Rev. Diane Rollert, 13 November 2016
I recently went through all the sermons that I’d written over the past ten years for Remembrance Day. Sometimes you look back and you realize that you’ve already said what needs to be said. You keep dreaming the same dreams of peace, but the world hasn’t changed.
They say that if we step back and just look at the statistics, we are living in the most peaceful time ever in recorded history. Yet why is it that the cries of war seem to only get louder, while the cries for peace are continually drowned out? Why are so many of us feeling on high alert, fearing the next violent conflagration? How can we close our eyes to the refugees fleeing war torn countries? How can we close our eyes to a humanitarian crisis that has become the rallying cry for bigotry and the rising spectre of fascism?
I’ve already told you the ancient story of the empty boat. But it’s a story that deserves retelling. Especially this year. Especially given all that has happened in the US presidential election. Especially given all the anger and hatred that seems to be oozing over the border in recent months. I’m an immigrant from the US, which makes me extremely biased — but I know many of you are in as much shock as I am. We are caught up in the fear and anxiety that so many people in the world are feeling right now.
So this story from the 4th century Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu, is for all of us.
THE EMPTY BOAT
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you....
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I want to tell everyone in the world to empty their boats. Why can’t this happen? You’d think by now we would have learned how.
Consider these stanzas from a poem by Jennifer Bosveld:
War gives us cherishables, so we love war.
Dad’s World War II cornet and letters to Mother,
discharge papers rest in the folds of his
drab blanket in the cedarchest…
…War gives us family so we love war.
Someone to welcome home, someone to come home to…
War gives us music, so we love war.
Songs to wonder where the flowers have gone…
…War gives us jobs, so we love war…
…War gives us hope, so we love war…
…War is more than the total of its parts. It has eternal life…
A few years ago, a soldier interviewed in the Gazette said that his most lasting impression of war was that “it’s the civilians who suffer the most in combat.” He said that you are never normal after all you see. He said that he observed Remembrance Day to honour those who didn’t make it back and those “who will be affected for the rest of their lives.”
Kirstin tells me that her father, who had a long military career, often tells her that he “doesn’t know of any soldier he respects who thinks of war as glorious, or noble, or anything other than a bleeding, stinking, miserable and sometimes necessary fight.” He says, “Politicians make war, not soldiers.”
As much as I want to call out for peace on no uncertain terms, I struggle with the moral dilemmas. What if no one responds, as happened for so long during the Holocaust? What if no one responds, as happened in Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. What if no troops are sent?
Years go by and we’re still watching the news from Syria. The people of Aleppo trapped without food or water, the wounded and dead children whose images become symbols for the vast, cruel inhumanity that maims and kills innocents who have lived their entire lives never knowing peace. I continue to cry with a people who are being destroyed by their own government, and I wonder whether there was ever a right thing for us to do — and if there was, what was it? I can’t imagine myself ever advocating for the sending of troops, but I respect those who serve. I know they face the same dilemmas I face, but they step forward where I resist.
To create peace, to stamp out racism, bigotry and hatred, everyone’s boats must be empty. Everyone’s. But until then, soldiers will continue to serve and wars will continue to be waged.
Over the years, as the Remembrance Day wreath has been presented by our veterans and others who have served, I have come to deeply appreciate what this means to our entire community. We have watched the passing of so many of our World War II veterans as they have left us one by one: Paul Adams, Val Bourdon, Andy Hugessen, Gordon Lorimer, Breen Marien, Len Pickard, Diana Scott, Ann Reid, and most recently this past December, Rex Batton.
Sketch Terry, one of our veterans who is no longer well enough to join us for this ceremony, once said to me that to sing of flowers and longtime passing is entirely appropriate. “It won’t be long,” he said, “Until all of us, the veterans from the Second World War, will be gone.”
When they have all departed, will we remember how dreadful the cost of war can be? Will our observances begin to fade? When our troops returned from Afghanistan, did we greet them with fanfare and gratitude? Do any of us remember?
Even as I dream of peace, I think that it would be a travesty to forget this Remembrance Day tradition. By keeping it alive, we are making sure that we never forget. We honour those we have so loved, whose youth and innocence were changed by war. Alongside the stories of courage and growth are the unspeakable memories; the nightmares that never go away. We honour all who have lost their lives to war. We honour all whose paths have been diverted; who have lost loved ones, or lost their way when they came home, who have lost home. We mark this day, remembering our own responsibility in the bargain, remembering the terrible costs.
There will always be soldiers for us to remember, until the day when we can empty all our boats as we cross the river of the world.
As Raymond Levesque wrote in 1956,
Quand les hommes vivront d'amour,
Il n'y aura plus de misère
Et commenceront les beaux jours
Mais nous nous serons morts, mon frère, ma soeur, mes amis.
When humanity lives with love,
there will be no longer be misery,
and the beautiful days will begin.
But we will be dead, my friends.
Leonard Cohen, the wise, dear poet who we lost this week, responds with this wisdom:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Have faith, I say. Let the light get in through the cracks. Fall not prey to fear. Keep emptying your own boat so that the waters may calm around us — and don’t stop working against hatred. To do so, means that we will need to learn how to truly listen and to hear the other. Finding the small cracks in the walls that we build around ourselves will not be easy, but those are the places where hope can seep in with the light.
Even if peace is generations away, let it begin with us.
Amen. Blessed be. Namaste.
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