Remembrance Weekend in Sittard

Author: 
Francis Noordanus

 Remembrance Weekend in Sittard

As of a few months ago, Barbara and I are the only Anglican Clergy in service in Brabant and Limburg.  There are no longer Anglican Chaplains in Air Force bases or living in Maastricht.  Barbara taking services in Maastricht led to a request to support the annual Remembrance Day Services in the town of Sittard, 70 km south of Eindhoven.  Why Sittard you may ask?   In November 1944 and January 1945 this region was the site of fierce fighting between British and German forces. There were heavy looses among British forces resulting 257 British war graves in several Sittard cemeteries.  There is a strong sense of local gratitude in the region for the sacrifices made for its liberation and the graves remain an ongoing focus for honouring those who fell.

A local initiative has for many years taken the British Remembrance weekend as the time to honour those who fell and those associated with them.  Then being 2014, it is 70 years since the events of November '44 through January '45.

I was asked to preach at the Sunday Service in the historic Petruskerk representing the English speaking world of the British Commonwealth and the Church fo England.   (My sermon is attached below.)  I was also asked to lead prayers of remembrance at two cemetery commemorations on the Saturday and Sunday.   This was alongside the local Roman Catholic Deken and Protestant Dominee.  

Representaitves of NATO, Dutch and British military took part as well as many veterens and their families.  The Dutch King was also represented by his Commissioner for Limburg.

This was a moving event in which the local people brought out their best to honour their liberators and cherish their freedom.

 

Sermon text:

Sermon for Sittard Remembrance Day
9 November 2014
 
I was born in New Zealand during the so-called ‘Cold War’.  It was a time of global tension as power blocks vied for their security and supremacy but I never had to go to war. 
 
However, I grew up among people who remembered wars and those who had been lost in them.  There were two sorts of stories I heard about the wars of the twentieth century.  There were stories of how war came to people and how people went to war.  They were very different experiences that left different marks on those involved as well as subsequent generations.
 
The family I grew up in told stories about how war came to them, as both civilians and soldiers.  My parents and grandparents had come from Rotterdam.  My Oma used to tell me that as a child the First World War came to her in the form of Belgian and German soldiers who would spit their contempt for each other across the neutral Dutch street.  There was a war close by but still somewhat distant.
 
In May 1940 it was different.  My Opa, after whom I am named, was in one of the two Cycle Regiments (Regiment Wielrijders).  He found himself near Baexem and Heythuysen, 25 km north of Sittard with his bicycle and an outmoded carbine rifle, charged with preventing the German invasion across the Maas.  After an initial stand his regiment pedaled north under aerial attack to stand again at Alblasserdam before capitulation and being consigned to barracks in Gouda.  These actions cost the Cycle Regiments a loss of 77 lives.
 
That all happened very quickly.  Most of my family’s war stories were about survival during the subsequent occupation, the ‘Hunger Winter’, my grandfathers being taken away for forced labour and random allied bombing.  This is what my family recalled as I sat in the sunny South Pacific.  It was war coming down the street and into the family home and in my mother’s case, destroying the home altogether.
 
At age five I went to school, television arrived and I began to hear the local stories.  Each ANZAC day I heard from men wearing red poppies who had been there.  From my contemporaries I heard stories about grandfathers who went to war and uncles who did not return.  There were First World War stories about the ANZACs at Gallipoli and North Africa and Second World War stories again about North Africa, stories about the Maori Regiment, Monte Cassino and the Italian Campaign.  There were stories about airmen flying the Pacific to resist the Japanese and stories of close fighting on tropical islands. 
 
Every town and many country crossroads had a monument to those who did not return.  Every family seemed to have lost someone.  Some are buried in Limburg.
 
As an adult I began to reflect on these two sorts of stories and the qualities of grief that came with them.  Today the storylines meet in the local events we are gathered to commemorate.  Stories of occupation and lost freedom connect with stories of costly commitment and sacrifice for the sake of rolling back occupation and restoring freedom for others.
 
Then as a young man I began to grasp a story that encompasses both the experience of going to war and of suffering a lethal war.  It is the Good News story of one sent from God to enter into an occupied world and confront the occupier in a battle to the death.
 
I am talking about Jesus Christ who one day stood up in a house of prayer and set out his battle plan of liberation saying:
 
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.”   (Luke 4:18-19a)
 
Jesus’ way of doing this was more like the infantry than heavy armor, artillery or air force.  He was a commando with the disguise of being ordinary.  He infiltrated occupied territory, got in close to those he sought to liberate and yet left himself vulnerable.
 
The liberty he proclaimed would flow from his own victory over the ultimate weapon and power of any oppression, the power of death.  You will know the story of his capture, execution and burial.
 
By absorbing in himself the fullness of death, while being true to who and what he was as God’s true Son, he won a spiritual victory, a victory that was confirmed by his resurrection.
 
The fullness of this story is hard to portray.  Christians often depict the first part climaxing with his death on a cross.  This is the story of the sacrificial victim winning his battle through faithful loyalty to the cause of his Father out of love for humanity.  Many soldiers and civilian victims who hold their position against an onslaught can identify with this. 
 
The second part of this story is harder to depict, it is an empty tomb or a folded grave wrapping.  In popular culture it is illustrated with eggs at Easter! 
 
Since the early centuries this has been framed as the Gospel of ‘Christus Victor’, the victorious anointed one who won the greatest victory by enduring the greatest defeat.  The one who brought the way of liberty through taking upon himself the oppression and captivity, the one who broke a chain that could never be put back together.
 
The Christian life is lived in consequence of that crucifixion-resurrection victory.  This time has been compared to the time between D Day and VE Day.  In Normandy, at terrible cost, the occupier’s Atlantic Wall was breached breaking the chain of oppression and captivity around Western Europe to allow access for liberating armies.  However, it would still take many months and much suffering to enforce that achievement and win freedom for all the occupied peoples held behind that wall. 
 
In the great story of the death and resurrection of ‘Christus Victor’ we hear that those who join Jesus in being faithful to the Father will know and share the great victory over death and all its features.  The power of the oppressor and captor has in effect been broken but total victory is not yet won.
 
Whatever our personal or family story of war and its consequences, this larger story relates to us the ultimate war story and the way we have been given a champion who is both victim and victor.
 
And however we relate to that greater Gospel story, today we may all remember those who for the sake of victory over manifest evil became victims.  We remember the men who stood in danger to confront oppression and destroy it at the cost of their lives.  They would never know the consequences of their sacrificial actions.  It is we who stand here seventy years after the battles that raged here who see what they achieved for future generations.  They secured the ground for us all to stand in freedom.  We are the ones who must honour their achievement for our benefit and be genuinely thankful.
 
The City of Sittard expresses that gratitude by remembering and honouring the regiments and families that lost sons and soldiers.  At the same time we all as individuals may honour those who secured our freedom by being people that safeguard freedom from tyranny and where necessary, are prepared to fight for that whether we encounter tyranny wrapped in a defined ideology or as crude inhuman behaviour.
 
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.