Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost 2020, Year A—8 November 2020
Rev'd Martin Johnson
Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13
In 2008 the Anglican Army Chaplain at Puckapunyal finally managed to convince me that my future in ministry lay in the military. By July 2009 I had received my commission in the Australian Army. I was excited, apprehensive, keen; but there was a clear tension between my desire to serve and the ambiguity I felt about matters military. I still live today with that ambiguity. I had often wondered what the military actually did. I quickly realised that military folk spend their days getting ready. They are called to be alert, attentive, engaged, watchful...but for what? And thereby hangs one of the issues that besets any military force. We as a nation prepare a young, fit, largely male group to an advanced state of readiness and then ask of them to be well informed, educated, disciplined, restrained, patient.
In 2002, the then Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy said ‘The era of the strategic corporal is here. The soldier of today must possess professional mastery of warfare, but match this with political and media sensitivity.’ The notion of a strategic corporal has become increasingly popular in the Army in recent years. This situation has arisen largely because of the increased responsibility that is being assigned to junior military leaders and to small military teams across a spectrum of military operations, ranging from warfighting, through peacekeeping operations to humanitarian missions. As a nation we place a huge weight of responsibility on very young shoulders.
Lest we forget. Words spoken at every commemoration of those killed in war. World War I was to be 'the war to end all wars'. The admonition 'Lest we forget' was based on the hope that if we could only keep close in our collective memory the experience of horror then we would never go there again. Do this in memory of me. Words spoken in our Eucharistic tradition, spoken every day at altars across the world. Jesus in these words implores his disciples to gather and break bread together and in doing so to make the power of his sacrifice a present reality; a sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
Amos however has some harsh words to those of us who enjoy our solemn assemblies who like to gather and recall, in true prophetic style he questions us. What exactly do you think you are saying and doing, what is it that you are recalling; he warns us of empty words and actions.
Many of the young men who went to the Great War did so with the idea that they would be home by Christmas, it was seen as a great adventure. I doubt if any of them understood the forces they would unleash and be subject to. Annie Dillard famously wrote: The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. What forces are we unleashing?
Our commemorations over the last century have inevitably changed in nature and will and should continue to evolve. In coming days and weeks we will be reminded of what can occur when young, fit men are prepared for war but ill-prepared in matters spiritual and moral, in matters of justice. The words of the Army’s Doctrine simply entitled ‘Character’ keep ringing in my ears: the combat capability of an army relies as much on spiritual and moral qualities as it does on physical fitness and skills – perhaps more so when soldiers are under stress. In the future our commemorations will need to ensure that we never forget the atrocities committed in our name; that we continue to strive to ensure that our soldiers’ moral and spiritual qualities are truly formed when they are called into conflict.
Because the words ‘Lest we forget’ and ‘Do this in memory of me’ are not simply calls to remember, they commit us to seek justice and peace. They are not words to be spoken glibly or by rote, they are redolent with meaning, they challenge us. They call us to a state of readiness. Our vocation is to discipline and patience, to be watchful and alert and in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel we discover why. This is chapter that needs to be understood in its entirety. The parable of the ten bridesmaids, which was proclaimed this morning, and the parable of the talents, which we will hear next Sunday, are both heavy with cultural overlay; but they are both about readiness and relationship.
Before I deployed with Afghanistan in 2012 the Commanding Officer called me to his office and asked me how I understood my role. I described my role as a steward of relationship. I suggested to him that if we maintained sound relationships we would achieve our mission, which was to mentor the Afghan Army and return home safe. This required of us readiness to live closely with one another, to nourish our relationships with family, preparedness to come alongside and learn from those we were mentoring and to respect our enemies.
The readings we heard this morning have apocalyptic undertones; as Advent approaches they remind us to be ready to meet the God coming among us. We do that, as we will hear next week, by not hiding that over which God has given us stewardship; because this God without warning will meet us in the hungry, the poor, the naked, those in prison and indeed in our enemies.
In modern warfare forces are unleashed that few of us can even begin to imagine; it is beholden on us as a nation to properly prepare those trained in the profession of arms. General Leahy suggested our soldiers needed to have political and media sensitivity. I would suggest much more. Army Doctrine states that warfare call for spiritual and moral attributes as much, if not more than physical fitness and skills.
For us we are being readied every Sunday. We too need to be ready to engage with politics and media the world at large but our calling above all is to unleash on the world the love of God for which we are prepared and nourished at every Eucharist.
‘Lest we forget’… ‘do this in memory of me’ these words call upon us to reflect back to God the virtues of justice, mercy and peace which have been won for us and as a Church and a nation we are called to live out.