The Legacy of War: The Revd Canon Nicholas Sagovsky, 21 June 2015

Published on Sun, 21 Jun 2015 12:20

Sermon given by The Revd Canon Nicholas Sagovsky, Whitelands Professorial Fellow at Roehampton University at the Waterloo Festival Eucharist 21st June 2015


Rev 6: 1-8; Mk 13: 1-8, 32-7

I guess most of us in this church have never experienced a battle and never experienced war.  Within the sweep of human history, this is highly unusual.  I was born in 1947, just after the Second World War.  Both my parents served in the armed forces.  My father was caught up in the chaos of the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.  Later, my mother helped to plot the movement of aircraft.  Then her health broke down and she was sent to a military hospital, a time she looked back on with horror.  My mother’s father fought in the trenches in the First World War – an experience about which we know nothing because he would never speak about what he had been through.  My father’s father was in the Russian navy.  He just missed the Battle of Tsushima in which the battleship on which he served went down with all hands.  I still have the icon he carried at that time.  Later, when Russia was convulsed with revolution, he and my grandmother settled in England as refugees.  My wife’s grandmother was killed when her house, here in London, suffered a direct hit.  Her grandfather survived but was so badly hurt he never fully recovered.  My wife’s father was a conscientious objector.  Though he would not fight, he served as an army medical auxiliary in West Africa.  This is just the story of one British family: I guess each of us – wherever we have been brought up and even if we have been fortunate enough to live through a time of peace – could tell many similar stories about how our lives have been shaped by the legacy of war.


The readings this morning remind us that the backdrop to the ministry of Jesus was war and the fear of war.  Jesus was brought up in an occupied country close to the frontier of the Roman Empire: ‘When (not ‘if’) you hear of wars and rumours of wars’, he said, ‘do not be alarmed; this must take place  … for nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom … This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’  Sure enough, about forty years later, the Jews rose up against the Romans in a major rebellion that was crushed without mercy.  As Jesus came out of the Temple, he said to his disciples, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’  In AD70, the Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans.  It has never been rebuilt: all that is left is the wall, which the Jews call the Wailing Wall.


In the vision that John the Seer had on Patmos, he sees a scroll, sealed with seven seals.  As each of the seven seals is opened, one by one, he glimpses more of the terror and the fighting at the end of time.  When the first four seals are opened, four horsemen of the apocalypse are revealed.  The first brings conquest, the second brings war, the third brings famine, and the fourth brings death.


Jesus tells his disciples plainly: there will be war, disease and famine, but he doesn’t know when God will bring history to a close: ‘About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’  If the legacy of war, for the time being, is peace, we should be grateful, but we should never take peace for granted.  We need to ‘stay awake’ now: we can never know what God has in store for tomorrow.


The St John’s Festival is one of hundreds of events that have been commemorating the Battle of Waterloo, which took place two hundred years ago last Thursday.  The terrible fighting on June 16-18, 1815, culminating in the Battle of Waterloo, just outside Brussels in Belgium, brought to an end a period of almost continuous war on the European mainland that had lasted for two hundred years.  It brought to an end a period of conquest by the armies of Napoleon, which deprived Europe of peace for twenty years.  The Duke of Wellington commanded an army made up of British and allied forces, which included Prussians from north Germany, Hanoverians and Brunswickers from central Germany, Dutch and Belgian soldiers.  In three days of fighting before and at Waterloo, if you add up the casualties of both sides, about 120,000 were killed or wounded.  The casualties in Wellington’s army amounted to 53,000 – not far short of the number of British troops killed on the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme, the worst day in the history of the British army.  Thousands of horses died in terror and pain.  Grieving for the friends he had lost on the battlefield, Wellington famously said, ‘Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.’


The losses were enormous, but there were also gains.  The major gain was an unsteady peace which prevailed in Europe for forty years and in much of the continent lasted for a hundred, before it broke down in the awful fighting of the First World War.  The competition between the nations of Europe, including Britain, was exported overseas in an imperial scramble when large tracts in the rest of the world were arbitrarily divided up amongst the rival nations. This created post-imperial problems which have all-too-often led to further warfare.  Meanwhile, Europe was transformed by the industrial revolution and the building of railways, which crossed the once-divided continent from end to end.  How fitting that the Battle of Waterloo should be commemorated by a railway station from which people used to set out for their holidays in France!  And how tragic that the iron and steel, which brought prosperity to Europe should be used to build battleships and machine guns and bombs which twice in the twentieth century brought conquest and famine and death as never before.


Faced with the terror of future wars, Jesus tells his disciples that they are to stay awake.  We don’t know what God has in store, but we are not to be surprised when we hear of war and earthquakes and famines and not immediately to jump to the conclusion that this is the end of the world.  Our task is to stay awake.  Staying awake for us, it seems to me, includes never taking the blessings of peace for granted and doing all we can to build and preserve reconciliation while we have time and opportunity.  Looking back on the Battle of Waterloo, we can so clearly see the tragedy of the last great battle between the English and the French.  In the same way, we can see the tragedy by which the Prussians, whose arrival on the field of Waterloo in the late afternoon ensured Wellington’s victory, became the enemy the British fought a hundred years later in the same rolling countryside.  And now, thank God, the French, and the Germans, Belgians and Dutch, who fought each other at Waterloo are some of our closest partners in NATO and the EU.  For an unprecedented seventy years – which pretty much coincide with my lifetime – Europe has enjoyed the blessings of peace.  The danger is that, because we have fewer and fewer people in our families and amongst our friends to remind us of the horrors of war, we become complacent.  We begin to think such things can never happen in Europe again.  One major legacy of war is the need to remember how terrible war is, so we do all in our power to maintain the peace.  Another is the need to stay awake, so we see from where new threats to the peace are coming and what can be done to counter them.  Another is the need to be thankful for the courage and steadfastness of so many in former generations, so we really do value the freedom, security and peace for which they fought.


The reading we heard from the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation speaks of the conquest, warfare, famine and death that will come at the end of time.  Revelation has much more to say about the sufferings of the last days.  The suffering of the Syrian and Iraqi people, the suffering of the migrants who are desperate to cross the Mediterranean and get to Europe, the sufferings of the people caught up in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, are a reminder of the suffering that Jesus said must come.  But the last word of John’s vision is a word of hope.  In the closing chapters of Revelation, we read about ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ in which ‘death will be no more’; we read about the tree of life whose leaves ‘are for the healing of the nations’.  In the end, beyond the terror and suffering of conquest and battle, of famine and migration, the legacy of this world’s warfare will be God’s blessed and everlasting peace.

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