The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Chaplain
Last weekend it was very difficult to move around this part of London. The streets, and the garden here at the Abbey, were given over to veterans of the war in the far east as the nation remembered VJ day—the final victory which secured the end of the second world war.
On Tuesday we remembered the seventy-fifth anniversary of the hardest day in the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Hurricanes patrolling the skies of South east England. The anniversaries just keep coming.
None of us quite knows how much longer there will be veterans around, with whom to remember these pivotal events in history. Veterans of the Great War have all now entered their rest, and when the same is true of the Second War it may feel like history has turned a corner. How will we continue to remember—will we continue to remember—or will we put all that terrible slaughter down to the political failures of another age, another century, which will feel increasingly remote from our own?
There is a melancholy about this passing of a generation, although looking at last week's procession there would appear to be plenty of life left in a good few of them. There is melancholy, but such corners in history also offer an important opportunity, if we choose to take it—an opportunity that Joshua certainly didn't miss.
The Book of Joshua, in the Old Testament, charts the arrival and colonisation of the promised land by the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt and long sojourn in the wilderness. After the death of Moses it was Joshua who led the people into Canaan, and to many great victories over the indigenous peoples and their Kings. As books go, let alone books of scripture, the Book of Joshua is not an easy read. Some of it sounds alarmingly like Divine-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. The slaughter of the Canaanite tribes is a part of our tradition that it would be more comfortable to draw a veil over, yet perhaps it is there precisely to remind us what any group of people in any age is capable of, and to renew our resolve to say 'never again'—much in the same way as when we remember the two world wars.
As his life drew to an end, with the Israelites well-established in the land, Joshua called together all their leaders, as we heard in the first reading. The bit we didn't hear, because it was missed out, was the bit where Joshua reminded the people of their history, not just under Joshua's leadership, but going right back to Abraham. Joshua reminded them who they were—God's people—chosen by God, liberated by God from Egypt, guided by God in the wilderness, and finally brought by God into this new and prosperous land.
Now, Joshua says, at this particular corner of history, who do you choose for the next part of the story? Will you stick with God, the Lord, or will you go back to either the gods that were worshipped before Abraham, or the gods worshipped by the Canaanite people whom you have overthrown (which amounts to the same thing, pretty much).
As we prepare to say farewell to the generations who lived through the two world wars, who effectively won us peace in most of Europe for an unprecedented seventy years—could this be an appropriate moment, an opportunity perhaps to take stock, like Joshua with the leaders of Israel, and say 'now what?'; where do we go from here, and what, or who, will guide us?
What Joshua was impressing upon the people was the need to make a choice. Will you stick with the Lord, or will you go after other gods.
The disciples of Jesus faced a similar choice in the gospel today. Jesus, as we have heard over the last few weeks, was speaking about himself as the bread of life. And he didn't do it in a nice metaphorical, spiritualised way—he spoke about munching his flesh, drinking his blood, and how this was (is) the only way to have life in us. You don't have to be particularly squeamish to find this offensive, and Jesus offended some people to such an extent that they stopped following him… in droves.
So Jesus turned to the twelve and said 'what about you? Will you stick with me, or do you want to go elsewhere?'
'Where else would we go?' they replied. 'You have the words of eternal life—despite the horrifying, offensive and hard-to-comprehend things you say about your body and blood, we know that there is nowhere else to turn.'
In the end the choice is like choosing between life and death—between something and nothing. There is only one sane decision that can possibly be made.
This Abbey represents, among other things, a decision that has stood for over a thousand years—the decision that faith, Christian faith, should be (to borrow a phrase) at the heart of this nation and the lives of its people.
If Joshua were gathering us at this corner in history, he might tell us a story of how Britain became the nation that it is today, under the guidance of God. It wouldn't be a simple story, to be sure—we have our own shameful equivalents of those Canaanites slaughtered along the way—but a story that charts God's guidance of this land and its peoples—the emergence of God's good purposes, sometimes in spite of the decisions of our leaders or the behaviour of our peoples. There is a story of God's faithfulness to this land that is not adequately told, including our deliverance from the wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
So, Joshua might ask, Who do you choose now? As the generation who forged this Britain pass away, who do you choose? Who or what will guide you as individuals and as a nation for the next part of this story?
For many of us, I guess this choice is really no choice. f Jesus has the words of eternal life, then, like the twelve disciples, the only sane decision is to stick with him; with the God whom he reveals—the God proclaimed by every stone of this Abbey, and who has inspired its living stones, including at least one recognised Saint, over the course of more than a millennium.
Of course this doesn't mean we ignore or marginalise the contribution of other faith groups to our national life—far from it. For all our differences we have, at a crucial level, common cause with them.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, warns of the dangers of what he calls programmatic secularism—a trajectory in public life that gradually, piece-by-piece and step-by-step would expel or silence or disallow the voice of faith in the business of government, or education or in any other business for that matter.
While there is no explicit policy of programmatic secularism in this land, it could be argued that the effect is the same—the gradual marginalisation, the slow extinction of the voice of faith in the public square.
If the Joshua's of our day are not permitted to pose the question, at a public, national level - asking which God or gods we will follow—if that sort of conversation cannot be had in our secular space for fear of not being properly inclusive, then the temptation is to imagine that we do not need to have that conversation at all—that it really doesn't matter which God or gods we choose whether at an individual or a national level.
And that leads to another danger, the danger that those conversations and choices become furtive, hidden, inadequately examined or challenged, and open to the violent distortions of faith that are currently stimulating young minds in some of our communities.
The choice of God or gods doesn't go away, even if it is taken out of common, public discourse. The secular drift in this and other countries might be likened to those Israelites who drifted into the worship of the local deities in Canaan. It takes no effort to drift into the worship of celebrity or self, to make offerings at the shrines of fashion and flashy technology, to place our ultimate hope in the rising housing market or in the Temples of wealth and power just a little downstream of here. We all do it to some degree—and these are just a selection of the gods on offer in this country.
The challenge to the Church—to our leaders and to every one of us who sticks with Jesus despite the hard teaching, because, frankly, where else would we go—the challenge, as we turn this corner in history, is to find our voice: to tell the story of God's faithfulness to our land—and to whichever land we may call home—and to invite a new or a renewed commitment to the Lord who has been so faithful.
As we prepare to say farewell to the generation who, in many ways, won us this promised land—which must look like paradise if you are living in Syria or Iraq—as we turn this corner in history, can we find our Joshua voice, and will it be heard—the veteran voice asking who or what will we serve—reminding us that there is an important choice to be made.