Practically Perfect In Every Way…

Tracy Niven
Monday 13 November 2023

Preacher: Revd Samantha Ferguson, Assistance Chaplain
Readings: Isaiah 25: 1-9; Matthew 5: 38-38

Let Us Pray

O lord you are my God, I will exalt you, I will praise your name for you have done wonderful things.  And so may I speak, in the name of the creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Amen

Good morning.

Friends, it is that time of year.  Afternoons are now non-existent and day falls to night in a heartbeat.  It is not quite time to celebrate Christmas and Halloween is a distant memory sitting in the corner with the pumpkin you really should throw away.  Deadlines are looming, essays are due and the spectre of exams loom in front of us.

And, if any of you are sitting here this morning, seriously questioning your judgement as to whether you should have chosen medieval history module ME1003 – The Fall of Rome and the Origins of Europe (400-1000), as I did many, many, moons ago.

Take heart.  For enduring reading through the hagiographies of Saints, the medieval version of the Big Brother diary room, will not, I promise, be in vain.

Yesterday, we in the church remembered St Martin of Tours, an early Christian saint.  This is why the current liturgical season is known as Martinmas. And it is by this name that our current Semester at this University is commonly known.

Yesterday, we remembered that St Martin, a 4th Century Bishop, was first a roman soldier before he unknowingly showed a moment of compassion.  And, acting on the words of Jesus that we have just heard read in our Gospel passage for today, literally gave his cloak to a beggar.  That beggar reportedly turned out to be an angel in disguise.  Who then had a word with Jesus, who had a word in a dream to St Martin.

Hey presto, his soldering days were over and St Martin became the first conscientious objector. St Martin’s Day became known as the day for Medieval Thanksgiving.  Giving thanks for the harvest that would produce wine, ale and beer, before the time of winter and darkness came in.  Martin truly is a saint for students.

St Martin’s day is now also Armistice’s day when we remember with a two minute silence that the guns fell silent on the 11th hour, 11th day of the 11th month.

By marking that moment on that day, we remember, not only St Martin but all those who, through the sins of evil and greed, suffered and died because of the horrors of war.  The countless unnamed men, women, children and animals who have died as the consequence of conflicts that are still staining our precious world with the blood of innocents.

There have always been times of tension and of conflict.  In our reading from Isaiah, even he reminds us of the time that God judged and destroyed a city because of sinfulness. Remember what happened to Sodom and Gomorroah?

But history has to be remembered through the context of place, time and peoples to be fully understood.  So stick with those history modules because yesterday, history was being witnessed when we saw thousands of people up and down our land using this day of remembrance for an ancient saint and the dead of wars still in touching distance of living memory, to stand up, to ask for those in power to choose a better way of bringing peace to our world.

In contrast, today, we remember in sacred spaces up and down our country, those who stood against the desire of despots to impose their way of life upon peoples and nations who dare to resist.

War is never the answer, but sometimes, sometimes, we are called to fight for what we believe in.  And those brave enough to do so and risk their lives, deserve our respect and to be remembered.

Who do we remember?

Friends, look around you.

See the faces of fellow young adults.

You are in your late teens, early twenties and pushing towards the wrong side of Thirty.

You are students here at the best and most famous universities in the world.

You have lived, laughed, studied, partied and been a part of the life of this town in this time and in this place.

You are not alone and are in heavenly company.

Even if we as Christ’s disciples fall silent these very stones would shout aloud, because along the back of the altar, here in our university chapel, carved in stone, are the names of young adults just like you.

Here we placed our wreaths of respect.

Here behind me, in the reliquary, there are the names inscribed of people just like you who partied, played, sat exams and all learned within the hallowed walls of this university.

They too had your dreams for a safe world with a good job, a family, home and hearth.

They are you.

Each name on this wall is a life lost but not forgotten.

Each name on this wall tells only one part of their story.

It says their name and names are so very important.

And their names are here because in a war, in a far distant land, they fought and died for freedom and for peace so that you can sit here today in freedom and in peace.  Their sacrifice, we honour and respect today.

On the inside page of your service sheets is an image of a Lancaster bomber spraying out poppies of peace rather than bombs of destruction.  It is to be called ‘On Freedom’s Wings’.

It is an ambitious structure, taller than the Angel of the North, that is still in the process of being created at RAF Swindeby in Lincolnshire – a place many Royal Air Force trainees, including my husband many many years ago, go to do their basic training.

Basically, a place where they learn to make their beds properly and polish their shoes – a bit like Uni Hall but on steroids.

I chose this image because war affects all of us in different ways.

It is a lived memory that lives on in you even if you don’t realise it.

The stories that your great grandparents shared with your grandparents and parents about war and suffering, will have affected them and the way they processed the world.  This in turn would have affected how they brought you up.  You are a product of all that remembered loss.

And in my family, that remembered loss comes in the form of my great Uncle John Bickerton.

He was a student once just like you.

John was studying engineering when the Second World War interrupted his studies and he joined up to become a RAF Pilot.

John flew Lancaster bombers across to Germany and France to help drive back the evil when the call came to defend freedom and peace.

He was a young man who had a way with the ladies, loved a pint and could dance up a storm.  John was also a little bit obsessed with aircraft and flying.  He was a technical geek!

He wasn’t perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, but he, according to his mum, his brothers and his sisters, was practically so.

John loved to fly his plane over his parents’ house and waggle the wings to say hello to them – which he was always being told off about.

He was you.

And John loved his neighbour enough to give up all that made his life worthwhile and fight for something bigger than himself, indeed even bigger than King and country.

He did it for his parents, his brothers and his sisters.

John did it for love.

Flying from 103 Squadron from Elsham Woods in Lincolnshire, not too far from where this sculpture will be placed, John was on his final raid over Munich on 6th January 1945 when his plane was shot down.

All souls on board were lost.

John, along with his fallen friends, is buried in the War Cemetery at Durnbach, 30miles south of Munich.

 

All members of the armed forces then and now, to this very day, write a last letter.

A letter to be handed to their next of kin in the event of their death.

John’s last letter gives an insight into, not only the kind of man he was, but why he fought and why he believed he was doing what was right.

Why living out the gospel of hope, of love and of doing what was right, was not merely something he believed, but embodied.

Please indulge me as I share with you some of what he writes….

‘To my parents and my brothers and sisters,

I say when your children grow up in a free world which my comrades and I have died for, teach them to be strong in will to get together and keep the peace for which we have fought.

The 1914 = 18 war was a war to end all wars so everyone said, but twenty five years later the sons of those who had fought that war are dying on the battlefield in their thousands because they had not been taught to overcome the oppressor soon enough.

After this war ends there must not be the same mistake or all our efforts will have been in vain.

Buying a poppy on Armistice Day is a fine gesture but it does not bring back the dead or restore the heartbreaks of those left behind.

Remember this, my brothers and sisters and teach your children the same thing and I shall be happy.

I am not really afraid to die because the GOD I have learned to love from both your teaching and the nearness to HIM when we fly will look after me.

In any case it would be the way I would prefer to go= while I am flying.

My life in the R A F   has been a happy and contented one. One in which I was truly living.

Do you remember the first time I went solo and how I wrote home and told you all about it?

Now, probably I am again going solo into something more Majestic than ever before. Someday I will tell you about the second great Solo too.’

 

The rest of the letter has personal messages for each member of the family and for those who would come after him.  He was a very astute young man.

John was 24 when he died.  He was like you.

John, all the names behind me, and all those carved on war memorials up and down this country of ours, are why we remember today.

Those who risk all for us to be able to live freely, like John, do so not wholly in the name of king and country but completely in the name of Love.

Love for family, love for home.  Love.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning shows us how difficult that is going to be for us to live out our calling to follow Christ in practically living out that love.

Jesus reminds us that love should be at the heart of everything we do.

 

BUT, it means loving everyone.

Even those we disagree with.

Even those we believe are on the wrong path.  Even those who could never and would never love us.

This is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect.

Because none of us want to see any more young people’s names cared on stones of sacrifice.

And that means choosing another path, along with St Martin, a radical, affirming, life-transforming and sanctifying path of love and peace.

Today, we remember and speak for those like John who fell silent because of war and did not have the chance to choose a different way.

John and all the names that are remembered in this chapel, died far too young.

They will forever be practically perfect in every way in our hearts and our memories because they never got the chance to grow old and make all the mistakes, I pray you will have the opportunity to entertain one day.

Because perfection is a tough ask.

We can only ever be practically perfect in every way, like a sainted Mary Poppins, if we put into practice what it truly means to follow the path of Christ.

This is Christ’s message of hope shining out to us in the midst of the darkness, uncertainty and turmoil that is our messy, precious world right now.

And we need to view that message of hope through the prism of peace.

When we do so, let us be reinvigorated for the future, for the task of radically transforming our lives, our university community and our world by always choosing the challenging path of love.

On this Remembrance Sunday,

as the world edges towards a precipice once again,

My prayer for you all is to hear Christ’s words anew and strive to be perfect,

choose love, and love without judgement – always.

And, may we be blessed by the memory of those we remember today.

Amen

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