Sermon preached by Archdeacon Trevor Harrison at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity 25 December 2019 It’s a marvellous, wonderful,... read more
A chicken and a pig were best of friends. One day, they were looking at a newspaper and read about an orphanage not too far from them that needed food. The chicken said, “Brother Pig, why don’t we go down to the orphanage and make a donation of food? We could donate a ham and egg breakfast.” But the Pig replied, “Wait a minute, Sister Chicken! For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment! It’s laying down my life.”
Laying down my life. Total commitment. 'No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends.
I don't know what was going through the minds of the 2334 British, 139 Poles, 98 New Zealanders [we were the third largest contingent] in this multi national force, and aircrew from other parts of the them Empire and other nations. I don't know what was going on in their minds. These were young men who were willing to take the risk of losing their lives in fierce combat in the skies over Britain. I cannot know what all their motives were, but whether they knew it or not, it was indeed for a greater good. And Jesus said 'no one has greater love than this than to lay down one's life for one's friends'.
The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign in the 2nd World War to be fought entirely in the skies. When the battle was over, 544 pilots and aircrew were dead.
It was Churchill who said on 20 August 1940: 'The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, 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.'
Today then we remember a small group of aircrew who have become collectively known as “The Few”, . Who were they? They were, for the most part, young men, some barely out of their teens. In the old black and white photographs, they look very young indeed, confident in their strength and sense of invulnerability, as young men are.
Over the space of one summer, a time of year and a time of life when they should have been dating and riding motorcycles and playing sports, these young men fought to the death against an experienced and well trained German air force. Pushed to the limits of exhaustion, they held the line in the air, and saved the British nation from a terrible outcome. Had they failed, it’s difficult to imagine how freedom and democracy could ever have been restored to the peoples of Europe. If ever a battle saved the world, this battle was it..
This handful of aircrew flew for the sake of many – the people of Britain and of the occupied countries waiting to be freed. They could not fly without the support of many others. When we think of “The Few” we must also remember armourers, refuellers, engineers, fitters, mechanics, ground crews, radar operators, plotters, wireless operators, members of the Observer Corps, anti-aircraft gunners, barrage balloon operators, civilian utility workers, many of whom worked and died at their trades as the bombs fell on their airfields. These men and women show an air force that knew how to work together, and they teach us the truth of an air force motto, “Operate as One”. They depended on one another. And so must we if we sincerely want to work for peace, for love.
When Churchill spoke those famous words in August 1940, the Battle of Britain had by then continued for six weeks. The final attempt to win it by the Luftwaffe was on the 15th September 1940, Battle of Britain day, and of course it failed. The skill and sacrifice of those RAF pilots and gunners meant that the threat of imminent invasion was abandoned, even if the horrors of the Blitz were yet to come. It was one of the decisive turning points of the war. It demonstrated the ‘strategy, organisation, technical apparatus, science, and mechanics’, of which Churchill spoke. It also greatly raised morale’. And it exemplified the courage and devotion to duty whatever the cost. We must always remember and be thankful.
War is a terrible business and our human species is sadly so adept at bringing it upon ourselves
One father remembered how his pilot son was consumed in body and spirit by the fighting:
"He was a changed lad, time took care of that taking him from a young man with a bright future before the war to a man that seemed full of hatred, he said that he felt as if he was a human killing machine and said that if he ever dies, then put on his headstone "Here Lies Another Human Killing Machine”. On leave he could not sleep, or he would scream out in the night. How he died we will never know, he went out on a mission, and never came back, and that's the sad part, we do not even have a grave where we know that he is at last resting in peace.
We must weep for the tragedy which is war. We yearn for peace and yet there comes times that we must use physical force to curb the forces of unlove and wickedness, or what we perceive to be unlove and wickedness. There have been so many tragic and dehumanising conflicts throughout the history of the human race
Today we face the evil of ISIS. I remember after 9/11 I was preaching in Wellington cathedral, and I said that we in the Western world, and in particular the United States, needed to ask ourselves the question,why do they hate us so much. Isis did not grow in a vacuum. must be stopped but let us not fool ourselves. The rise of this terrorist phenomenon is as much to do with the arrogance of some nations in denying the rights and sovereignty of other nations….and a whole lot of it in pursuit of oil. Such is the seedbed of most wars. Power and the desire for power and control.
Just as we must defeat ISIS so we had to defeat the evil of Nazism. And yet we must not become what we hate. IN seeking to defeat the forces of unlove and evil, we ourselves must not become what we hate. We must seek the paths of reconciliation and a true justice for all the people of the world. When I was ministering in Lincoln in England I had the privilege of being the padre for the Royal Air Force Association and for the Burma Star Association as well as the British Legion. The Burma Star Association has an epitaph which I believe is the deepest of challenges as we come on days like today. As we remember those who died and those who were so deeply scarred by war. 'When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.'
And so as we remember these 'Few', let us recommit ourselves as we pray:
Give us O God a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits and blessing s of life are shared so that everyone can enjoy them; a world where people of different race, colour, gender, religion, sexual orientation – the whole diversity of humanity, are treated with dignity and respect; a world where the earth, our planet home, is honoured and sustained; a world where peace is built on justice,and justice is guided by live. And give us the courage and the inspiration to build such a world.
'When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.'