I was asked to supply-preach this morning on the general subject of "Memorial Day". I chose to use the assigned Epistle reading from the lectionary, Romans 5:1-11 but I departed from the lectionary for the Gospel reading and chose the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet from John: John 13:1-9
I’d like you to imagine with me a screenplay for a television movie.
The main character in my imaginary movie is a CIA agent who I’ll call Josh. Josh has spent the last three years working on a case that is very important to the security of the United States. He’s been hot on the trail of a terrorist cell and he’s just managed to uncover a major attack that is about to go down in one of the biggest cities in the US. Josh has just found out the time and the place for this attack and he’s even found out who is responsible for its planning. Furthermore, Josh knows that the terrorist group is on to him and that they are sending operatives to kill him.
And then, the movie switches scenes. Josh is at home. Knowing that a group of thugs has been sent to assassinate him in the next few hours before the CIA can put effective protection into place, Josh has chosen to go home to his family of twelve sons.
And what does he do? Does he pack his bags quickly and tell his sons that their lives are in danger and that they should leave immediately? No.
Instead, he prepares and shares a lavish meal with them. He tells them to remember him and to always do what is right and that, if they do, they will find that he is always with them. All of this takes hours. It’s not even a rushed meal before a quick get-away. It’s a proper, lavish, sit-down meal. Then he tells each son that, before he goes, he’s going to spend some time with each one of them, leaving each son with a with a personal memory of him because they will probably never see him again. As Josh speaks first to one son and then another, he also washes that son’s feet.
And while each one-on-one conversation is going on, Josh’s sons get more and more panic stricken. “The terrorists are after him! It’s been something like six hours now since he found out they were coming for him! Why doesn’t he leave the house? Does he want to get killed?”
In the final scene of my screen-play, the terrorists burst into the house, take Josh away, try him and execute him. Josh dies and the movie ends.
I wonder if anyone here thinks I’d have a chance of selling this screenplay to a network? Don’t worry, I don’t think that I’d have much of a chance, either.
The story is weird.
Normally, we expect our heroes to get the bad-guy. Or, if they don’t get the bad-guy, we expect the failure in the story to point to some kind of deeper meaning. Even if the meaning is something like the futility of trying to do what’s right or the difficulty of human existence, we want some kind of meaning.
But this story seems, frankly, stupid. If I submitted it as a screen-play to a Hollywood producer, I suspect that the reaction would be “Another illiterate wannabe writer who can’t even tell a coherent story.”
So why did I tell you this story this morning? Because I wanted to try to replicate how stupid and incoherent the story of Jesus’ death would have sounded to most people in his time. For them, as for us - when we are not hearing a story that has already been interpreted for us by 2000 years of Christian tradition - saviors are heroes. Saviors are people who win battles, they are not people who lose. Saviors are people who wield power for good, not people who intentionally give up power and who try to win their battles by serving others. And most of all, savior-heroes do not walk willingly to their deaths.
There are numerous examples in the various Gospels of Jesus demonstrating an approach to power that is very different from the “worldly” view of power. When the disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be the greatest, Jesus told them that it was the least of this world who would be first in his Kingdom. When Jesus, Peter, James and John met Moses and Elijah on the mountain at the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to stay in that powerful and exalted place, but Jesus sent the disciples back down the mountain to serve his people. When the Roman soldiers were coming to get him, Jesus chose service over his own life. Not just the service of the Last Supper or the foot washing or his teaching, but the service of crucifixion.
From God’s perspective, there is something about service that is important to the story of salvation.
God Serves Us
The title of this sermon is “The Servant King” so you might have expected a sermon about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, how he served them in the hours before his crucifixion and how we should serve others too. Those are good ideas and I agree with all of them!
And tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we remember those who died in service to their country. So you could also have expected a sermon calling to mind our gratitude for the very real sacrifices made by everyone who has ever given up their life in service to their country. That’s also a good idea, which I agree with wholeheartedly, too!
But it seems to me that if Jesus the Messiah, King of King and Lord of Lords, was willing to be the Servant King, that there must be something in the idea of “service” that is central to who God is. There must be something in the concept of “service” that is central to the Gospel and to his Kingdom.
This morning’s reading from Romans brings home this idea when it says, in effect, that most people would find it difficult at crunch-time to die for someone within their own family or their own circle but that God was willing to die even for those who are outside his circle, for those who don’t know him, in order to give them the possibility of reconciliation with him.
So the first thing I want to do is to remind you that, in Christ the Servant King, God has served us. Hopefully, this isn’t a new piece of information for any of us. But sometimes we need to stop and meditate on the things we already know in order to carry the benefits forward into our daily lives.
In Christ the Servant King, God served us. When you stop to think about that, that’s really an awesome and amazing thing!
Martin Luther said that Jesus ultimate service to us was to gain victory over sin, death and the power of evil. Jesus conquered death not by destroying it with force, but rather by facing death. He conquered death by going through it and coming out the other side. In doing this, Jesus trusted that the character of God the Father was a character of Resurrection and Creation rather than a character of death and destruction and that resurrection would be the ultimate outcome of his death.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses the analogy of Jesus as a pioneer of salvation: Jesus forged the way through death to resurrection and, by making a path for us, made resurrection, salvation and reconciliation with God possible for us too.
Jesus served us. God serves us. The One who existed before the beginning of time who created everything out of nothing. the one who knew us in our mother’s womb who intentionally created me, who intentionally created you…He serves us.
For me, what is even more mind-boggling about the fact that Jesus died and rose again for me is that God wanted to do this. And if the Gospel of John is to be believed (John 1), God wanted to do this before the beginning of time.
So my first piece of good news this morning is: “God serves us”.
Service is Costly
But the thing about service is that it is costly.
Those who know me know that, for the last ten years or so, I’ve enjoyed discussing Christian theology on the internet. One of my internet acquaintances is a man who just retired this year after many years serving as a Chaplain in the British army. He told me that currently those people who are serving in the British armed forces are the most decorated soldiers since the Second World War.
And he was quick to emphasize that the British army has not “dumbed down” its service metals: these men and women are the most decorated soldiers since the second world war because they have faced the most harrowing combat situations since that time.
Now obviously, the US experience since WWII is somewhat different than Britain’s but I doubt that the combat conditions for current American soldiers is significantly different than for the British forces. I suspect that many of us may know of at least one person who has been deployed to a combat zone at least two or three times. And while many of us probably have a vague idea of what kind of a sacrifice this sort of experience must be, I suspect that those of us who haven’t had it probably can’t even begin to appreciate the enormity of it.
In the same way, I doubt that we can truly appreciate the enormity of God’s suffering as he reached out to reconcile us to him through Jesus.
And I also doubt that we appreciate how costly the sins of humanity continue to be to God as works through his faithful people to bring his Kingdom to fruition.
I believe that God works continually to bring justice and truth into the world, and that when God focuses on justice, his focus is restorative rather than punitive. God is not interested in bringing about the Kingdom by punishment, but rather in bringing about the Kingdom through restoration of those people and situations that have gone wrong.
But justice through restoration is far more costly than justice through punishment. Restorative justice requires forgiveness on the part of the one who is wronged and it requires the one who is wronged to let go.
The cost of restorative justice is borne by the one who is wronged, which is why many people will object that restorative justice is not justice at all.
And, believe me, I do not say this glibly or lightly. My purpose here is not to lightly tell you to forgive someone who has done a gross injustice to you or to suggest that it is an easy thing to do. My purpose here is rather to underline the pain, the difficulty and the costliness of coming to the point of being able to extend such enormous forgiveness. And when you can extend that forgiveness – IF you can – it is the ultimate service to the one who has wronged you as well as to others around you. It is the ultimate act of grace. And the person who you forgive is free and so are you.
That kind of difficult and costly forgiveness is what God does for us. As individual human beings and as societies, it often seems that we humans are engaged in an all-out effort to mess up God’s efforts to bring about his Kingdom. (That effort we put into messing up the coming of God’s Kingdom is called “sin”)
But, because of the service that Christ rendered on the cross, God forgives us over and over. Over and over, God takes us back into relationship with him.
And all of that is costly. My second point: Service is costly
Service builds Relationships
But it is ultimately the costly service that Christ rendered to humanity that makes a relationship between us and God possible. And it’s Christ’s service that also makes it possible for us to build relationships with each other.
That’s my third point for this morning: service builds relationships and so service is ultimately redemptive and restorative.
In serving us by dying and rising again, Jesus made it possible for all human beings to have a relationship with God. In ways that we don’t fully understand and never will this side of eternity, Jesus’ death reconciled us with God. His death forged the existence of forgiveness, reconciliation and a deep peace (Shalom) into the very fabric of creation.
As Christians, we believe that having a relationship with God in Christ is fundamental to being a Christian. And we also proclaim the Good News that God wants to have a relationship with every person who he ever created. And I think it is also logical to assume that God wants us to be connected in relationship to each other – to other human beings - as well as to him.
And service, I think it might be argued, is the ultimate expression of relationship. Because when we do acts of service, we are not asking the question “What can this relationship do for me?” but rather “What can I do for this relationship?” When we serve, we are looking outside ourselves. We are putting the needs of others before our own wants.
Service is an expression of the kind of self-giving love that Christians have always claimed is at the heart of the Gospel.
Those who have died for the sake of their country rendered a very real service to their country. But, ultimately, the Kingdom of God will not be built through war; rather it will be built through peace – God’s deep peace of Shalom that makes everything whole. The Kingdom of God will be built not through service to one group of human beings as it wages war against another group. Rather the Kingdom will be built through the Gospel understanding that Christians are called to serve all people just as Christ died that all might be saved.
Memorial Day originally began as a commemoration of the lives of those who died in the Civil War. About 617,000 individuals, which is about the same number of dead as all other American wars combined. And the date for the celebration of this holiday was originally set near the date of the reunification of the Union.
Whether or not it was intended to be a Christian gesture, I think that such a date indicates some understanding that God does not take sides in our human games of unforgiveness and non-reconciliation. If we are ever tempted to believe that God does not weep for the death of our enemies, we might ask ourselves the question “Which American lives did God fail to weep for in the Civil War?”
From God’s perspective, true service is not the kind of service that prefers one side over another. The foot-washing was more than just service to Jesus disciples, it was also an act of service to the entire world. Jesus served all of humanity because he trusted in God enough to understand that the way to conquer death was to be crucified and walk through death to resurrection.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I pray that we will remember all those who gave up their lives in service to their countries. For those of us who have never had the experience of combat, I hope that we take its dangers and sacrifices seriously enough to be thankful to God for people who put their lives on the line in this way.
Although Memorial Day was originally supposed to be a holiday that commemorated those who have died, I think it is nonetheless also appropriate to also say “thank you” those who are currently serving their country; say thank you to them as well as saying “thank you” to God for them.
But I also pray this morning for peace and for the coming of the Kingdom of God. I pray that, as Christian people, we remember that peace (Shalom) rather than war will be a feature of God’s Kingdom. And service, self-giving and forgiveness are the hallmarks of God’s great Shalom.
And I pray that the peace that passes all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Christ. Amen.