A Black Watch Soldier


Remembrance Sunday

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 8th November 2009

“The Devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus” John 13: 2

For a Palestinian in the time of Jesus, a robe or an outer garment was an important sign of status. We are all familiar with the story of Joseph and his ‘amazing technicolor dreamcoat’, his coat of many colours. That coat was a symbol of Joseph’s value in the eyes of his father. It was seen as a snub to the brothers from the father and it sent them into a jealous rage. They nearly murdered him, but instead sold him into slavery in Egypt.

Jesus was a teacher and a Rabbi, and, as a good and faithful Jew, he would no doubt have worn the outer garments that distinguished him as such a person. He was probably, ‘in uniform’ a good deal of the time. Certainly, the clothing that people wore was significant and indicated people’s place within society, just as it does for us today.

In the time of Jesus, people also wore sandals rather than socks and boots. Palestine was a hot and dusty place, as it is today for much of the year. Also, there were no bin men in Jesus’ day and no street cleaners. The streets of places like Jerusalem were probably filthy with dung and debris, so there was a custom, usually undertaken by a servant or a slave in a well to do household, of washing the feet of guests. This would remove the smell and grime of the streets and refresh the visitor. It was undoubtedly a deeply demeaning and unsavoury task.

Jesus removes his outer garment. Symbolically, he removes the garment that gave him his status and he assumed in front of his disciples (much to their consternation), the role of a slave. He washed their feet. Peter is troubled by this action and he tries to resist. This is not the kind of Saviour he is looking for. He does not want a slave to follow who demeans himself by undertaking the lowliest, dirtiest task in the household, ‘what is going on?’ he must have thought. Peter, like the other disciples, expects a mighty and authoritative ruler and instead Jesus offers him a foot washing servant.

And all the while lurking in the background is Judas the betrayer, (possibly the one disciple who has really clicked what is going on and what is in the revolutionary mind of Jesus and who decides to do something to bring this to a halt). And Jesus washes Judas’ feet too.

This is a kind of double vulnerability that Jesus is prepared to accept in order to achieve his purpose. Not only does he remove his outer garment, his uniform of status that guarantees him a certain standing in society, he also washes the feet of his betrayer. He exposes his human vulnerability.

In Basra, Iraq in 2003, the Black Watch were led by a commanding officer who did quite an extraordinary thing that resonates with his episode. He paused on the edge of the city and removed his helmet and goggles and replaced them with the distinctive black berry with its red plume that is the mark of the Black Watch soldier. This commanding officer made himself deliberately more vulnerable. He recognised how people meet most easily on a human level. When they can see eye to eye and people are not hidden behind clothing that gives them status or renders them invulnerable or alien.

Mike Riddel Webster’s men followed suit and that day the Black Watch entered Basra without a shot being fired. The people saw the human face of these soldiers, not the alien stranger armed with menace and threat, protected behind outer garments.

Of course, the vulnerability was soon exposed and it was not long before the first Black watch soldier was gunned down in Basra. Barry Stephen from Perth lost his life on the 24th of March 2003 one of the first of 179 service men and women who died there between 2003 and 2009. All too soon also, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and led off to his execution.

And, in the last days in Afghanistan and Texas, we have seen how the enemy can come from within the inner circle. Five British soldiers were killed by a man they trusted and with whom they were sharing their life. And in the US, in a place soldiers thought that they ought to be at their safest, at their home base of Fort Hood, a fellow soldier opened fire and killed 12 of his colleagues.

Whatever your views about wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, these terrible events haunt us and demand a response. It seems to me that if our mission in these countries is what we claim it to be, that we are there to rebuild and create a secure peace, then making our soldiers vulnerable is part of the price that has to be paid. Our response could be just to walk away and say that the people there are not to be trusted, we could separate our soldiers from those whom they have to train in order to avoid risk. They could wear goggles and helmets at all times and remain alien and aloof. But I would suggest that we will never succeed in gaining people’s respect, in establishing trust or in making a positive difference unless we are prepared to make ourselves vulnerable.

Likewise in the US just now the greatest risk is in the possibility of an angry backlash against the Moslem community, as though somehow these deranged actions represent mainstream Islamic opinion, which they clearly do not. The Devil put it into the mind of Judas to betray Jesus. There is, in the Devil’s planning, an effort always to divide and alienate people’s, to create boundaries of estrangement and try to ensure that people do not glimpse the common, vulnerable humanity we all share. Hiding behind goggles and helmets and flak jackets may keep people safer, but it will not win hearts and minds. One disciple of Jesus was the betrayer, but we do not condemn the whole lot. The idea that some devilish alien force enters this man Judas actually helps us to ensure we do not condemn others like him.

And Jesus will not be put off his task, even though there are great risks. He removes his outer garment and exposes his vulnerability in order to serve his fellow men. It seems to me that this is what we are asking of our soldiers just now in Afghanistan. It is a huge thing to ask.

Now, you can argue whether they should be there at all, but, whatever the rights and wrongs, if our purpose is truly to help, to build peace and security and understanding, the only way to do that is by making ourselves vulnerable, not recklessly so, but this task cannot be achieved without risk. That is what the Gospel teaches us about the importance of meeting others, person to person, more like a servant than a remote figure of authority. It is a high ideal.

Today, we remember the fallen of many wars and we are acutely aware of those who expose themselves to risk in the field just now, trying to rebuild communities and protect the innocent. We should salute those brave women and men who make themselves vulnerable so that good might emerge.

As Jesus shows, if we wish to make a positive difference, if we wish to serve and genuinely do good, we cannot for ever hide behind uniforms and symbols of power or invincibility. Force of arms never won over people’s hearts. But in ‘removing our outer garments’, we always run the risk that the Devil might have put it into the mind of someone to betray us. This is the very hard part of doing good.

Now to him who has the power to make you stand firm, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory for endless ages. Amen

We also have a herb garden in Greyfriars Kirkyard and hope to begin work soon on developing a small vegetable garden supplying our kitchen that still serves more than 500 meals per week with fresh fruit and vegetables. Our ethos is creating a strong sense of community and we depend on a small staff team and a huge army of volunteers (more than 300 people across the Greyfriars family of operations ranging from students and 6th form school pupils to pensioners and people with diverse church connections or none at all). Greyfriars is an exciting and dynamic place of friendship and support, enterprise and artistic endeavour shaped by a broad and inclusive spiritual vision that offers the city and its people a range of opportunities for community involvement, learning, social interaction and support through good times and bad

Greyfriars Community Project

Our aim is to inspire people to success, develop their skills and learning and making positive changes in their lives that will break the cycle of homelessness and low self esteem. Part of our ethos involves overcoming the stigma and ghetto mentality that often surround homelessness. Our projects all integrate ‘service users’ with volunteers and many of the helped are becoming the helpers.

The Greyfriars Community Project is an exciting evolution of Greyfriar’s work with homeless and marginal people in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh. This identification with the most vulnerable has a long history at Greyfriars, going right back to the time of the Franciscan monastery that existed on our site (hence the name Greyfriars) in the middle ages. Six years ago we had a soup kitchen serving meals and offering friendship and hospitality. We now have a series of initiatives (including amongst them a social enterprise) that provide a ‘hand up’ rather than a ‘hand out’.