The Promise of the Century

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University of St Andrews

Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2018

Readings: Isaiah 2:2-5; Matthew 13:24-33

The Promise of the Century

A hundred years ago today, St Andrews celebrated the end of the First World War.  Union Jacks flew above the Town Hall and many other buildings.  The University flag flew over the Library on South Street.  Students, most of whom were women, held a procession, commandeering horses and carts, and travelling through the town singing songs of celebration.  There was dancing in the streets.  The following day there was a service of thanksgiving in Holy Trinity Church at which the Principals, Professors, Lecturers and students of the University participated.  According to the newspaper, the St Andrews Citizen, The mass of scarlet gowns was a cheering note of colour in the large assembly.  A week later the Students Representative Council held a torchlit procession.

It was peace – but at what a price.  20 million deaths throughout the world, half-military, half-civilian.  A similar number injured.  994,000 British deaths, about 2% of the population.  Roughly 4% of the French and German populations killed.  13% of the Ottoman Empire.  Of 972 St Andrews students and staff who served, 130 were killed, whose names are inscribed in this Chapel on the wall of the apse.  In the midst of the rejoicing, there was a deep sense that the suffering and losses were overwhelming, and that we should do all we can to avert such carnage in the future.  The Presbytery of Cupar, ministers and elders of the Church of Scotland, resolved at their next meeting as follows:

the Presbytery earnestly hope that a League of Nations may be formed, by means of which war may for ever become impossible.

There is an echo here of our reading from Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, that people would turn swords into ploughshares, weapons into tools for growing food, that

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

The Armistice held out a promise to an exhausted nation, an exhausted continent and world, that we could do things differently, that we could find ways to talk about what divides us, and find diplomatic ways to resolve our conflicts.

I was reminded of this in a concert a couple of weeks ago at the same Holy Trinity Church where that Thanksgiving Service took place.  In 2018, the choral ensemble Tenebrae sang in German a piece by Schoenberg called Friede auf ErdenPeace on earth.  It begins with a reflection on the angels’ song to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth:

Heaven continued to sound:
“Peace, peace on earth!”

A century earlier, in November 1918, that was the same promise, the same hope which people held.

But the song looks clear-eyed at reality.  The next verse says:

Since the angels uttered such advice –
Ah! how many bloody deeds
Has armed warfare on wild horses

And we know all too well what the subsequent century has brought: the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese Civil War, the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, multiple wars in Israel/Palestine, the Cambodian genocide, the Falklands War, the Balkan wars, the first Gulf War, genocide in Rwanda, war in Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, Libya and the ongoing, appalling destruction of lives in Syria, and the continuing threat of nuclear war.  And there are many other wars I could have named.  Peace! But at what a price!  British and other military personnel continue to make the ultimate sacrifice a century after the Armistice.

How should faith respond to this litany of loss, this broken promise?  Well, perhaps a way can be found in Jesus’ words which we heard earlier.  First was a parable he told of wheat and weeds.  A good crop is infiltrated by seeds of darnel, a poisonous weed, planted by an enemy.  The darnel roots intertwine with the wheat.  It can’t be weeded out – but both need to stay till the harvest.

Looking back over the century, I can’t help but see the flourishing of these seeds of evil, greed, violence and horror, growing up alongside our better instincts, crowding and overwhelming the forces of good.  The parable suggests that we cannot root out this evil during our time, but must wait for God to judge at the end of time.  It’s a hard lesson – it seems we must let evil flourish, we must let wars abound.  Must we be so passive in the face of such pain and suffering?

And yet this is not the only parable we heard.  Straightaway, Jesus offers two more also drawn from nature, of the mustard seed and the yeast.  The mustard-seed is tiny, yet grows to a huge size, bearing branches, being fruitful, offering shade, bearing life in the eggs in the nests which birds build in its branches.  And yeast, also small and seemingly insignificant, but when mixed thoroughly in the flour transforms the ingredients, making something nutritious, light and delicious.  Has Paul Hollywood been reading his Bible?  Is Jesus’ parable a scriptural prototype for the Great British Bake-Off?

Both the mustard-seed and the yeast are images for God’s realm, God’s work, God’s life among us: small, apparently irrelevant, but growing, transforming and offering something lovely and good.  The parable of the wheat and the weeds seems to be borne out in a century of wars and killing.  But the parables of the mustard-seed and the yeast suggest a different century which grew up alongside the violence, with multiple signs of God’s realm growing around us.  Let me suggest some examples:

the emancipation of women, continuing to grow in equality in education, politics, the family and the workplace;
the end of colonialism, with the spread of responsibility to the formerly subject races, and a lessening of racism;
sexual liberation, and the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships;
the increasing spread of prosperity and comfort;
the development of medicine, antibiotics and astonishing advances in treatment.

(Note here the image on the cover of the order of service, a newspaper from the day of the Armistice.  Do you see the ad in the top left corner is for Brand’s Essence of Beef to fight Influenza?  This year is also the centenary of the Spanish flu pandemic which, it is estimated, infected one-third of the world’s population, killing 50 million people, more than the war itself.  During the subsequent century, we have moved from Brand’s Essence of Beef to the anti-viral drugs Oseltamivir and zanamivir.)

And there are examples of reconciliation in our time, including South Africa, Northern Ireland, across a Europe once divided by an iron curtain; and – let us hope – in the Korean peninsula.  The century has also seen influential movements and institutions which have lessened the risks and effects of war, from the United Nations which rose from the ashes of the League of Nations, to the European Union.

But there is clearly a long, long way to go. The parable of the wheat and the weeds shows us that we will never, in our earthly time, achieve a perfect peace.  God, the creator of life, and giver of redemption, plants and tends good seeds – of peace, understanding, kindness, intellectual curiosity, justice and hope.  But God’s are not the only seeds in this world, which in freedom sometimes chooses to water, tend and protect plants of greed, fear and prejudice, cruelty and hate.  At times it may seem that the promise of the century since the Armistice has been a cruel promise, that we have been fooled by those songs, that if the women students who processed round St Andrews a century ago could know what happened they’d despair.  And yet they were students – they were young.  Most did live to see the 20th century unfold.  They saw the promise broken but also fulfilled in countless wonderful ways, mustard-seeds grown, yeast transforming our world.

One century after that procession, the University is again full of students full of anticipation – for lives of good health, of hope for freedom and fulfilment, of the desire for peace.  We have in our generation, as in every generation, the freedom to plant new seeds which will grow to give shade and shelter for life to thrive, in how we live, how we spend our life.

Let me conclude by returning to that song, set by Schoenberg. It doesn’t stay with the bloody deeds, the armed warfare.  Instead, it offers a beautiful sense of what could be, a true promise for a new century:

But there is an eternal belief
That the weak shall not fall prey
To every insolent murderous gesture
At every season:
Something resembling justice
Works against murder and horror,
And a kingdom shall be created
That seeks peace on earth.

In remembering those who gave their lives, let us pray that something resembling justice will fulfil the promise of the century to which their sacrifice led.