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Over the Top & In the Mud

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In the last few years we have learnt more about the First World War than ever before: soldiers’ diaries are being published, the letters they wrote to their families are reaching the light of day. Just before we came up here we visited a display on Gallipoli at Te Manawa in Palmerston North of a family’s experiences at Gallipoli intertwined in art and story. Last year, the 90th anniversary of Paschendale brought the mud and misery of that campaign out into the open; about the same time the pardon of a number of so-called deserters who were shot highlighted the way in which soldiers suffered from mental breakdown. There were 8500 NZers taking part in the Gallipoli campaign, a quarter were killed, about half were wounded. Paschendale and the other battles in Flanders fields were fought in terrible mud, in awful conditions. We are just beginning to understand, all these years on, what those who actually fought never told us, and what they would only tell their mates.

I go to Linton Military Camp from time to time to assist the regular army chaplains there, and my connection with the military has changed my perspective, insofar as I am involved with soldiers in the modern army. You see, I started to think what I would say if I were an Army Chaplain in the First World War. Imagine that we are in the trenches at Paschendale or at Gallipoli; in a couple of hours some officer will raise his sword as if he were at the Battle of Waterloo, the soldiers will get up from the safety of their trenches and run towards the enemy lines regardless of the mud, regardless of yesterday’s bodies, regardless of the hail of bullets from German machine guns, regardless of the artillery barrage. Imagine you are an army chaplain taking what is called a drumhead service - a service in the field - a couple of hours before the soldiers get up and face the enemy. What would you say? You know the generals are using outmoded tactics. You know the soldiers in front of you face slaughter, probably death, almost certainly injury. You know that what these men will go through is the closest thing to hell on earth. What would you say? What readings would you choose? What hymns would you sing? Would you preach from the text: Prepare to meet thy Maker? I’ve been fortunate in that I have never had to give spiritual comfort to those about to die in battle, because I think it is very, very difficult: what would you say? What would I say? Imagine you are the padre.

Well, the readings for today on the face of it would not be much use. Paul is preaching in Athens, on the Areopagus just under the Parthenon. He is trying to construct a path from God to Jesus and show that the unknown God is realised and known in Jesus. The writer of First Peter is encouraging his people to do good even in adversity. John’s gospel continues the words of Jesus in the upper room under the broad topic of what to do when Jesus is gone. None of this seems much help for soldiers who are about to go into battle. Their feet, for a short while at least, are firmly on the ground, they don’t want pie in the sky, and if you read our readings to them they wouldn’t be listening.

But maybe if our readings are not much help to the soldiers they might be of some value to the padre. Here are the men in the trenches, lined up for their drumhead service. The last thing they want to be bashed over the head with is talk of God. God - who cares about God? If there is a God, if there were a God, would God allow this? Could God tolerate such cruelty, inhumanity, such folly? No God in his right mind could possibly accept such conditions of war and still be God. If there were a God, God surely would have done something about it before this. If our soldiers didn’t think such thoughts, they wouldn’t be human, and they wouldn’t have a soul. Here, if anywhere, as the soldiers gather is the unknown God who longs to be known. Then you remember - what did Paul do with the unknown God - he thought about it and realised that the unknown God is the face of Jesus. Jesus is the one who has made God known. So the face of God is the face of Jesus - a kindness, a mercy, a strength. Come unto me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. That’s God. Which means that if our padre were wise he might follow Paul’s path from the unknown God to the mercy and compassion of Christ.

Here are the men in the trenches lined up for their drumhead service. What they can’t stand is glib remarks about how it will turn out alright in the end. They have seen their mates confused and shell-shocked. They have seen the wounded stumbling back along the duckboards, the injured carried back on stretchers, and too many not come back at all. It does not turn out alright in the end for their wives and children. They know that if they die or are disabled the farm can’t be broken in, that poverty will haunt their children. It does not turn out alright in the end. Such a waste, such a price. Such a burden of suffering. And here, if anywhere, as the soldiers gather is the suffering God. It is just possible that our padre might recollect what the writer of First Peter said, For Christ also suffered for our sins. They can identify with that; it is not their war, it is not NZ’s war, it is a war rising out of European sins and the universal sins of greed and power and politics. If Christ be the face of God it is a suffering face, a face of unjust agony, the face of one who hungered and was thirsty, and was at the end broken because it did not turn out alright for him either. Nor is it just physical suffering that Christ knows but spiritual agony, the burden of caring for the world as these soldiers agonise for their wives and children. Jesus suffers, too. Which means that if our padre is wise he might follow First Peter’s path to the God who bears and experiences pain and distress.

Here are the men in the trenches lined up for their drumhead service. They are not there because they want to be there, they are there because some captain has ordered them to be there. They have nothing in common with parsons or such like. They’d rather be quietly back in their places, smoking their last cigarette, writing their last note in their diary. What have they to do with church or religion? It’s their comrades who will save them. They’ve trained together, marched together, and now they go over the top together. And here, if anywhere, as the soldiers gather reluctantly is the God who seeks to abide in them and hold them close. And so it might just be that our padre has a thought for the fellowship that John is always on about. The fellowship of the Spirit with the followers of Jesus, the fellowship of the Father with the Son, and the fellowship of Jesus with his own flock: you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you. He may remember that what is so important in a time of death is that such fellowship is life-giving: because I live, you also will live. This is a comradeship not terminated by death; rather that’s the point at which it comes into its own, and holds us and claims us and carries us to eternal life. We are not alone, we are never alone, for God is always with us in a fellowship we rarely understand or realise but which is as solid as the ground on which we walk. We are not alone. Which means that if our padre is half up to it he might follow John’s path to the God who abides in us through the Son, and the Spirit, and who brings us through to eternal life.

On the face of it there was nothing in our lectionary readings that was right for the drumhead service. And we might well have crumpled them up and put them in the rubbish bin. If I had been talking to a group of soldiers I would have done exactly that. I might have spoken from last week’s gospel: Let not your hearts be troubled. I might have picked the sentence from Matthew I quoted earlier, Come unto me all you that labour and are heavy-laden... I might have used Paul: What shall separate us from the love of God... I might have used the Good Samaritan: Who is your neighbour? Good texts, all of them, but so are todays: they say what our padre should have considered before he crumpled up the readings and let them go: That the human face of God is Jesus; no longer need we have an unknown God for in Jesus we find God comes in mercy and peace. That the sufferings of this present time are painful as all sufferings are, but Christ shares our sufferings. God in Jesus knows firsthand the result of violence and anger, intent to kill. Suffering is a pain God shares with us. That though fellowship with our companions comes and goes, God promises to hold us close in life and death; through the pain, the heart ache, the loneliness, even through the waste, God is with us even in the mud - and there is no fellowship greater than that.

Gallipoli, Paschendale, battles of the First World War, tucked tidily away now in the history books. Yet life is always a battle, and wherever and whenever men and women gather to read the sacred scriptures or to pray the same issues arise: who is God? What is God like and do we know him? What good is human suffering especially that all come upon it sooner or later? Suffering is surely a waste. What strength can I get for coping with life - who will go with me, who will share with me, or must I stand alone by myself unaided in the battle? These are our issues as much as they were Anzac issues of 90 odd years ago. As we stand in the front lines of 2008 this Anzac weekend our task is not only to remember but to trust, trust in Jesus the Christ and so trust in God.

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