Written over hundreds of years, and witness to the rise and fall of many empires, the Bible is well-placed to reflect on war. In one of the greatest poems in world literature, the Teacher writes that there is a time for every activity under heaven, concluding his illustrations with ‘a time for war and a time for peace.’ This ought to give us hope: no war, however dreadful, will go on forever. At the same time, we are advised not to take peace for granted: for no peace, however glorious, will last indefinitely.
Two biblical visionaries – Micah, a peasant farmer; and Isaiah, from within the corridors of power – point to a time when weapons of war will be adapted into agricultural tools. But another visionary farmer, Joel, calls on the people of his day to the very opposite, to beat their ploughshares into swords and their pruning-hooks into spears.
This suggests to us two things. Firstly, that we do not have unlimited resources. We cannot accumulate dedicated tools for every eventuality. Changes in circumstance may call for a more creative response, the taking of one thing and re-fashioning it for a different purpose. Secondly, it is possible to do this, at least to some extent, without breaking the thing in question. Allow me to offer you some examples, from Sunderland’s experience of the First World War.
After initial success in driving the German army back, the Western Front had become embedded. In 1915, the decision was taken to open up another Front by attacking the Ottoman Empire. 200 motor landing craft were commissioned, to be known as X Lighters. The starting-point was the Thames barge, with its spoon-shaped bow and flat bottom, and most were built here in the North East. Working from a common design, our yards adapted the template, fashioning barges into landing craft according to materials already in stock or readily sourced, and local methods: speed was of the essence. Though not ready in time for the Gallipoli landings, the ‘Black Beetles,’ as they were unofficially christened, played a key role in supporting the costly campaign and in the successful evacuation in early 1916.
People are not things, and are easily broken when treated as if they were. Nonetheless, people too are an adaptable resource. At the outbreak of the War, George Maling was a medical student at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, not a holder of the Victoria Cross. At the outbreak of the War, George Thompson was a Vaux drayman, not the inspiration for War Horse. At the outbreak of the War, did Emily and Mary Vaux imagine that they would turn-over their large, private houses to the Red Cross, for soldiers to recuperate in; or oversee Voluntary Aid Detachments of make-shift nurses? At the outbreak of the War, was Annie Goodall already dreaming of driving a Corporation tram?
After the War, ships and buildings were re-fashioned again, in some cases several times over. And men and women returned to their pre-War roles, though less easily: those wartime experiences, positive and life-affirming as well as negative and damaging, never left them – and changed the shape of life, perhaps not for them, but for future generations of women and men in Sunderland.
The Army Reserve carries on this noble tradition of taking men and women and putting them to another purpose; one where their civilian experience brings something beneficial to the Army, and their military service brings something extra to how they continue to serve others in their civilian roles. We would do well to listen to their experience of creatively making something so much more than second-best with limited resources.
And this brings us to our Gospel reading [read by the Commanding Officer of 5RRF], for the verse ‘except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit’ is inscribed on one of the War Memorials gathered to this building, that of the Bishopwearmouth Flour Mill. One of those mill workers, Albert Bell, joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, part of the family tree of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
The Church declares that the person of Jesus Christ is ‘…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father…’ Yet in Jesus, God fashions himself into human form, in order that we might know God-with-us. The greatest transformation. This Jesus, voluntarily giving himself to us, taken and broken by us, his life cut short, his mother left to mourn. This Jesus, raised to life by the Spirit of God, ascended and praying for us. This Jesus still-human as well as divine, because so fundamental a transformation cannot be undone. This Jesus, in and through whom God is at work to reconcile humanity to one another and to himself, transforming enemies into friends, sustaining human goodness and redeeming human wickedness in order to bring forth good in ways we could not imagine. In this Jesus, the tragedy of the First World War, the struggles of the Home Front, and the complex challenges we face in our own day, are not meaningless, but taken up into God’s will for life and light and love to flourish and vibrant diversity to emerge from every chaos.
Each one of us present here today will die, though for the most part our names will not be recorded for future generations. We can live for ourselves, and fall, leaving a bitter harvest. Or we can live for others, and leave behind a legacy of fruitfulness that will benefit generations to come. The very act of your presence here today, as public servants, and as people of goodwill, suggests to me that you do not need to be persuaded of this truth. My task today is not to convince you, but to encourage you to hold fast, to point to the past and declare hope in the face of the gathering darkness of our own time and the challenges facing us, as a city, a nation, and a global community, today. We will need imaginative transformations and self-sacrificial courage, and both are possible only with hope.
The testimony of the people of Sunderland, well-established by the outbreak of the First World War, tested by that War and yet found to be true, as true today as it was then, is this:
NIL DESPERANDUM AUSPICE DEO.
There is no cause for despair, living under the guidance of God.
May we know this for ourselves, and declare it to the next generation.