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Sunday 17 September, Trinity 14, is also known as Battle of Britain Sunday.

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 bi-plane in Tennessee in 1923. They accidentally start the engine and manage to go for a short flight before amazingly they land. Fast forward to 1940 and we see Rafe, played by Ben Affleck, as a fighter pilot in an eagle squadron, an American Unit within the Royal Air Force. He takes part in the Battle of Britain surviving numerous dog fights until he is shot down. He is presumed killed in action but in fact survives the crash and lives in occupied France until he can get back to America.

Later in 1941 we see Rafe and his childhood friend Danny who is now also a pilot in the US Air Force at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The surprise attack by the Japanese is depicted in all its horror. Somehow, Rafe and Danny 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 is a highly compelling film which reminds us graphically of what the war in the air was like both in this country and around the world. We are made fully aware of the extreme sacrifices made by so many pilots and other service men and women as well as the bravery and courage they showed.

There were those like Rafe and Danny who emerge with glory but there were also many whose lives were abruptly cut short, simply as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today, in a one line entry in our lectionary, we remember with thanksgiving all those who served in the Battle of Britain. We remember those who offered themselves as individuals but also as service men or women to defend this land. We remember 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 service man 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 focussing 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. They are perhaps inspired by the heroes who have gone before them, but in practice are hoping just to make a contribution that makes a difference. But behind every hero lies many others who have helped them get where they are, it’s a team effort. Indeed, in the RAF in the present day, we must remember it is very much an interconnected team.

I spent a quiet day at the RAF museum at Hendon recently – that makes a change from Holland House! Through exhibits I fully appreciated how everyone has their part to play in the current Air Force from the ground staff to the engineers and technicians, to those who design and build the next generation of fighter planes, as well as those who are in leadership positions who have to make the difficult decisions regarding strategy and policy. As well as defending our own shores, the RAF 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 long-standing role of this nation to work for good, peace, and justice across the world as a whole. Note though, we have more transporters and helicopters than fighter jets!

So if you think we 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 a 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 service men or 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 them that we should aim for a society in which we are all included in one way or another, and that all have a part to play in the building of a better world.

We give thanks then today for all those that fought in the war of the air, turning 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 the airfields in Worcestershire who defended the Black Country and beyond, and the Radar Research Base at RAF Defford (now the National Trust at Croome) 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 us all.

Amen

Questions

  • The RAF is made up of different trades and roles. How effective is Jesus’ squadron today?
  • “The Battle of Britain is a lost opportunity to connect communities with the Christian faith.” Do you agree?
  • Finally, is there such a thing as a “good” war film?