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1 Timothy 1.12-17Luke 15.1-10

I grew up reading Commando comic books and making and painting Airfix model planes. I remember going to the Imperial War Museum with my father in the mid 70’s at just 8 years old and buying a poster with all the major planes of WWII.. My first model aircraft though was the Avro Anson. Don’t ask me why. I also went to sleep with an air battle perpetuating over my head as Airfix Spitfires and Hurricanes took on Matchbox and Revell Heinkels and Dorniers. My Vicarage has a huge collection of theological books, but also a bomb switch from an Avro Vulcan and engine fan blade from a Tornado fighter bomber as a coffee table. Is that strange for a vicar to admit to?

Today, on Battle of Britain Sunday I want to reflect on the Parable of the Lost Sheep and coin in a different way. Today, we remember a small group of air crew who have become collectively known as “The Few”, from the famous tribute of Winston Churchill, that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. Who were “the few”? They were, for the most part, young men. In the old black and white photographs, they look very young indeed, confident in their strength and sense of invulnerability, as young men are. They came from Britain and occupied Europe, and a good few from the Commonwealth.

Over the space of one summer, a time of year and a time of life when they should have been dating and riding motorcycles and playing sports, these young men fought to the death against an experienced and well trained and battle hardened Luftwaffe. Flying as many as four missions a day, pushed to the limits of exhaustion, they held the line in the air, and saved the British nation from a terrible fate. Had they failed, it’s difficult to imagine how freedom and democracy could ever have been restored to the peoples of Europe. If ever a battle saved the world, this battle was it.

There is a lot of talk still, post Gulf wars and Afghanistan about PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Is there such a thing? In the days and weeks of the Battle of Britain, young aircrew paid a great price in their own battle. One father remembered how his pilot son was consumed in body and spirit by the fighting:

He was a changed lad, time took care of that- taking him from a young man with a bright future before the war to a man that seemed full of hatred. He said that he felt as if he was a human killing machine and said that if he ever dies, then put on his headstone "Here Lies Another Human Killing Machine”. On leave he could not sleep, or he would scream out in the night. How he died we will never know, he went out on a mission, and never came back, and that's the sad part, we do not even have a grave where we know that he is at last resting in peace.

I draw comfort from our readings today. We believe the same God who took children into his lap must sorrow to see how war tears young men out of their childhood. I take comfort in believing that God was there to catch these aircrew who touched His face in their final moments.

In the Gospel Reading from Luke, we are concerned about a different Few. Those that need to be saved. You could read this passage like this - today of all days -that this handful of aircrew flew for the sake of many – the people of Britain and of the occupied countries waiting to be freed.

And as we should all appreciate, the Few could not fly without the support of many others. When we think of “The Few” we must also remember armourers, refuellers, engineers, fitters, mechanics, ground crews, radar operators, plotters, wireless operators, members of the Observer Corps, anti-aircraft gunners, barrage balloon operators, civilian utility workers: men and women whom worked and died at their trades as the bombs fell on their airfields. These men and women show an air force that knew how to work together. Depend on one another, just as they did then so the modern armed forces still do today. We depend on one another as Christians too.

Today let us remember these examples of courage and self-sacrifice. Let us remember that we too are called in our own time to stand as the few against forces of darkness and evil. Just as our grandfathers flew against the darkness of Nazi tyranny, and just as our fathers flew through the Cold War, through the to the Gulf War to preserve peace. We give thanks today again as we remember that we still have the same God, who is faithful and trustworthy. To his love and power we entrust those young men who never flew home, and we ask his blessing on them and hold them I our memory.

Questions

Thinking of the Gospel reading:

  • What does this story teach us about the character of God?
  • As Jesus often did He skipped the direct attack and told a story. Why do that? What’s the value of a parable today?
  • Is it right or appropriate for a Parish to adopt a warship, RAF Squadron or an Army battalion?