During the formative years of my vocation I took part in a number of ecumenical pilgrimages to the holy island of Iona, off the coast of Mull. We would walk almost ninety miles over hiking trails, fields, and costal paths only to arrive, exhausted and happy, to celebrate Easter Day with the monastic community of the island. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only thing I remember clearly about each of these pilgrimages is the sense of sheer joy I experienced arriving to Iona. I don’t remember the falls along the way, the blisters, or the relentless wind – only joy of having finally arrived.
For those who know me fairly well, what I just said should not come as a shock at all as I tend to be – shall we say – a little forgetful. But the fact that my recollections only focus on joy may have also something to do with selective memory; something that each of us can fall into, especially after experiencing difficult circumstances. In fact, even St John’s gospel recalls Jesus talking about such a thing as selective memory when he says, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:21).
Selective memory helps us to focus on our accomplishments; giving us the morale boost we would need should we be confronted by similar situations in the future. After all, if I remembered all the hardship my group of pilgrims endured walking down steep and freezing slopes in the pouring rain for a week, I would have probably never done that pilgrimage again… So selective memory can be helpful as we make our way through life; but it can also be a trap that prevents us from seeing clearly the reality of what we have been through, hampering our sense of gratitude towards those who have helped us along the way. And this is never more critical than when selective memory affects an entire nation; it is never more dangerous than when selective memory becomes selective remembrance.
In the midst of the Battle of Britain, on 20th August 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with powerful words that made it into the history books; words that have influenced the collective remembrance of the nation ever since.
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, …and indeed throughout the world, …goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Remembrance informs our gratitude. In other words, the way in which remember informs the way in which we give thanks to others, and indeed to God, according to justice for what they have done for us. Therefore, if today we remembered “the Few” and just “the Few” whom Churchill spoke of as “British airmen” then our remembrance would be selective and so our sense of gratitude would also be selective, excluding others whose valiant efforts also determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
‘It's not “lest we forget”, it's “lest we remember”. That's what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’
Alan Bennet places these words on the lips of Tom Irwin, a cynical supply teacher in his acclaimed play the History Boys. This scathing gibe which could appear directed towards the entire culture of remembrance is, in fact, a dig at the way in which we tend to idealize, streamline, and make palatable the ways in which we remember momentous and tragic events, such as war, or in our very case also the Battle of Britain. This is a dig at selective remembrance, and we should do well to heed its call.
Let us remember that almost a quarter of the pilots who met the enemy in the skies of Britain came from fourteen other countries – 24,39%, if my I am doing my maths right. Let us also remember the ground control staff; the countless civilians who lost their lives in air-raids whilst working in airplanes and ammunition factories. Let us remember those who kept watch over our skies in the Royal Control Corps, now disbanded.
The very peace we have enjoyed on this continent for the last seventy years was wrought into the brotherhood and the blood of those who fought to defend the skies of Britain regardless of their nationality, but only in the pursuit of justice. If Britain had fallen under the enemy bombardments, God only knows what would have happened. D-Day would have perhaps never arrived, and certainly it would not have played out in the way it did. VE Day would have never dawned, and the oppression of totalitarism, racial hate, and fascism would have held sway across an entire continent…
In the Christian sense remembering has much to do with making present past events in their entirety. It means being honest about what happened so that we may properly give thanks to God and to everyone involved. That fateful Battle we remember today indeed tuned the tide of the World War, it was won over the skies of Britain and the Channel, and it was fought by the Few, the Forgotten Few from other countries (almost airbrushed out of history), by the Control Corps on the rooves of our cities, and by the many men and women who valiantly supported them at ground control, and in the spitfire factories. Today we call all of them to mind in one single act of true remembrance. To them all today goes out our debt of gratitude. And for them our prayers ascend to God the Father, that he may grant their souls eternal rest, that after the hardships they endured for the cause of justice they may be welcomed into a the joy of his kingdom. Amen.
Which of the three men, do you think, was a neighbour to the one who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’.
A couple of weeks ago as we were planning this service, we decided to steer clear of the word “community” as the theme for this celebration. And there are very good reasons for this. “Community” has become a buzzword to signify everything and anything that might bring or hold people together. Here at All Saints’ we are responsible for this as anyone else, given that the description on our website says, ‘A friendly and welcoming Christian community…’ But by overusing, and misusing, the word “community” we deprive it of any real meaning.
Yet, the gospel encourages everyone (Christians and otherwise) to consider a different approach towards bringing people together; not in terms of being a community – although the Church could be understood as a community of sorts – but in terms of coming together as good neighbours. This approach is somewhat different from what we have been used to hear over the last few decades, and it is definitely more challenging to embrace.
In the gospel passage that the Mayor has kindly read for us Jesus gives us an example of how belonging to a community can sometimes hamper the flourishing of other individuals. We see this in the priest and Levite who belong to the same community that served in the Jerusalem temple, and led the worship for the people of Israel. These two characters, seeing the man left for dead on the side of the road, cross over to the other side in order not to be defiled by coming in to contact with him, and so lose their sense of belonging to their own community. “He is not one of us”, the priest may have said to himself. “If I become ritually impure by touching this man, my community would banish me from service”, the Levite may have thought.
Their strong sense of belonging to a certain group of people prevents them from helping a stranger they encounter, giving him the time of day, and showing mercy towards his sorry state. Their inaction, which from their point of view is perfectly justifiable, becomes for us an example of how an inward-looking impersonal idea of community can actually do harm, by setting membership as a higher priority than doing good to others.
But to this example of strict adherence to a community Jesus contrasts the behaviour of another man, who would be cast as “the Good Samaritan” happily ever after because his actions. This remarkable man is not part of Israel’ society, in fact he and his fellow Samaritans are despised by the Israelites and considered the least trustworthy people around. Yet, he is the one who helps the man in his troubles, cares for him, and gives him back his human dignity; he sets aside his belonging to any specific community in order to help a fellow human being needing his attention. In short his is the one who acts as a good neighbour. The priest and the Levite are also neighbours in the sense that they find themselves in close proximity to the poor man, but they are bad ones and they do not do anything to help.
The gospel here teaches us that being good neighbours is something that transcends any idea of community each own of us might have; crucially it goes beyond religious creeds, political affiliation, nationality, or everything else. Being a good neighbour is about seeing the person next to me for who they are; another human being endowed with infinite worth, and, as such, seeing them also as worthy of my time, dedication, and care.
Our town is changing rapidly but this is by no means the first time that dramatic changes have altered the appearance and dynamics of this place. Indeed the town has been transformed many times beyond recognition since it started out as an Anglo-Saxon village over one thousand years ago. Nevertheless, as new roads and infrastructures are built and new people come to live here we, who already live here, have an even bigger chance to show ourselves as good neighbours to newcomers and old residents alike.
The gospel poses us an indirect question. What kind of neighbours do we want to be? Ones who care only for likeminded people, for members of our own little communities? Or ones who are there to help anyone we may find on our way?
The likelihood that everyone in Houghton will be part of the same community (whether through creed, nationality, or ethnicity) is very small indeed. But by learning to be good neighbours we will learn how to bring people together in a broader, more personal and lasting way… one small act of mercy, one cuppa, one generous offer of help at a time.