Puddletown and Dewlish
Sunday 12th November 2015
1 Thessalonians 4. 13-18;
“And the lovin’ God ‘E look down on it all,
on the blood and the mud and the smell.
O God, if it’s true, ‘ow I pities you,
for ye must be livin’ i’ ‘ell.
You must be livin’ i’ ‘ell all day
and livin’ i’ ‘ell all night.
I’d rather be dead, wiv a ‘ole
through my ‘ead,
I would, by a damn long sight,
than be living wi’ you
on your ‘eavenly throne,
looking down on your bloody ‘eap
that were once a boy full o’ life and joy,
and ‘earin’ ‘is mother weep.
The sorrows o’ God must be ‘ard to bear
if ‘E really ‘as love in ‘is ‘eart,
and the ‘ardest part i’ the world to play
must surely be God’s part.
Words from a long and moving poem, The Sorrow of God, written by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, also known as Woodbine Willie.
Studdert-Kennedy was a chaplain in the First World War, known for his generous dispensing of Woodbine cigarettes, hence the nickname his soldiers gave him.
Unlike many chaplains, Willie didn’t stand by when the troops went into battle, he would be there with them. He didn’t fight himself but would go out into the mud and comfort the dying, and bring the wounded back to the trenches.
As he did so, he reflected on a world that had descended into chaos, and like many then and many today, he questioned why God didn’t stop all the killing.
It’s a big question – why God allows suffering? And there are many kinds of suffering that we can’t explain or understand, but war is not one of them.
War happens because human beings mess things up. Someone or other becomes powerful and then uses their power to attack or oppress a perceived weaker opponent.
Sometimes that opponent is crushed, sometimes they fight back and lose, sometimes they fight back and unexpectedly win the battle. And sometimes other countries come to their aid and the disagreement between two people or countries grows and expands.
Just think how the world divided itself in the Second World War: Germany, Italy, Japan against England, Australia, France, Canada, New Zealand, India and the Soviet Union. And the fighting spread far and wide: Africa, Europe, Asia, Hawaii.
It is estimated that 60 million people were killed as a result of World War II. No wonder we remember it still.
The previous World War hadn’t turned out to be the war to end all wars as had been supposed. There is something in the heart of humanity that is drawn to violence over peace, conflict over harmony and despair over hope.
The world seems always on the edge of war. It is estimated that so far this year more than 19,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, more than 23,000 in Syria, more than 12,000 in Iraq. And other countries are caught up in increasing numbers of conflict fatalities: Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, the Central African Republic to name a few.
And God looks down and allows it to happen. What is there to say about that?
As Woodbine Willie says: the sorrows of God must be hard to bear, if he really has love in his heart, the hardest part in the world to play must be the part of God.
In the poem he goes on to answer his own question by comparing a mother’s wayward son to the waywardness of human beings who have been given the choice of how they live their lives by God.
Why don't ye make your voice ring out,
and drown these cursed guns?
Why don't ye stand with
an outstretched 'and,
out there 'twixt us and the 'Uns?
Why don't ye force us to end the war
and fix up a lasting peace?
Why don't ye will that the world be still
and wars for ever cease?
That's what I'd do, if I was you,
and I had a lot o' sons
what squabbled and fought and
spoilt their 'ome,
same as us boys and the 'Uns.
And yet, I remember, a lad o' mine,
'e's fightin' now on the sea,
and 'e were a thorn in 'is mother's side,
and the plague o' my life to me.
Lord, 'ow I used to swish that lad
till 'e fairly yelped wi' pain,
but fast as I thrashed one devil out
another popped in again.
And at last, when 'e grew up a strappin'
'e ups and 'e says to me,
"My will's my own and my life's my own,
and I'm goin', Dad, to sea."
And 'e went, for I 'adn't broke 'is will,
though God knows 'ow I tried,
and 'e never set eyes on my face again
till the day as 'is mother died.
Well, maybe that's 'ow it is wi' God,
'is sons 'ave got to be free;
their wills are their own,
and their lives their own,
and that's 'ow it 'as to be.
God suffers with the world, but, because love is only true if there is a possibility of not loving, God allows people to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.
Each year, people across our nation gather to remember those who have fallen in conflict around the world and through the ages.
So many died in the World Wars but still they die today. There have been only two years since 1945, when no British member of the forces has died in action.
Each year we remember with sorrow the number of lives lost through war. We pray for peace and pledge ourselves to working for a better future.
But we know from our own lives that peace is fragile. It’s not just between and within nations that people find it hard to live together in harmony.
There is a time to stand still and remember, but our remembrance only really has power, if it leads us to working with God to make the world a better place.
That means standing up and speaking out for justice, it means being prepared in our lives to use dialogue and mediation when disagreements and arguments arise, it means ensuring that we are not the cause of violent thoughts or behaviour.
I am sure that there are times when God looks down at the world and weeps for what God sees there.
But, always in the midst of darkness, God’s light is shining because someone, somewhere makes a difference. Even in those horrendous situations of the trenches in World War 1, there were people there, holding the hand of the dying, doing their best to provide healing for the wounded, caring for the families left at home.
However dark things are, the light of God can shine when we human beings make that choice. It was Jesus who said that there was no love greater than that of someone willing to die for their friends, an example that he himself followed. There are great acts of selflessness that take place in the field of War that can shine out in the midst of the depravity that causes so much heartache and suffering.
Unlike World Wars 1 and 2, most of us nowadays are shielded from the worst of horrors of war.
We wake up when things like the Manchester bombing earlier this year occur, but then except for those whom it directly involves, lives return to normal.
Our Bible reading this morning talked about how important it is to be ready for the return of Christ.
Readiness means walking the path of Jesus Christ, a path of love and peace, of unselfishness and humility.
If each person in the world behaved like that, war would cease. Because war feeds on discontent and selfishness, pride and hatred, discord and a grading of humanity into good and bad, those lie us and those not like us.
Humanity makes a mockery of God’s love – in World Wars 1 + 2 people on both sides were praying for God to give them victory, when what God really desires is peace among all people.
ISIS claim to act in God’s name but God never desires the destruction of the precious children he has made.
In the Bible there are pictures of God moulding each one of us out of clay as precious and unique beings. No potter wants to see their beautiful creations smashed to pieces. And yet that is what we do in War.
So let us remember past tragedies, lost lives, broken people and nations but, as we remember, let us also pledge ourselves to live our lives with the words of Jesus ringing in our ears:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
 From The Sorrow of God, a poem by G. Studdert-Kennedy (1918)
 Luke 6. 27-34