This sermon was preached by Revd Andrew Sinclair on 26th August 2018 at the final Eucharist of the Edington Music Festival.  The Gospel reading was John 6.56-69, and the World War 1 poem on which it is based is ‘Goliath and David’ by Robert Graves. This poem was read before the sermon.

 “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  John 6.66

There is a strong case to be made that it was inability of the Church of England to cope with the horrific events of the First World War that led directly to the long-term decline in church going and church membership during the 20th century.  The text I’ve just shared from our Gospel reading originally referred to those who deserted Jesus because his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood seemed shocking, cannibalistic, and against the Jewish prohibition on consuming blood.

‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

In the context of the horrors of trench warfare and the industrialised meat grinder that was the Western Front, it’s hardly surprising that many people could no longer believe in the God of their Sunday School days, the gentle, meek, obedient Jesus and the God of ‘All things bright and beautiful’.  The church was caught flat-footed and totally unprepared for the new reality of total war, a war that was to touch every city, town and village of this country in a way that had never happened before.  The church had given an enthusiastic, patriotic blessing to those signing up and going off to war.  ‘God is on our side’ was the message given to the troops. It’s hardly surprising that those same troops became rather cynical when the saw the phrase “Gott mit uns!” (God with us) inscribed on the belt buckles of their German opponents.

‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

When the church fails miserably to come to terms with a changed reality in what is a life-and-death situation, it is hardly surprising that others step in to provide spiritual sustenance, together with an alternative world-view. Much of the poetry we have shared this week arose in such a context.  ‘Goliath and David’ by Robert Graves, takes a heroic story from the Bible and turns it on its head.  Instead of the beautiful young David slaying the ugly giant Goliath in an act of daring bravery, Goliath, portrayed as a German with a pointed picklhaubehelmet, kills the foolish upstart David.

This Bible story may well have been chosen by Graves because it is dedicated to his friend, who was another David, David Cuthbert Thomas, killed at Fricourt in 1916.  Later on in the war in 1918, Wilfred Owen would write The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, in which he treats the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in a similar way.  Isaac ends up being sacrificed instead of the ram.  Had he read Goliath and David?  Quite possibly.  Certainly Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were close friends, and Sassoon was also a close friend of David Cuthbert Thomas, serving in the same regiment.  Sassoon may well have introduced Owen to Graves’ poem. It was Siegfried Sassoon who published Owen’s poem posthumously in 1920.

Both poems reflect the bleak reality that God doesn’t always intervene miraculously to put things right.  Even when we pray earnestly, we don’t always get the answer we want, and end up feeling that God has in some way deserted us.  Faith is crushed, hope is gone, we are left feeling empty and betrayed.

Too often in the past, the church has responded to people in this situation with pious platitudes, words of so-called comfort that simply don’t work. Robert Graves rightly deals harshly with those who continued to repeat stories of heroism and valour such as the scriptural version of David and Goliath.  The heroic metre of Graves’ poem enhances the shock the listener feels when the Bible story learnt in childhood is demolished.  There are no words of comfort.  And heroism feels like utter foolishness.

‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

And yet some did stay with Jesus, even when challenged:  ‘Do you also wish to go away?’  Simon Peter answered: “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Where the church managed to get it right in the black days of World War One, was in the incarnational ministry of its chaplains, serving in the trenches alongside the soldiers, and often dying with them.  Unarmed, they were renowned for recklessness in going into No Man’s Land to rescue wounded comrades.  Proportionately, more chaplains were awarded the Victoria Cross than any other unit in the army.  Perhaps the only meaningful response possible to the blackness and horror of the trenches is to embrace it, to be a part of it, to acknowledge rather than ignore the feelings of God’s absence.  Trench warfare, thankfully, is now a thing of the past.  Yet there are still times of darkness that most of us at some time in our lives will have to face.  Bereavement, post-traumatic stress disorder, having to watch as a loved one dies in a hospice or at home, or facing up to the diagnosis of a terminal illness – all of these can lead us to feel that God has in some way abandoned us, that the Gospel of hope and love is in some way not true.

However, we should remember that these feelings also are a part of the Bible story.  ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?‘  cries Jesus from the cross.   God in Christ knows about these real human feelings because he has been through it himself.  And sometimes, ironically, it is at those very moments of abandonment that we may find God’s promise of resurrection bringing us to a new awareness of his abiding presence. It is through incarnational service that we live out the life of love that we are called to, following in the steps of Jesus himself, even through the blackness of death to the light of a new dawning Easter day.

© Andrew Sinclair 2018