Sunday, 13 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday: Living among the ruins

Aleppo: Reuters, Hosam Katan
 The picture I’ve printed on your service sheet today is one we might see on the news any night of the week at the moment.  A city in ruins; houses with their front walls blown off, and a man, picking his way through the rubble strewn streets. As it happens, this is the Syrian city of Aleppo, and the picture was taken by a news photographer, Hosam Katan, whose home town it is. The eastern part of Aleppo, controlled by a variety of rebel forces, has been under attack from President Assad’s forces for years, and is currently besieged. An estimated 200,000 people are still living there, under horrific conditions. There is very little food, water, power or medicine. There are only about 30 doctors, trying to treat the wounded and sick in hospitals which are repeatedly being bombed. Often they have to operate on people on the floor, without anaesthetic, because there is none. Many of their patients are children.  

As I said, though, we see scenes like this so often now on the news that it’s easy to forget that they are individual places, with individual people like us living in them. This picture could be any generic set of ruins anywhere. It could be Mosul or Homs or a hundred other places around the world.

And this scene is, in some ways, timeless as well. It could be WW2 London, or Plymouth or Dresden or Stalingrad. A hundred years ago it could have been Ypres. It could have been a city torn apart in the Crimean war, the American civil war, the wars of the Roses, the Crusades… Someone, somewhere in every generation has to live among ruins, as the people of Aleppo do, dreading the next attack, struggling to stay alive when everything has been stripped from them. No time or place is immune from the ravages of war.

The Bible readings we heard today remind us of that. They are both about living among ruins, or fearing you’ll have to.  The first reading, from the Old Testament, was written just after the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Much of the tribe of Judah, who lived there, had been taken into exile in Babylon. The Temple had been smashed to pieces and all its wonderful treasures seized. The author of this book puts into words the heartbreak of those who survive and try to eke out a living there. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” It’s the lament of a broken people, stunned, helpless. It’s not just the buildings that have been wrecked; the social fabric has been destroyed too. The Temple was the heart of the nation’s life, but now, instead of joyful processions, the roads leading into Jerusalem are empty. And no one has come to Jerusalem’s aid. Where were her supposed allies – her lovers – when she needed them?  

The second reading comes from 600 years later. The Temple had been rebuilt by then, and splendidly enlarged by King Herod. It had only just been finished. But it wouldn’t be there for long, said Jesus. It would soon be torn down again, just as it had been before. And the physical destruction would only be the start of the nation’s troubles. He foresaw a time of great turmoil, a time when people turned on one another, when those who followed him would be scapegoated; we all tend to look for scapegoats when times are tough.

As you can imagine his words went down like a lead balloon. This prophecy of disaster was one of the accusations which was thrown at Jesus when he was arrested. It was bad for morale to talk like this.

The Western Wall of the Temple complex in Jerusalem
But he turned out to be right. In AD 70 the Romans finally got fed up with this client kingdom of Judea after a long series of rebellions and destroyed it, scattering its people across the Empire into a diaspora which only ended in the twentieth century. The Temple was demolished, just as Jesus had said. If you go to Jerusalem now, all you’ll see is the remains of its western wall. It didn’t take uncanny prophetic power to see this coming, though. If you annoyed the Romans for long enough this would always be how it ended, but the people of Jesus’ time didn’t want to see that.  It was too frightening. And who can blame them?

The problem is that denial, however attractive, doesn’t get you anywhere in the end. The possibility of disaster is never as far away as we would like to think. Even if it hasn’t happened to us, the fear that it might can disturb us profoundly. The political upheavals we’ve seen this year – the EU referendum, the US election, the refugee crisis and our reactions to it, the threat of terrorism at home and abroad; all these things unsettle us. Whatever our political opinions we see that old certainties are crumbling.

It’s not always the big things “out there” that threaten us either. We may find ourselves living among our own personal ruins; the ruins of a failed business, the ruins of relationship that has turned sour, the ruin illness wreaks in our lives. It all just feels like a mess, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. 

Those who first heard Jesus’ words didn’t want to believe them – why would they? But they aren’t intended to make us despair. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “When you hear of wars and insurrections,” he says, “do not be terrified.”  “Not a hair of your head shall perish,”  he goes on. This may seem like an overstatement – many of those who followed him lost far more than their hair! – but his message is clear. It is possible to be all right, in a deep sense, even when everything around you is all wrong.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, he says.

To understand what he means by this you need to know that in Hebrew thought your soul wasn’t some ethereal entity that would waft up to heaven when you died. He’s not saying, “don’t worry, you’ll get your reward in the afterlife – pie in the sky when you die”. Your soul was the whole of you; it was what made you you. It was as much to do with life before death as after it. “Gaining your soul” is about clinging to what is good and true, so that you end up still able to look at yourself in the mirror, with your integrity intact, having acted with honour, as the person God intended you to be. And if we can be that person, there will always be hope for the future. We will, in the deepest sense, survive.

Survival isn’t about building bunkers and stuffing them full of baked beans and bottled water. It isn’t about pulling up the drawbridges and, dare I say it, building walls. All that does is to isolate us and feed the fears and hatreds that are the enemies of lasting peace.  Survival, in the way that Jesus meant it – gaining that vital soul - is achieved by connecting with something bigger than yourself. He talks about his followers being given the words they need. They’ll have within them the knowledge of his presence, even when he’s not physically there any more. They’ll be rooted in a vision that’s broader and deeper than their own limited view, in a goodness that’s greater than the evil they face, and that will enable them to be the best versions of themselves rather than the worst.

We connect to something greater when we look outwards in our communities, when we offer our help to others, when we open ourselves up to learn from them and receive their help too. We connect to something greater when we work for peace and justice, when we care for the victims of war – whether military or civilian – when we welcome refugees or give to charities which care for them here or abroad. We connect to something greater when we listen to those who are different from us, when we get to know them as people, not as stereotypes. What matters is that we don’t just retreat to our bunkers and look out for number one.

I began by telling you a little about the struggles of the people of Aleppo. It all looks so hopeless for them. They have every reason to despair, and I am sure they often do, and so would I. But they also have reasons to hope, and it’s clear that some of them are able to do that too. In the midst of the terror and the awfulness there are many stories of courage and love. There are teachers, gathering children together to give them some semblance of normality and support in makeshift schools. There is that small band of doctors, assisted by whoever can help them, making heroic efforts to heal the sick. There are the White Helmets, civil defence volunteers trained in first aid and rescue techniques, who go into danger when there is an airstrike or a bomb, digging people out of the rubble with their bare hands. Aleppo has many people in it who are “gaining their souls” daily, being and becoming the people they were meant to be, people of honour and goodness. That doesn’t cancel out the pain, but it reminds us that death and hatred aren’t the whole of the story and never will be.

Anne Frank, faced with the worst which human beings can do during WW2, wrote this in her wartime diary. “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.” She may not, herself, have lived to see it, but she wasn’t wrong.

On this Remembrance Sunday, when we might look around at the world in our time and sometimes feel it is in ruins, or heading that way, let’s hold onto hope and faith like hers, let’s look beyond ourselves and keep walking towards the light, that “light which shines in the darkness,”  the light of love which no darkness can overcome.



Kent Refugee Action Network
Independent charity supporting young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders)
White Helmets. Syrian Civil Defence working in areas being attacked by government troops
Combat Stress  Veterans Mental Health Charity

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