to them except that it makes better sense to them and to us later, in the light of the resurrection.

We can imagine the disbelief of those few disciples as Jesus tells them not to be alarmed even as he tells them to expect wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines. This is miles away from the pastoral scene of a Galilean Garden conversation.  How would one not be afraid at such prospect, even without first-hand experience of such events.

Many of us have not directly experienced war in our lives, but looking back in history, we would expect the experience of war to include fear, hardship, famine, homelessness, violence, pain, grief, and death.  Hardly the expected peaceful path to the divine Kingdom promised.

Jesus also speaks of earthquakes and natural disasters, which – after a somewhat cop out COP-26 – are very much on our minds, as we face the potential calamities of climate change, rising see levels, disappearing permafrost, extreme summer heats and fires, and the impact any of these will have on food and drinking water for the planet?

Not palatable prospects, that’s for sure, and prospects that are inducing anxieties in populations and especially the younger generations who do not know yet how they will deal with these.

Jesus does not minimise the trials to come – they are not transient, but instead they are the “beginning of the birth pangs”.  Now, our four disciples will doubtless have witnessed the pain of childbirth in others, but will never have felt it themselves.  The fear of pain can often be worse that the pain itself, as we will all know from the things that often hold us back – vaccination, dentist.  How are they to even begin to understand what birth pangs might mean – and how might they cope with their fear of them?

And yet, as we know, there is pain in life, pain that we cannot avoid and have to go through, in the same way that Jesus could see the cross in front of him and was not able to avoid it.

The prophet Daniel, in our first reading, provides us with a more positive image of that end of time as he writes about one who will appear to fight for God’s people and protect them, the warrior prince Michael.  With him, the wise and those who lead others to righteousness will be bathed in the light of heaven and become like the stars of heaven.
And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to hold on to our hope and to our faith, because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, reminding us that we are to encourage one another to live lives filled with love and good deeds in order to prepare us for that day of fulfilment.

Like many generations before us, we feel like we are living in times of change of biblical proportion.  The world may have changed much in a few millennia, and even more quickly since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Our current conflicts feel quite different.  Indiscriminate terrorism, armies not necessarily on physical battlefields but on cyberspace, ideologies glorifying the massacre and extermination of those not like them, or simply greed enacted in boardroom coups.

Meanwhile, we are confronted with yet other new enemies – COVID, climate change, and others we might not even know.

Jesus today does not promise us a world saved from all these trials, but he reminds us that this suffering is not of God and that even in the midst of it all, God is with us, calling and stirring us to continue to strive for the divine Kingdom which embraces all humanity and in which each and everyone of us is precious in God’s sight.

As we bring to mind the millions who have died in the conflicts of the 20th and 21st century, we too are called. Called to honour their memory and the freedom, peace and justice for which they died, by playing our part in ensuring that peace will prevail, and the Kingdom of God will flourish – not in an unspecified future left to others – but under our watch, in this, our generation.


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