Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 2
The year was 1937, before the start of the 2nd World War when Pastor Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran Pastor, was put in a concentration camp. He, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of the Confessing Church, an underground church that opposed the Nazi Regime and its takeover of the Christian Churches. Niemöller is credited with writing the following:
When the concentration camp was opened we wrote (down) the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, (because) it was printed in the newspapers.
Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, and they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public.
The Church did not concern itself with politics at all at that time, and it shouldn’t have anything do with them either. In the Confessing Church we didn’t want to represent any political resistance per se, but we wanted to determine for the Church that which was not right, and that it should not become right in the Church.
So, should we as worshipping Christians keep a distance from the political and secular realms of our society as was done over 50 years ago?
Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost in the year of the church and Memorial Day weekend for the secular realm. So at this time of the year, there is at theological debate on whether churches should observe Memorial Day during the regular Sunday worship service. Do these patriotic holidays have a place in the church?
Let’s look at Memorial Day through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word Gospel comes from the Greek meaning Good News. The Good news of Jesus Christ, means that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are free from worrying about sin and death. Jesus made a sacrifice for us so that we may have eternal life. Nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God. Good works have no bearing on our salvation – we are saved by the Grace of God through faith. Period. But this gospel lens also includes the teachings of Jesus – the Litmus test would be to see if remembering those who served and or died for our freedoms goes against the Gospel and teachings of Jesus.
Paul had a Gospel problem with the church in Galatia. It seems that there were two factions of new Christians – those who were Jews and believed that it was necessary to follow the Jewish law and those who were previously Gentiles who didn’t want to follow those rigid Jewish laws in order to be a Christian. We read that Paul came down on the side of the Gentiles – not because he believed that being Jewish was bad – but simply because he believed that strictly following the Jewish Law had no salvific value. The work of our salvation was already completed with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Galatians were now free to live out their discipleship without worrying about salvation. They were free to live out their callings as a Christian – to love God and to love neighbor without worrying about dire consequences if they messed up – and they continued to mess up and let’s face it, so do we!
So, what about Memorial Day in worship? Tomorrow is a day of remembrance, of remembering those lives lost defending the freedoms of our country as, well as the freedoms of other countries that experienced tyranny and persecution from other nations. The book of John tells us: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
So, we can remember the sacrifice of those in our military who fought to end oppression and to restore the basic human rights of others. WE can have allegiance to both God and our Country – after all Jesus did say “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” he was saying there are duties to government that do not infringe on your ultimate duty to God. It’s possible to honor lesser authorities in good conscience because they have been instituted by a greater authority. Without any form of government, we would live in chaos.
Where the rubber hits the road as far as patriotism and Christianity is concerned is when we become exclusionary. We sing God Bless America – but the apostle Paul tells us that In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. God makes us all one in Christ, all equal partners in the Kingdom. We should certainly be grateful that we live in a land of opportunity and freedoms and should thank God that we are able to worship as we wish. We absolutely want God’s blessings, but we should want God’s blessings upon the whole body of Christ. We must not idolize our nation or forget the multinational character of the body of Christ.
Yes, we live in a country that has been forged by the sacrifice of many – those who fought against the British for independence, those who fought to end the abominable practice of the human slave trade and of slavery. Those who protected our borders when we were bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor as well as those who pushed out the Nazi’s and their alliances from Europe; those who helped to liberate the concentration camps, those who fought for democracy in Asia and those who fought on behalf of the people of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
These brave men and women fought for freedom and right of each human being to live in a country without fear of being enslaved by another or being murdered because of the color of their skin or their religion or ethnicity. These men and women fought for a country that had a history of immigrants who came for a better life.
So we could conclude that remembering those who sacrificed their lives for not only our freedom, but the freedom of their neighbors across the globe fits into the command that Jesus gives us to Love our neighbor as ourselves.
We continue to live in a country that has embraced many cultures, religions and ethnicities. Those men and women who have died for the freedoms of our country came from all walks of life. The current presence of immigrants in the military has deep historical roots: noncitizens have fought in the U.S. Armed forces since the Revolutionary War. Foreign born residents comprised half of all U.S. military recruits during the 1840s and 20 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War. Italian immigrants alone made up 10% of the armed forces during WWII. Today there are over 6000 soldiers who identify their religion as Muslim. These persons fought and continue to fight for a country in which they believed they could live in freedom without fear.
But unfortunately, we live in a sinful world – a world that perverts the Gospel message –and that message becomes distorted for several reasons. We fear our neighbor, especially those who look or act differently from us. Fear can cause mistrust and hate –Fear can cause us to stereotype and even to hurt others, or maybe even worse – look away when others are being oppressed or harmed.
Throughout our history we have looked the other way when peoples of other faiths and ethnicities were persecuted. In 1939, the United States turned away 900 Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazi Persecution in Germany on the ship the St. Louis – these immigrants waited for days off the coast of Miami, hoping for the United States to grant them sanctuary. Unfortunately, our leaders followed the Gospel of Anti-Semitism and isolationism, instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However it was fortunate that the countries of Great Britain and the Netherlands granted them asylum and all were saved from certain deaths under the third Reich.
Lutheran Pastor and Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said ““Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
One of the most patriotic symbols of our country is the Statue of Liberty. It became a symbol of a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. Jesus came to liberate the outcasts and downtrodden of his time, and we are called to continue this mission today. The Poem on the base of the Statue, which was written by poet Emma Lazarus says: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Lazarus wrote this poem in 1883 after seeing the Jews in Russia being persecuted and visiting the immigrants who came to the United States of a better life, a life free from persecution for their religious or ethnic identities.
Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free…”
I am sure that the sight of the American soldiers as they stormed the beaches of Normandy, or liberated the streets of Paris or entered Hitler’s concentration camps was good news to those who were oppressed under a ruler who sought to judge others on the base of their ethnicity, religion, physical and mental health or just because they disagreed with Nazi doctrine.
We pledge that we are one nation under God – maybe it should say a nation under God – realizing that we are but a small sampling of God’s children. As Children of God we live in a country that gives us the freedom to worship as we please, to have the freedom to express our opinions without consequences and the freedom to carry out the Gospel of Jesus Christ – to love God and to love neighbor and to tell others about life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what good news that is for all of us!
In this fallen world, God’s grace is in effect when we see life from death, freedom from sacrifice. We see it in the deaths of our own soldiers, as well as police officers, firemen and women and others who die while having put themselves in harm’s way for us. We see it in the martyrdom of the saints. And we see it in an infinitely greater degree in Christ’s death for our sin on the cross.
As Christians, it is almost impossible to separate our religious and secular realms since everything we do should be filtered through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We carry out the ministry of Jesus when we forgive our enemies, when we work for justice for those who are oppressed either economically or militarily, when we feed the hungry, help the poor, and welcome the stranger – in all areas of life!
I want to close with a writing from Frederick Buechner entitled “Patriotism”:
The only patriots worth their salt are the ones who love their country enough to see that in a nuclear age, it is not going to survive unless the world survives. It is not the homeland that they feel called on to defend at any cost, but the planet earth as home. If the interest of making sure we don’t blow ourselves off the map once and for all, we end up relinquishing a measure of national sovereignty to some international body, so much the worse for national sovereignty. There is only one sovereignty that matters ultimately, and it is another sort all together.
I pray that tomorrow you remember the sacrifices of all of our men and women in the military, past and present, and also remember the one who gave us His life so that we may have eternal life, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.