Armistice 100, 11th November 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank D Nelson

Micah 4: 1 – 4
Psalm 46
Hebrews 10: 32 – 39
John 15: 9 – 17

This is a real poppy. It was picked this morning from a bed of poppies planted in the Adelaide Hills. Grown from the carefully collected seeds of last year’s flowering, its pedigree extends back into the battle fields of France. It is beautiful delicate bright red – for me, a symbol of the fragility of each human life so tragically and wastefully snuffed out during those awful long years of trench warfare which so characterised the Great War, the First World War of 1914 – 1918. I can’t get my head around the horror of that war, or the wars that were fought before and have been fought since. But I can identify to some extent with this thing of beauty – a wonder of God’s creation.

As we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 1918, which marked the cessation of hostilities of that war, may this poppy serve as a symbol of that beautiful, fragile, precious love of God seen so starkly in another death, and one we commemorate each Sunday at the Eucharist. It is the death of the one who uttered the words so often associated with military funerals and which we heard in this morning’s Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13)

It’s a symbol that reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of white crosses that are laid out in ordered rows and carefully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and similar organisations. I spent a few minutes last Friday on North Terrace, looking at the tiny replica crosses – one for each South Australian who has died in the conflicts in which we have been involved. One in particular caught my attention – it bore the name “Nelson F D”. It was a poignant, if somewhat disconcerting, moment that – seeing your own initials and name on a cross. It could so easily have been me – or one of my grandfathers or great uncles who went through the Great War and died too early of wounds and the trauma they experienced – unknown to their grandchildren. It could so easily have been my own father who went through the 2nd World War serving in the Royal Navy. It could so easily have been one of the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the sweethearts of any of those men – those who stayed at home keeping, as the old song goes, “the home fires burning”.

And yet, even in the horror which is so difficult for us who have not experienced it to comprehend, there are the moments of lightness, joy, laughter, celebration. Particularly over the past few years we have heard some of these stories –the stories of Gallipoli, the stories of Delville Wood, the Somme, Paschendale. They are the stories of real people making the most of such difficult situations into which they were thrust without much choice.

Living, as we do, in the shadow of the Adelaide Oval I have looked for, and found, some sporting themes. A year or two ago a large London department store ran their Christmas advertising featuring the alleged game of football played on Christmas Eve on ‘no man’s land’ between opposing forces. Whether it is absolutely true or not, it makes a nice story and reminds us of the humanity of both sides of any conflict. Perhaps that is one of the worst things that accompanies war propaganda – the demonising of ordinary human beings who not so different from us in their joys and longings, their hurts and disappointments. I have enjoyed reading about the 17th (Service) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment – quickly nicknamed the “Football Battalion” because so many of its members were professional footballers, and which fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Seeing the mounted police patrolling during Friday night’s One Day Cricket international brought to mind the play “War Horse” which we saw in London some years ago. It’s a play which draws attention to the often overlooked role of animals in war. The incredible life-size puppet horses, each controlled by three people, were made by the South African duo Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. When I went into the South African Medical Services to do my national service, compulsory in the 1970s for all white males, they fled to neighbouring Botswana. Eventually they returned to Cape Town determined to use their artistry to tell the difficult stories of life.

Nor is it only cricket and horses that Australia and South Africa have in common. There is good evidence that the two minute silence observed on Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day and other similar occasions, germinated from suggestions by Australian journalist Edward Honey and South African writer Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. The ideas of these two men, who apparently did not know each other, were picked up by King George and became part of the commemorative service in London in 1919 – the first anniversary of the Armistice.

The Ode, and the silence sandwiched between the bugle call of the Last Post and the Rouse, or Reveille (depending on which area of service is involved), are now embedded in our commemorative services. We solemnly respond, as we will do today, “We will remember them.” But what and who will we remember, and when will we remember? These are questions that Australian poet David Delaney asks in his poem “New Generation of Veterans”; it is the question asked by Old Testament prophets such as Micah with his beautiful poetic imagery of swords and spears being beaten into ploughshares and pruning hooks, of people sitting under their own vines and their own fig trees. (See Micah 4: 1 – 4) It is perhaps the sort of question that we find almost too challenging, especially when couched in the language Jesus used in Matthew’s Gospel when he said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 43)

I wonder whether you have seen the story of “The Jewish Nurse” which has been circulating over the past few days. Ari Mahler wrote on his facebook page, “I am The Jewish Nurse. Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.” He writes further, “To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bower’s eyes. I saw something else…. I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone’s nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.”

Is there something there for us to take home today – as we remember? Is this the practical outworking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – whose Body we eat and whose Blood we drink in remembrance of Him?

A beautiful red poppy, a game of soccer, a whistled marching tune, a horse puppet, a white cross with my name on it, an act of loving kindness by a nurse for a patient – these are the things that make a difference to our remembering. These, surely, are the things of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who suggests that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.