Poppies and Lamps Cast Out Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds)

Poppies and Lamps Cast Out Darkness
The fall of my Junior year in college I studied abroad in London.  It was about this time of year that I had a week off from classes so I decided to travel to Scotland.  I took the midnight train from Kings Cross Station and arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning.  After securing lodging at a Bed and Breakfast, I set out to explore the city and began to notice that perhaps every fourth person or so was wearing a red poppy.  As the week went on it seemed that just about everyone was sporting a red poppy.  You had to look find someone not wearing one.  The reason for wearing the poppy was a mystery to me—and so I asked an older woman who patiently explained that they were a part of the observance of Remembrance Day which began after WW I to remember the members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty.  She also explained that proceeds from the sale of the paper red poppies were directed towards ex-servicemen in need of welfare & financial support.
Ever since the poem In Flanders Fields, the beautiful imagery of fields of poppies has become mixed with: lament for blood spilled, for lives lost, and for remembrance.  Many of you I am sure are familiar with the poem In Flanders Fields, which was written during the First World War, after John McCrae, a Canadian artillery commander and physician, observed poppies growing in the midst off battlefields where many soldiers had been buried.  The fifteen line poem reads:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
The poem sets down a variety of images that sit together uneasily.  The fragility of life and a place where death has become commonplace.  The beauty of fields of poppies and larks singing in the sky stand in stark contrast with the violence of war.  And in the final verse—there is the image of a torch passed from failing hands to those still fighting.
What eventually dawned on me while walking the streets of Edinburgh was the magnitude of loss that the people of the United Kingdom suffered and still felt decades after the end of both World Wars.  Their sense of collective loss was far more intense than anything that I had experienced at home.  This impression was confirmed as eventually I observed everywhere long lists of names of fallen parishioners in the war memorials found within English and Scottish Churches.  This weekend marks a strange juxtaposition of holidays where the Commonwealth Nations set aside November 11th to remember the dead, whereas for us, Veterans Day is set aside to honor the living—those who are currently serving or who have served our country.  By contrast we set aside Memorial Day to intentionally remember our fallen.

 

At first glance this morning’s Gospel would seem to have nothing to do with our national observance of Veterans Day this weekend.  And yet, like the poem In Flanders Field, there is an uneasiness to the Gospel Story.  We have a story of a wedding feast, a bridegroom, and bridesmaids.  And yet, in the midst of beauty and celebration, we suddenly have a scene of judgement—where the five foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the Kingdom.  It is a difficult scene—for who among us has not misjudged a situation at one time or another been unprepared, as in not having extra oil for lamps or been so tired that one is unable to stay awake for something important.
For me the hard part of this Gospel, and the hard part of this weekend is the unfairness that seeps through—Not knowing if one is vigilant enough, or prudent enough, to make it into the kingdom.  And a holiday that rightly celebrates the living, but recognizes that it is impossible to accomplish without also remembering our fallen, and knowing the immense pain suffered by both the living and the dead.  The ambiguity of this morning’s Gospel also brings to mind the uneasy way that armed conflict sits juxtaposed with the church’s longing for a peaceable kingdom.
Perhaps the most meaningful imagery that comes to us from the Gospel today is that of the lamps shining in the darkness.  The acknowledgement that in all kinds of ways, and in a hundred different situations—we may find ourselves in the dark, facing uncertainty, crisis, doubt, unbelief, disaster, or an unexpected trial or tribulation—and yet the greater witness of our gathering for Church this day, and our worship Sunday by Sunday—the greater witness of wearing poppy’s or marking Veteran’s Day—is to demonstrate that we are never alone in the dark.  That we are part of a larger community that at our best learns to hold lamps for one another—knowing that Christ is with us as we pray for one another, and that we are called to lift one another up, in good times and in bad, in life, and in death.
In fact, the poem In Flanders Fields, is a tribute of sorts to a solider offering remembrance for a fallen comrade.  The poem was written in the days after John McCrae presided over his friend’s funeral.  In this context the poem is an enduring testament of the triumph of community, friendship and the Gospel of love. 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 12 November 2017, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year One.  Lessons: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.