Sermon given by Rev Christopher Harrison
Battle of Britain Sunday September 2013
St Mary’s church Nottingham
I wonder how many of you have seen the film ‘Pearl Harbour’. You may remember the opening sequence where two young boys, Danny and Rafe, are playing in the back of an old biplane in Tennessee in 1923. They accidentally start the engine, and manage to go for a short flight before, amazingly, it lands safely. Fast forward eighteen years to 1941, and we see Rafe (Ben Affleck) as a fighter pilot in the American Air Force. He is assigned to the Eagle Squadron, an American unit which is joining the Royal Air Force in its confrontation with the Luftwaffe. He takes part in the Battle of Britain, surviving numerous dogfights until he is shot down. He is presumed killed in action, but in fact survives his crash, is picked up by a French fishing boat, and survives in occupied France until he can get back to the US. Later in 1941 we see Rafe and his childhood friend Danny, who is also now a pilot in the US Air Force, at Pearl Harbour, on the Pacific island of Hawaii. The surprise attack by the Japanese is depicted in all its horror, as large numbers of US planes, as well as considerable amounts of military infrastructure, are put out of action before the Americans are able to defend themselves; with the exception, however, of Rafe and Danny, who manage to get two fighter planes into the air and shoot down seven of their Japanese opponents. We then see them coming back and giving blood to help their wounded colleagues, before being called to help rescue men from the harbour.
It’s a highly compelling film, which reminds us graphically of what the war in the air was like in 1941 both in this country and across the globe. Nations were fighting to defend themselves from unpredictable and highly dangerous consequences, and we are made fully aware of the extreme sacrifices made by so many pilots and other servicemen and women, as well as the bravery and courage they showed. There were those, like Rafe and Danny, who emerged with glory, but there were many whose lives were abruptly cut short simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see also something of what the war did to relationships as the demands of military service both brought out the best in people but played havoc with stability and continuity in everyday life.
One of the messages of the film is to show how one or two individuals can make a big impact on events, through the kind of person they are and what they succeed in doing. We see this as we watch Rafe in the dogfights in the Battle of Britain, taking on the Japanese at Pearl Harbour, and subsequently in a secret mission to Japan.
As we gather here in St Mary’s church today, we remember with thanksgiving all those who served in the Battle of Britain, offering themselves as individuals but also as servicemen and women to defend this land. We acknowledge with gratitude the contributions made by those from the Commonwealth and also other European countries, some of whom are once again represented here today. And as we recall all that they did to keep this country free, we remember, as we see so vividly in the film, that each individual was once a child, perhaps growing up with dreams of glory, and wanting to reach for the stars; each had a life beyond military service; and each came face to face with the possibility that at any moment this life could come to a brutal – and, sometimes, unceremonious – end.
Not every serviceman and woman is destined for glory, however. One of the ways in which films like Pearl Harbour can distort our understanding of military reality is by – quite understandably – focusing on the successes of the celebrities, the stars of stage and screen and war. But most wars are won or lost by the much less glamorous efforts of the thousands of individuals who make up our armed forces, serving their country perhaps inspired by the heroes who have gone before them, but in practice hoping just to make a contribution that makes a difference. But behind every hero lies many others who have helped them to get to where they are. If Rafe’s father hadn’t enabled his son to be familiar with flying from an early age, he may never have been inspired to serve his country by signing up for pilot training. And then there were all those who taught him the skills involved in being a pilot, without whom he would never have become so successful. And then there was the French fisherman who saved his life when he was shot down over the English Channel; and those who helped him get back to the USA.
So if you are a cadet here today, perhaps thinking about your future – do be inspired by the heroes of the air. Don’t be disappointed, though, if the reality of service in the Royal Air Force isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem in the movies. Everyone has their part to play, from the ground staff, to the engineers and technicians, to those who design and build the next generations of fighter planes, as well as those in leadership positions who make the difficult decisions regarding strategy and policy. And in all these activities, if we play our part conscientiously, we may well make much more of a difference to the success or failure of whatever we are involved in, than we realise at the time. Don’t forget too that as well as defending our own shores, the Royal Air Force plays a vital role in preserving peace and stability more in other areas of the world where we have an interest – in keeping with the longstanding role of this nation to work for good, for peace and justice, across the world as a whole.
So if you think you are too small and insignificant to make a difference, remember from the Bible David, the young shepherd boy who defeated the giant soldier Goliath with the shot from his sling. If you think that your life is too much of a mess for God to care about you and what you might contribute to the world, remember the parable of the lost sheep, in which Jesus says that God wants even those who have strayed far from him to come back and be given a fresh start. And if you haven’t got the physical ability or strength to do the usual tasks required of servicemen and women, perhaps through disability or something similar, don’t forget that Jesus confronted the people who were discriminatory and prejudiced in their attitudes, and showed that we should aim for a society in which all are included, in one way or another, and that all have a part to play in building a better world.
We give thanks then, today, for all those who, back in 1941, in the war of the air, turned this country from fear and the prospect of invasion and occupation to the chance of a new beginning, from which the war could be won a few years later. We remember especially all those from Nottingham and the surrounding area who played their part. And we continue to pray for all those who mourn the loss of those who died in those critical months of our nation’s history; but give thanks for the inheritance of peace which they have bequeathed to us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.