What follows is a sermon due to be delivered at Trinity Methodist Church, Newlyn on Remembrance Sunday 2016. It deals not only with the issue of war and remembrance but also the recent American election, and more particularly the campaign that preceded it. The thoughts contained are for the people of the church and their role in society, but they may have some relevance for people of goodwill who have no faith or faith other than Christian in consideration of what it might be to be “great” as an individual or as a nation.
Well, we have a new so called leader of the free world. If you’ve been anywhere near me over the last months, you will know that the American election result is not something I welcome. I was no fan of Clinton, but Trump’s victory fills me with horror. Tuesday night’s knot of anxiety turned into a Wednesday morning feeling of nausea as I woke to news of Trump’s impending victory. Now, Mr Trump has said that he wishes to be a President for all Americans. A man who denigrated women, the disabled, Mexicans and Muslims during the campaign has his work cut out. Nevertheless, Trump is President and we will pray later for him, America and the wider world.
For now, I offer a response to the campaign as much as the result. I have seen elections won by people I wouldn’t have voted for at home and abroad for many years now, and never felt what I feel today. This campaign and perhaps, too, this victory, are, I believe, symptoms of the coarsening and polarisation of the political realm not confined to America but evident globally. Darkness is increasingly apparent in our dealings one with another socially and politically and that cannot bode well for peace and justice.
My first reaction on Wednesday morning was to reach for those words of John’s gospel where the evangelist assures us in the prologue to his gospel that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is good news, and it is news to which we must hold fast. I was also led to quote Martin Luther King, Jnr who fought in his day such a darkness as I fear we face again in ours.
He said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Hope, however, is not a denial of reality and this Remembrance Sunday morning we remember the millions of men and women who have given their lives in the cause of hope, who gave their lives in pursuance of the light. As we do we must acknowledge that not all the conflicts into which we send our military are just in a way understood by the churches’ just war doctrines; they may not be just as defined by any secular understanding and they may also represent the failure of the human imagination in that we cannot find ways less wasteful of human life to solve our problems. But, at the same time, we can give thanks that there are those brave and ready enough to put themselves in harm’s way for others. In that I would include those whose conscience or religious beliefs prevent them killing but who still serve. I think of people like the American Desmond T. Doss who died in 2006. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, was guided all his years by a framed poster of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer that his father bought. It depicted Cain holding a club with the slain Abel beneath him. “And when I looked at that picture, I came to the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ said Doss. “I wondered, how in the world could a brother do such a thing? It put a horror in my heart of just killing, and as a result I took it personally: ‘Desmond, if you love me, you won’t kill.’ ”
Following his draft in 1942, and given conscientious objector status having declined to bear arms because of his religious principles, Desmond Doss became a medic, the only way he could adhere to the Sixth Commandment as well as the Fourth, to honour the Sabbath. Seventh-day Adventists consider Saturday the Sabbath, but Desmond felt he could serve as a medic seven days a week since, as he put it, “Christ healed on the Sabbath.” While training, Private Doss faced harassment from fellow soldiers for his devotion to prayer and his refusal to handle weapons or work on the Sabbath. At one point, he recalled, an officer sought to have him discharged on the ground of mental illness.
After service in Guam and the Philippines, Private Doss was accompanying troops in the battle for a 400-foot-high ridge on Okinawa, on Saturday, May 5 — his Sabbath — when the Japanese counterattacked. Many of the Americans were driven off the ridge, but wounded soldiers were stranded there. Private Doss remained with the wounded, and, refusing to seek cover, carried them, one by one, in the face of enemy fire to a tree from which he lowered them on a rope-supported litter he had devised, to a safe spot 35 feet below the ridgetop. After engaging in additional rescue efforts under fire over the next two weeks, Private Doss was wounded by a grenade that riddled him with shrapnel. He tended his injuries alone for five hours, rather than have another medic emerge from cover to help him. While he was finally being carried off on a litter, he spotted a soldier who seemed worse off. He leaped off the litter, directing his aid men to help the other soldier.
Soon after that, Japanese fire hit him, and he suffered a compound arm fracture. He bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint, evidently the closest he ever came to handling a weapon, and crawled 300 yards to an aid station.
In 1945, President Harry S. Truman presented him with the Medal of Honour for his actions on Okinawa. The citation credited him with saving 75 soldiers on that ridge, but he later said that the number was probably closer to 50. Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive such recognition.
In war time as in peace there are different ways of serving. But in war and peace, we must ask ourselves what is the cause we are serving, to what end are our efforts directed? Donald Trump’s slogan for the election was “Make America Great Again.” An interesting slogan given that the United States has the biggest economy and the most powerful army in the world, and one that was echoed in the European election campaign by people who wanted to put the “Great” back in Great Britain. What on earth might these slogans mean? Well, as a clue to what Trump meant he has pledged to defend America’s Christian heritage. Although it wasn’t clear during the campaign that he was overly familiar with what being Christian meant, let’s ourselves consider greatness in the Christian story.
It may be that the words we heard from Matthew’s gospel (see below) represent not the actual words of Jesus but a situation in the early church where questions of leadership had arisen.
In this incident, the writer illustrates what it is to be great in a Christ-like way: “You are not to Lord it over others like non-Christians. No, if you want to become great you will find greatness in service, indeed in slavery.” Servants are not usually accorded honour in modern day life; indeed people in the service industry, particularly people like hotel chambermaids and cleaners are these days often low paid migrant workers, the sort unwelcome to many in British and American society, the sort Trump targeted particularly. Yet in Matthew’s gospel the Christian way is to imitate them. Indeed the Greek word for servant Matthew uses, diakonos, from which we get our word deacon, may be translated as waiter, as one who serves food and drink. It seems rare to be served a coffee in the UK these days by someone British born; they are more likely again migrant workers. It is these we are to emulate. More than that, we are to be slaves.
Slaves, again, are people without status and yet, as Strong’s commentary says of the Greek word doulos translated slave, it “is used with the highest dignity in the NT – namely, of believers who willingly live under Christ’s authority as His devoted followers.”
Unless Christian faith is a purely personal thing – and that wouldn’t be true to the Methodist tradition – then we must consider how the greatness of service translates into the political sphere. At the very least it must mean using a nation’s wealth, skills, resources in the service of all and not merely a powerful elite, and using them also for the benefit of others beyond our lands.
Unless that is so, we cannot claim to be a Christian country, and our Christian heritage or the heritage that Trump promises to protect in the US is no more than a habit among some of churchgoing and the fact of some distinctive buildings dotted around our communities.
As I considered this matter, it was Martin Luther King Jnr again who provided what struck me as a decent description of a society which celebrates service of others as the mark of greatness in dealings internal and external. King said, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” That seems to me to be the sort of society the church must work to achieve and any society that claims to be Christian must do the same. If we are not building just societies that can live with their consciences, then the sacrifices of men and women in all our wars will be in vain. So, as we continue to play our part in our communities, as we continue, in our own ways to serve others, and to try to influence our communities for good, “may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 (NLT) Amen.
Matthew 20: 20-28 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.’ When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’