Self-sacrifice ... but for what?
Easter 4: 26th April, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11)
Self-sacrifice, the giving of our selves for the sake of others, is a human drive as primal as the survival-of-the-fittest. Even our nemesis these days, Richard Dawkins, points towards this: "Selection has favoured genes that cooperate with others. In the fierce competition for scarce resources ... there must have been a premium on central coordination rather than anarchy within the communal body" (The Selfish Gene, p. 47). Albert Schweitzer, scientist and theologian, takes this one step further: "Man can no longer live for himself alone. We realize that all life is valuable, and that we are united to this life. From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship to the universe" (The Spiritual Life: Selected Writings of Albert Schweitzer; cited in Vaillant, Spiritual Evolution, p. 12). We are deeply inter-connected, and that inter-connectedness sometimes calls for acts of profound self-giving.
Yesterday, and in the build up to the 100th anniversary of the Anzac invasion at Gallipoli, we have heard many inspiring stories of sacrifice. You may have seen the memorial plaque at the back of the church for Pvt Noel Edward Béchervaise, a parishioner of St Peter's Eastern Hill, who was killed at the Gallipoli landing about 12 noon on Sunday 25th April 1915; he was just 23 years old. Less than a fortnight later, on Saturday 8th May, two more parishioners also serving in the 6th Australian Infantry Battalion lost their lives: Sgnt Hubert Clarence Mitchell, from North Fitzroy, and Pvt Reginald Charles Wigger, aged 25.
Parishioner, Philip Harvey, just yesterday told me that his grandfather was at the first landing at Gallipoli, and that his great uncle — a member of the St Peter's School — wrote a pamphlet on the landing. I am sure many of you will have your own stories.
Allan Davidson, church historian, writes: "Given our exposure to the centenary commemorations many could well be suffering now from Anzac-itis, an overdose of history. But the question remains, how do we make sense of what happened 100 years ago at Gallipoli?" (www.stlukes.org.nz/?sid=100250). There is the risk of glorifying war, but equally there is the risk of what some call a "narrative of disenchantment." Siegfried Sassoon, soldier and war poet, reflecting on the war memorial commemorating 54,000 British soldiers who were lost on the Ypres Salient battlefields in Belgium, wrote: "Who will remember, passing through this Gate, the unheroic Dead who fed the guns? Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, these doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones" (cited in Sheftall, Altered Memories of the Great War, p.1).
In Australia and New Zealand we have certainly been through a period of disenchantment, especially in the post-Vietnam years. Anzac ceremonies then became very sparsely attended. But more recently there has been a rebirth in our honouring of those who gave their lives in war. Record crowds of some 85,000 people attended ceremonies in Melbourne yesterday. Nationally the day has almost overtaken Christmas and Easter as the most sacred day of the year. Even the mighty supermarket chains now dare not use Anzac day to sell their goods.
I have to confess that underneath it all I am a pacifist. You can probably find the God of Battles in the Hebrew Bible, but it is hard to find anything other than non-violence in our Lord's teaching. I also have to confess, however, that I do have war heroes: the military chaplains of Gallipoli. Their conscience did not permit them to carry weapons into war, but they were still to be found on the front line, sacrificially giving of themselves for their comrades, in the name of Christ.
"Fighting Mac" aka Chaplain Major William McKenzie (1869-1947) was a Salvation Army officer renowned for leading the charge at Gallipoli armed only with a shovel to bury the dead. The Rev'd Andrew Gillison (1868-1915) was a Presbyterian minister whose last entry in his diary describes the day of truce to bury the hundreds of dead soldiers left to rot after four weeks of fighting: "I never beheld such a sickening sight in my life and hope it may not be my lot again." He died a few weeks later, trying to help a wounded soldier.
Padre Walter Ernest Dexter (1873-1950) was an Anglican chaplain whose diary portrays vividly the risks of ministry at Gallipoli: "My mind runs over those buried in the early days. Dark nights, and a small group gathered around an open grave, with heads bowed in sorrow for a comrade taken away. We know the burial service by heart, and all the time the service goes on the bullets are thudding into the ground. They whistle close by my ear, and through the group, but the boys are very brave, and not one moves from the reverential attitude he has taken up." Padre Dexter was one of the last to leave the peninsula, and spent his final days scattering silver wattle seed among the trenches and the graves; a powerful symbol of life and hope. "If we have to leave here," he wrote, "I intend that a bit of Australia shall be here ... I soaked the seed for about 20 hours and they seem to be well and thriving" (see Australian Dictionary of Biography online entries for these chaplains).
As we heard in today's epistle: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are" (1 Jn 3:1). The Gallipoli chaplains knew that well. Life is sacred, even in the midst of war. Each one of us has the imprint of God. We are all God's children. That is why, as Christians, we are called to give of ourselves for others, called to love our neighbour, called to care for those in need.
Our Mission today is very different from that of Padre Dexter, but we are all called by the same good shepherd. Our call is to attend to the needs of God's children. The Parish Mission in July will be an opportunity to reflect together on that call. What is the sacrifice we need to make in this time and this place? What are the needs of God's children in our city that we must respond to?
Thomas Merton wrote: "Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience" (Catholic Worker 1961). Christ's way is the way of love and forgiveness, even in the midst of conflict. May we choose this way, each day, and each moment of the day, and may the God of grace equip us and inspire us to undertake deeds of love in his name.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.