Today marks two great anniversaries, in the life of our nation. The first, of course, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day - which anyone who has turned on a TV, or tried to drive into Portsmouth in the last 24 hours could hardly miss! We commemorate with gratitude the lives of the 22,442 men of the British services who gave their lives for the freedom of our French neighbours, and to push back the tide of fascism.
The second, less well-known anniversary, is that of the Young Men’s Christian Association - the YMCA - founded 175 years ago today in London, by one George Williams and his friends. I have an affection for that great institution because I served as a YMCA Secretary for about 20 years in the last decades of the last century. The YMCA is now a worldwide youth movement, often quietly going about its Christian mission to be a place where counsel may be sought and friendships formed, among young men and women of all faiths and none. From after-school care and pre-school centres, through to sports centres and outdoor pursuits centres like the one near us at Botley, through to hostels and homeless projects, the YMCA is a positive, life-giving presence in many towns and villages of this nation, and around the world.
The YMCA played an important part in the War effort too. They provided YMCA Canteens, in which soldiers could take a break from the front line, and write letters home. It was sometimes said that they served up ‘tea and comfort’ to the troops, and they were much loved for that.
There’s a lovely story I remember hearing about a YMCA Canteen which was set up in Portsmouth, near the Guildhall, during the second world war, in the run up to D-Day. The story gives us an insight into the distinctly British mentality of so many people during that whole conflict. The story goes that during the bombing of Portsmouth, an excited young man ran into the YMCA Canteen shouting “The Guildhall’s on fire, the Guildhall’s on fire!”. The YMCA lady serving tea behind the counter looked up, and replied, “so it is dear. Would you like some sugar in your tea?”.
The Gospel reading we have just heard has been read on this day, the 6th of June, for time immemorial. That’s the beauty of the church’s Lectionary - it allows us to revisit, on certain days texts which have come to have great meaning. This passage contains a line of Jesus’ great prayer, which, it seems, George Williams and the other founders of the YMCA also appreciated, because they took it as the motto of the YMCA from that day onward. It is these words:
“...that they may all be one”.
The YMCA has striven over the ensuing years to be a place where true oneness of spirit between people of all faiths and none can be found. And that oneness of spirit was also the inspiration behind the allied advance on D-Day. British, American, Canadian and other forces all combined. Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen, all combined. Fighters, logistics experts, scientists, weather-men, politicians, and, yes, YMCA tea makers, all combined in one great push to beat back the great evil of fascism.
Jesus’ prayer, is ultimately a prayer about his followers. He is laying out his heart before the Father, and praying for unity between all believers. He longs for that Unity, not least because he knows that through such Unity, other people might see the love of the Father at work. I have no doubt that Jesus must weep when he sees the fractured nature of today’s world, and, yes, the fractured nature of his church. We human beings, it seems, are not capable of being one...we are just too tied to our own ambitions, or our own limited understand of the world, to be able to truly embrace that one-ness. The result is our constantly competing ideas about how the world, or our faith, should be.
On D-Day, we saw Hitler’s stark and angry vision of the world come into conflict with a greater, higher vision of the world - a world without hatred of others who are not like us. Thankfully, the greater, higher, vision won - a vision of a world of oneness, in which nations learned to work together for the common good of all humanity. In the post-war years, thanks to the sacrifice of all on D-Day and throughout the war, the world started to come together in the great institutions: the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation, the African Union and, yes, I’m going to say it, the fore-runner of what is now the European Union.
Sadly, we are beginning to witness the fracturing of the oneness that these institutions have stood for. Nationalism is once again on the rise in the public imagination. The very thing that the soldiers, sailors and airmen of D-Day fought to defeat - fascism - is rearing its ugly, ugly head on our TV screens and on our streets.
My prayer, like that of the YMCA, is that we will take a moment on this day of commemoration, to remember Jesus’ prayer of oneness. As the bells of St Faith’s ring out after this service, in honour of the sacrifices of D-Day, may we take a moment to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task of working for the one-ness of all humanity.