Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sacrifice and salvation, Nov 8, 2009

Texts: Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Mark 12:28-34

The Greatest Commandment, Jesus says, has two parts: love of God and love of neighbour. This week, while thinking about war and Remembrance Day as well as the Gospel passage from this morning, I wondered about the connection between the Greatest Commandment and salvation.

In his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus models for us the path to salvation; and this path, like the Commandment of Love, can also be seen, I think, in two parts. First, the path to salvation is one where, in the power of the Spirit, we are willing to sacrifice ourselves -- indeed to die -- for love of God and love of neighbour. Second, the path to salvation is also one where, with God's help, we refuse the command to kill when ordered to do so by empire.

Dying for the sake of love; and refusing to kill for the sake of empire. Together, I believe,   they equal salvation. And all the rest is commentary. 

But before the choir sings, I'm afraid that this sermon does offer quite a bit of that long-winded commentary! It ends with two stories that relate to the big anniversaries being celebrated this week. The first comes tomorrow, November 9th, when the world  celebrates the 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall. The second comes on Wed, November 11th, when for the 91st time, we celebrate the end of World War I. The story related to the Berlin Wall comes from Hungary; and the story related to the end of the First World War comes from Germany. Perhaps it is unusual to tell stories from two of Canada's First World War enemies on Remembrance Sunday. But I hope they might help to show some of the links between sacrifice and salvation.

Remembrance Day . . . For much of my life, November the 11th has been a time to mark the sacrifices made by once-young men from a far-off era -- 1914-18 for World War I, 1939-45 for World War II, with perhaps a brief mention of Korea from the early 50s. But during the past eight years, Canada has been engaged in active fighting against the forces of the deposed Taliban government in Afghanistan; and because of this, Remembrance Day has taken on a different colour for many of us.

My mother's father, McKenzie Rutherford, was a veteran of WWI. He was decorated for being wounded as a foot soldier in France in 1915. But other than him and his famous  cousin, Charlie Rutherford, who won the Victoria Cross for his valor at Passchendale,  there were no other people in my immediate family who had experienced war. Except that now, on my mother's side, I have a lot of sons of first cousins who are in the army and who are serving in Afghanistan.

On my father's side, there are farmers, teachers, musicians, and ministers, but no military personnel. My mother's side is different. On her side, the majority of my male cousins are police officers. And their sons, almost to a man, are heading towards military service.

I barely know these sons of my cousins, but my mother does, and she worries about them and prays for them. And this week we join with Canadians everywhere in praying for the young men and women who serve our country at great peril in Afghanistan.

I wish that I had asked my grandfather McKenzie about his experience in WWI, but I was young when he died and I never got the chance. I know that his time in Europe was a disillusioning experience for him, as it was for 10s of millions of others. After spending almost a year in a military hospital in England, McKenzie returned to Canada, but not to the family farm on the north shores of Lake Ontario. Instead he went to Vancouver to recuperate, and to make his fortune. When he died, my older brother and I found a pamphlet from the B.C. Federation of Labour published at war's end in 1918. It was carefully preserved in his library and it was entitled "Who are the Bolsheviks?" It was a pro-communist pamphlet that reflected both the rage and disillusionment of a whole generation who had been sent to be slaughtered in the trenches of Europe; as well as their brief and illusory hope that the anti-war Bolshevik government in Russia would create a path to a better world.

Grandpa eventually grew tired of city life. He returned to Ontario to buy a farm, marry a schoolteacher, raise a family, and serve as an elder in church. But 50 years after the War, when my parents took him to Expo 67 in Montreal, the only pavilion he wanted to see was the huge, ugly and boring one of the Soviet Union. Perhaps some of his youthful rage at the British Empire, which had led his comrades to their deaths and left him wounded; and some of his misguided hope in the Soviets still flickered within him?

Every war is different, I suppose. The Second World War, for instance, seems quite different from the First, mostly because of the horror of the Nazi regime. World War I, on the other hand, seems to me to be the model of a perfectly useless war. Now I suppose that some might still argue that it too was a just war -- with probably the same arguments used whether the case was made in favour of the Allies -- the British, French, Russian, Italian, and Japanese empires; or if the case was made in favour of the Central Powers -- the German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish empires. But most scholars agree that the war arose from the frustration of the German Empire as it vaulted ahead of its European neighbours in industry, but found its colonial ambitions cut off because almost the entire world had already been colonized by Britain.

The scale of the First World War is staggering. More than 70 million men mobilized; 10 million soldiers killed; and five million civilians killed. More than 60,000 Canadian soldiers were killed in four years of fighting, which is a shocking number especially when you consider that there were fewer than 10 million Canadians at the time. Compare this number to just under 150 Canadians killed in eight years in Afghanistan.

Despite today's judgment of the First World War as one fought for colonies in Africa and Asia between the various "Christian" European empires, I am sure that when my grandfather enlisted, he did so for the best of motives. His King and Emperor, George the V, told him it was the right thing to do. His Prime Minister and elected government said the same. Even his church told him it was his sacred duty to fight the Germans, Hungarians, and Turks. All of his friends were going. It was a chance to see Europe and gain some glory. It was supposed to be over quickly. Why wouldn't he go?

The same could be said about the millions of soldiers on the enemy side. Obviously their various emperors and parliaments also urged on their troops. And the churches on both sides gave their blessings to the slaughter: Lutherans in Germany, Catholics in Austro-Hungary, and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria and Serbia for the Central Powers; Anglicans in England, Presbyterians in Scotland, Orthodox Christians in Russia, and Catholics in France and Italy for the Allies. 100 years ago, almost all churches were state establishments, and church and empire were often one.

So 70 million men, my Grandfather among them, went to the trenches with the best of intentions to slaughter their neighbours and be slaughtered by them, all this with the blessings of the church ringing in their ears. It was supposed to a sacred moment -- and the poor, fear-filled and dying soldiers did make it sacred by sacrificing their youth, their health and their lives for the cause of God and Empire.

The words sacrifice and sacred share the same root in the Latin word sacer. It means holy. To mark the things that we value as sacred, we sacrifice. And so, for the past 91 years, the celebration of the end of the First World War each November 11th has been for many people the most sacred moment on the calendar. And each year, with great feeling, we say, "Lest we forget."

Except some things, I think, we have forgotten, which leads to the first story. Why did the war end on November 11th, 1918? Well, the simple answer is that after four years of slaughter and stalemate, the Allies had finally defeated the Central Powers. The war had been a stalemate until the United States, encouraged by the overthrow of the hated Czar, Nicholas II, in Russia in March 1917, entered the war on the side of the Allies the next month.

By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Serbians, then the Bulgarians, and finally the Turks surrendered to the Allies. Throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. President seeking honourable terms for an armistice. But Wilson was a democratic idealist. Unlike the empires fighting in the war, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy. Wilson insisted that the Kaiser -- who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of both King George V and the deposed Czarina Alexandra of Russia -- that he abdicate as a condition for peace. But abdication was not acceptable to the German military, so on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch another submarine and battleship attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. But this time, the elite sailors of the German fleet said, "No! We refuse to kill any more Canadian, or British, or French, or American sailors. We won't go."

Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 7th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution, and the German Socialist Party took power. It was the socialists who then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.

Now without the rebellion of the sailors and subsequent revolution that swept the Kaiser and his government from power, World War I would still have ended. But without it, many more thousands would have died, and the war might have limped on until December or January, in which case the 11th hour of the 11 month of each year would not have the sacred significance it has held for us these past 91 years.

After years of obedience to church and empire and after more than one million German deaths, the German sailors said, "Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war." They had realized that their English, French, Canadian, Russian, and American foes were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours, and as neighbours, they deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, who along with his government and his church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In essence, these German rebels received their own salvation in that moment of rebellion and led the world a huge step toward peace and  salvation as well . . .

As for the Berlin Wall, there are probably a thousand reasons why it and the Iron Curtain finally crumbled 20 years ago. But a big part of it was the unwillingness of ordinary East Germans, Poles, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians to obey any longer the military orders of the Communist dictators. The brief story I will tell, and which I read in the newspaper this week, comes from 20 years ago in Hungary on August 19th.

In the summer of 1989, Communist Hungary had for the first time held a multi-party election. One of the first acts of the new more liberal Hungarian government was to open its border across the Danube River to its former partner, Austria. This renewed right to travel was a tremendous gain for Hungarians. But people in East Germany, who had been separated from their countrymen in West Germany since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, started traveling to Hungary to see if they could make it to West Germany via Austria. 

On August 19, 1989, anti-Communist activists in Hungary and Germany organized a peace picnic on the Austrian border. After it, Hungarian and German alike planned to walk across the bridge to Austria. The Hungarian border guard in charge of maintaining that bridge, Bella Arpad, was taken aback when he saw 150 east Germans approaching the bridge. His clear orders were to have his men shoot to kill if the marchers didn't stop.

But in an instant, he decided to disobey those orders, and he had his men stand down. The picnickers made it to Austria, and 10s of thousands of East Germans started traveling the long road down to Hungary to make the roundabout trip back to family and friends in the West. It was the first breach in the Iron Curtain in 45 years, and it soon unleashed a flood of protests in Leipzig and Berlin, which brought the whole thing down by November 9th, 1989.

Bella Arpad might have been jailed or killed for his disobedience; but on that day he decided that he would rather be punished or even die than kill for empire. He decided to sacrifice his career and potentially his life so that he could properly love his neighbours -- the East German peace activists. Today, Bella Arpad is a hero, as are the millions of eastern Europeans who organized, rallied, marched and protested until the Wall came down, and 45 years of Cold War quickly ended.

So what do these two anniversaries -- the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of World War One -- have to do with Jesus?

All wars, I believe, see the re-enactment of the Christ story over and over again. Ordinary soldiers living in poverty and fear, find the courage of the Spirit to sacrifice themselves for their comrades and for the country that they love. Whether their sacrifices are in a war that others later judge to have been "just" or "unjust," I am sure that all soldiers go to battle with the same good intentions as did my grandfather. In that sense, their sacrifices have been for love, and none of them have been in vain.

Jesus lived in a time not so different from that World War I. Like everyone in Palestine, he lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire. He stood up to the religious leaders who collaborated with that empire, and he blazed a path of non-violent resistance to it. He could have stayed away Jerusalem, but he did not even though he knew it would mean sacrificing his life. Because he was willing to die for his friends, Jesus was raised to new life; and he showed that path for all of us to follow.

Every Sunday, we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, and with the Spirit's help, we participate in his resurrected life by trying to follow him on the path towards Jerusalem and the cross.

This Wednesday, when we remember the sacrifice of our fallen Canadian heroes in two world wars, in Korea, and now in Afghanistan, I suggest that we might also remember the path of love and sacrifice taken by German sailors in 1918 and by eastern European rebels in 1989. In their own way, they also model for us for the path of being willing to die for love of neighbour and refusing to kill for empire. Their actions marked their own encounter with God's Spirit and with salvation; and with Grace, their actions also moved this broken world a little closer to its salvation as well.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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