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Abundance out of poverty: remembering our unsung heroes

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on Remembrance Sunday 2015:

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Jesus said: ‘All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had’ (St Mark 12.44).

In this season of Remembrance we give thanks for the sacrifice of those women and men who served in our armed forces and, who through their often selfless service, have enabled us to live out the values we cherish: a life in liberty, in a society founded on justice, freedom and opportunity. In our remembrance we tend to commemorate those whose service has been recorded in the pages of history: field marshals who led armies into battle or who, like Lay Canon Sir Harry Chauvel, secured a timely retreat for those embroiled in the bloodbath of Gallipoli. We tend to remember those who took up arms, and gave their lives in battle, or took to the skies in bomber squadrons and single combat Spitfires. We recall those who dug trenches and fought in the lines, think of those who operated tanks and advanced battles. Our corporate remembrance centres on those who gave of abundance; who gave of their strength. All too often we tend to neglect those who contributed out of their poverty; who gave all that they had – the unsung heroes of our conflicts, whose service tends to go unseen.

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Quite literally so, in the case of Sister Lilian Bessie Kiddle of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Commemorated in this Cathedral not on a large brass plaque in the aisles, but on a simple wooden board in the corridor outside my office. Sister Kiddle was trained in St Kilda, and embarked on one of the first transports to Europe once war had been declared to join the Imperial Military Nursing Service. As a result, Lilian Kiddle was one of the first of 30 Army sisters to cross over into France in October 1914. Her nursing care knew no boundaries, no enmities: she cared for Allied servicemen and German soldiers alike. Anyone caught up in, or between the lines, servicemen or civilians. In her service Sister Kiddle put herself in harm’s way: her nursing apron pierced with shrapnel, her torch often the only source of light in the field hospitals because of blackouts and fear of attacks from the nascent German airforce. Sister Kiddle remained with ‘her men’, working on ambulance trains behind the lines, and moving along the front as they did, retreating only when they did (The Australasian Saturday, 15 March 1919, p. 35). Sister Kiddle survived the war, returning home to Melbourne in 1919 after giving six years in service to a conflict far away from home, giving not out of the strength of force, the abundance of power, but nevertheless ‘putting in everything she had’ in her service.

Also not commemorated among the military heroes in this Cathedral, but a war hero nevertheless, is my illustrious predecessor Frederick Waldegrave Head, the Seventh Dean and also concurrently the Archbishop of Melbourne. The Senior Tutor and Chaplain of Emmanuel College Cambridge when the Great War broke out, Head considered joining up as an Army Chaplain but swiftly rejected the idea: at 41 he felt too old to serve in the forces, so joined as one of the Chaplains attached to the YMCA providing pastoral care to servicemen behind the lines in France in 1915 instead. A year later, he was commissioned as an officer and chaplain with the Second Guards’ Brigade, and soon became a senior chaplain to the entire Brigade. In an interview on his appointment as Archbishop and Dean Head reflected on his experience at the front of the ‘blood-soaked line from the Vosges to the Channel’: it was his sheer hard work that enabled him to cope with the terror of ministering to an endless stream of injured and dying soldiers, comforting, as best as he could, those who had come to the end of their lives, or those who were, once more, thrown into the fray. The war disturbed, but did not break him, Archbishop Head reflected, and would say no further to the Melbourne press on the matter. The fact that he was awarded a Military Cross in 1917, and had a bar added in the final year of the Great War are external testament to his heroism (Table Talk, Thursday 23 January 1930). A heroism borne, again, not out of strength or abundance, but once more out of a desire to ‘put in everything he had’ for his beliefs.

Confirmed in their belief to ‘put in everything they had’ in times of great conflict both Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head continued their work for those most in need. Sister Kiddle continued nursing in Melbourne, even after she married one of the officers whose life she saved in the final stages of the war: the fellow-Victorian Lieutenant Hugh Hanna MC. Kiddle ran first aid and home nursing programs in order to enable others to extend, in times of peace but relative poverty in the post-War years, the care that enabled her save lives through her heroic service. Likewise, it was the experience of the bloodshed and destruction of the Great War, his own experience of having given out of his poverty, that led Archbishop Head to set up programs to promote greater social justice in Melbourne: he was one of the first church leaders to visit, and seriously engage, with those living in what was then the ‘Broadmeadows Camp for the Unemployed’, praying with those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and preparing them for confirmation (The Argus, Wednesday 29 April 1931). His advocacy for those in need was ceaseless: he invited the Brotherhood of St Laurence to move to the diocese, and establish their first social outreach programs in what then were the slums of Fitzroy, in St Mark’s parish.

For both our unsung heroes I believe it was the experience of being able to give out of their poverty that equipped them for their future ministry. Both ended up as highly decorated war heroes: Kiddle a recipient of the Mons Star and Royal Red Cross Ribbon, Head an MC with bar. Yet they are remembered not for their heroism, nor for their winning campaigns or battles, but for their selfless service: ‘out of their poverty they put in everything they had’.

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Heroes are sometimes like that. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, they are people who contribute out of weakness rather than strength, bring great riches of character and principle, sacrifice and service out of the poverty of their power. They would very likely say of themselves that they have ‘just done their bit’ or how they wished that they had been able to do more. You very likely know one or two candidates for such quiet heroism. They would probably prefer to remain unsung, unremembered, would prefer that no fuss was made to celebrate their service.

Yet it is that very remembrance, our bringing to mind and making present of their actions, that enables us to ensure that the principles for which they strove are fostered in our own generation. They encourage us to do ‘our part’ in promoting the values of justice – looking out for those who have no one to speak up for them, caring for those who have no one to care for them – the values of freedom and opportunity – enabling others to flourish in spite of their background and to engage those who find themselves at the margins.

All too often we may feel like them: confronted with an almost insurmountable task when faced with so much need. It is especially at times like these, that the example of those who have given out of their poverty, is encouragement for us to go and do likewise.

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The examples of Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head encourage me do what I can to ensure that their work of care in this city – a care that for our two unsung heroes was borne out of the wounds of the Great War – is continued. The same care – now borne out the wounds of the acts of terror and warfare of our own generation – needs others to ‘put in everything they have’.

For us at St Paul’s this is a care that, like Sister Kiddle, looks at people, not passports. A care that reaches out to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in making them welcome, safe and enabling them to share in our values of freedom and opportunity. A care that, like Archbishop Head, engages with people, not problems. A care that reaches out to individuals in helping them become the people God calls them to be, and enables them to witness to Jesus’ call: the motivation of all our calls.

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This care calls for modern heroes. Some of those are very likely seated right here, in these pews. They probably do not regard themselves as such, but are those who create an abundance out of their own sense of poverty, are those who already put in everything, so that the treasury of God’s care for others may continually be filled. Jesus said: ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put everything she had’.

Lest we forget.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved


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