A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on the Third Sunday after Easter, 19 April 2015, commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli:
‘Lest we forget’, is our national watchword for this day. Lest we forget the countless who gave their lives in the landings on Gallipoli we recall this week, in two world wars, and countless other conflicts since. Lest we forget those who died in acts of genocide, civil war and terror. Lest we forget that to this day people put their lives on the line for others—often as volunteers and just as often as innocent victims, helping neighbours caught between the lines. Yet in spite of our day of national remembrance, people frequently do choose to forget: not just when the focus of our news shifts from one trouble spot to another. Just as there are areas of conflict that hardly ever form part of our active remembrance.
The kind of remembrance that we practise on ANZAC Day is, by necessity, selective. Even the implicit underlying hope of ANZAC Day that, by remembering past national tragedies and sacrifice, we may somehow avert future conflict and wars remains, of course, only ever a fervent hope. The motivations for inner national and international conflicts and war—whether they arise out of greater national ambitions or the breakdown of relationships between ethnic and faith groups—are not removed by our remembering past conflicts and tragedies. The most careful study of past wars, and the intricate steps that led from diplomatic standoff to open warfare—steps that we can correctly identify this very day in the East Ukraine, Syria, South Sudan and many other African and Middle Eastern troublespots—will never prevent future bloodshed.
In order to address the underlying evil of war and conflict, we need to turn to another sort of remembrance altogether: the remembrance afforded by a commemoration often overshadowed by our national recollection. The ‘lest we forget’ that has shaped the Gospel of Saint Mark, on whose feast-day the ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli. An area not unknown to the evangelist Mark who very likely sailed through the Eastern Mediterranean alongside his cousin, Barnabas (Acts 15.39, Colossians 4.10).
Saint Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is as strong an invitation to remembrance as that afforded by today’s ‘other’ day of remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is also shaped by death and sacrifice: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45), the sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, many of whom ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him’, and some of whom even ‘lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the gospel’ (Mark 8.34-35). Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is not about a passive act of remembrance, undertaken once a year and then often forgotten until the next instalment of news of wars and conflict reminds us of the frailty of the commitment to peace and reconciliation so many of us make each year on this day.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is an active remembrance, an invitation to let our lives be transformed by our remembrance. His ‘lest we forget’ is the promise that, by our corporate remembrance, not only our communities but even our own bodies, will be reshaped, as we re-member—build up—the body of Christ as members of one another. And because the act of remembrance shown forth in Mark’s gospel is so visceral—people and communities reshaped as one body by their re-membering—we do hurt where others are hurting, we do hurt where parts of that body are injured, persecuted or rejected.
Mark’s ‘lest we forget’, then, is an invitation to turn our national remembrance with its rituals that give meaning for a few weeks each year only, into a way of life that enables us to live our lives every day of the year. At the heart of Mark’s way remembrance stands the insight Mark makes known in the very opening verse of his story of Jesus: that this story is about ‘Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ and that that is the reason why this story is ‘good news’ (Mark 1.1). The remaining fifteen chapters of his gospel serve to illustrate how it is that Jesus ‘from Nazareth in Galilee’ is in fact the Son of God, and the expected Messiah, and how we can join in remembering him, by ourselves becoming members of him, becoming his followers, his disciples.
For Mark the story of Jesus is immediate and direct—not written to show how the life of Jesus would be a direct fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures like Matthew, not exhorting his readers to be open to the idea of a covenant for Jews as well as outsiders—gentiles and non-believers—like Luke, nor plunging into the depths of the mystery of the-Word-made-Flesh like John. Mark’s story is told rapdily, in staccato reporter-style: with every ‘and immediately’ or ‘and then’ adding evidence for his headline news, ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Those who shape Jesus’ story—his family, the people of his hometown, even his disciples—never fully grasp the truth of Mark’s headline news: his family try and restrain him because they believed that ‘he is out of his mind’, the people of Nazareth ‘took offense at him’, and his disciples never quite understand how it can be that Jesus heals the sick, walks on water, and feeds the thousands: even though they are witnesses to these miraculous events they neither remember nor, as Jesus tells them, do they understand (Mark 3.20, 6.1, 8.18).
Even when viewed from the end of the story and the vantage point of the resurrection—at which point most of the protagonists know very well who Jesus is—even the Roman centurion confesses Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 15.39)—his disciples do not believe Mark’s headline news. They see the empty tomb—today’s gospel reading tells us—they hear God’s messengers and witnesses confirm what Jesus had prophesied, and nevertheless they do not believe.
In fact, the walk away from the news. The first witnesses ‘trembling and in astonishment, saying nothing to anyone’ (Mark 16.8), the second witness, Mary Magdalene, telling the news but not believed (Mark 16.10), the third set of witnesses encountered in the country—surely on the way to Emmaus, as also told in Luke’s Gospel—telling the news and not believed, either (Mark 10.13).
Mark’s gospel is the only gospel where the risen Lord ‘rebukes the disciples for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mark 16.14). Until the very end of the story—even when they have all received the crucial information that will make sense of all their experiences—the disciples refuse to remember and understand.
This is what selective remembrance does, Mark tells us. This is what happens when we restrict the sentiment ‘lest we forget’—however strongly and genuinely felt at the time we make it—to one day only: whether ANZAC Day, or Easter Day. Today’s gospel assures us that disciples would have forgotten even the most powerful sign of all—the Lord of life breaking the bonds of death—because their remembrance was selective and passive: recalling only death where there were signs of new life, recalling only sadness at the tragedy that has been where there was astonishment at the encounter with the Risen One.
This ANZAC Day, let the watchword for our nation and our church be Mark’s, ‘Lest we forget’. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we recalled only the tragedy of wasteful death, and not the miracle of life reshaped by those who continue to work for peace and reconciliation when the cameras have long moved on. Let us accept Mark’s rebuke for the times when we have simply walked away, having either failed to observe or to believe the signs of lives transformed in our nation and communities.
Instead, let us remember purposefully and actively. Mark’s ‘lest we forget’ is encouragement for me at St Paul’s actively to remember the plight of migrants and refugees who fled the conflicts that make, or used to make, our television news by offering them a welcome, a listening ear; and the opportunity to learn more about this land, its people and its language. It is the same ‘lest we forget’ that motivates our welcome to 400,000 visitors and pilgrims who come here every year, and our ambition seeking to provide a home for all Anglicans—whatever their background—to find a place where they can come to experience Mark’s headline news: ‘the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’.
Mark’s good news concludes with the conviction that his headline news will be made known everywhere by people who actively remember and re-member: who both recall the transforming life of the resurrection, and seek to build up the resurrection body of Christ on earth in the ways they shape and sustain their communities. Mark’s good news is good news for today, because he assures us that when we live out his ‘lest we forget’ by our active remembrance, ‘the Lord will work with us, confirming this news by accompanying signs’. The signs of resurrection in our midst, that will enable us together to show forth ways that lead out of conflict, hatred and even warfare. The signs that confirm Mark’s good news and which, if we keep on remembering, may even turn our national commemoration of conflicts past into a celebration of future hope: Lest we forget that the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
© Andreas Loewe, 2015.