Sermon: A Service to honour the Rifles
Preached on 17th February 2008
(Matins attended by the Mayor and City Council, with members of the Rifles)
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Today we honour a part of Durham's history. The Rifles are today much more than a Durham regiment, but we are proud of the Durham Light Infantry's part in it. So this Cathedral with its long memories of peace and war held in the chapel dedicated to the DLI, joins the people of Durham in celebrating the Rifles as you exercise the freedom of the city and lay up the colours of the 2nd Battalion.
Not since the end of the cold war has our society felt so keenly a sense of threat in the face of an unknown future. The furious reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments last week on how law is practised in a society that is both secularised but also includes people of many different faiths has disclosed deep sensitivities about our national identity and the place within it of religious minorities. After 9/11, a once-familiar landscape seems to have shifted for good and we are insecure. The ill-named war on terror is not only an attempt to address that insecurity: it is also a symptom of it. All of us in the west are now exposed us to risks we had not foreseen. Nobody knows this better than the armed forces, especially those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Against this sombre backdrop, and in the face of a future that is unknown to us, we are here to honour your service to the nation and to the Crown. No-one, I think, understands what soldiering is like except a soldier, and while other people also face injury and death on behalf of others, perhaps no-one does it quite so publicly, goes into it knowing what it could cost. We civilians perhaps talk a bit too easily about making the ‘ultimate sacrifice'. Precisely because that is what it is, the sacrifice unique to a man or a woman that only they can offer, it is both a noble and a terrible thing. Today, we remember, humbly and gratefully, what others are willing to do for us in life and in death. You are here today. Some of your comrades are not. And their memory makes today especially proud and poignant.
I don't know whether soldiers have in their minds all the time the noble ideals of freedom, justice and peacemaking. I guess it's more a matter of doing your duty, sometimes of surviving from one moment to the next, playing your part as best you can in the muddled, messy and often tragic world in which we live. In my own work as a priest, I wish I could say that every moment of every day I consciously put God at the forefront of my thoughts. Maybe the well-known soldier's prayer from the 17th century, uttered as he went into battle in the Civil War, helps us to be realistic about this: ‘Lord, I shall be very busy this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me'. I'm saying that I believe we need to do what is right, and do it faithfully, fearlessly and generously. God will be in it, however hard it may sometimes be to sense or glimpse him.
This is why it is good, on occasions like this, to be reminded why we do what we do. In today's reading from the New Testament we heard the familiar words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Happy are the meek; happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice; happy are the merciful; happy are the peacemakers. Happiness, he says, consists in welcoming the kingdom of heaven, living in the light of that great and wonderful future God intends for the world. What is our part in that great project? I believe it means that whatever way we are called to live and serve, we want to make real its values of ‘doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God' as the Old Testament reading put it. It means being lit up by a sense of hope and possibility for all the human family. This is why you do what you do, and I do what I do: because of our conviction that things can be different, and better, not always be locked into patterns of destructiveness and death. We believe that under God, each of us can make a difference, motivated by the hope without which, we are dead.
This is not utopianism. It's not optimism. It's not fantasy. It's the conviction, rooted in all the world's faiths, that God has a wise and loving purpose for the world, and that he asks us to work with him in bringing it about. This is not a divine war on terror; it's the long, patient work of establishing justice on the earth. Resolving conflict, establishing trust, stabilising fragile, threatened and volatile communities are all part of this difficult, delicate endeavour. For this city to honour you today is to say to one another: we are in this together, because we all care about the world in which we live. We want it to have a good future. We believe this is what God wants for the human family. You are here to celebrate this calling and offer it to God. We are here to thank you.