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Memorial Day Weekend 2018
May 27, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: John 3:16

What does it mean to believe in something so fiercely you’re willing to die for it?  What does it mean to believe so deeply in Jesus Christ you’re no longer afraid of death?

Powerpoint slide about the Rev. John MuhlenbergIn January of 1776, as the skirmish at Lexington and Concord had mushroomed into a full blow rebellion, the Rev. John Muhlenberg, pastor of the Lutheran church in Woodstock, VA, stood in the pulpit preaching from Ecclesiastes.  “there is a time to love,” he famously thundered, “and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace.  And this is the time for war.”  He then removed his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Continental Army officer.  A war drum rolled outside and Rev. Muhlenberg marched down the aisle, inviting the men of the congregation to follow. 

Powerpoint slide about the Rev. John RosbrughA year later, the Rev. John Rosbrugh, a pastor of multiple congregations in New Jersey, formed a company of men from his congregation. He accompanied them as chaplain.  On January 2nd they entered, and lost, a battle with the British in nearby Trenton.  The British took Rev. Rosbrugh prisoner and, upon learning he was a Presbyterian minister, brutally killed him on the spot.

What does it mean to believe in something so fiercely you’re willing to die for it?  What does it mean to believe so deeply in Jesus Christ you’re no longer afraid of death?

View of pulpit at Old South Presbyterian Church, Newburyport MAOn the wall next to the pulpit of Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport Massachusetts hangs a plaque mentioning George Washington’s visit to the church in the 1790’s.  The same plaque boasts of the mustering of the city’s civil war regiment seventy years later.  The Civil War split the Presbyterian Church down the middle.  Preachers both north and south called men to pick up arms and fight for – in the case of the south, their God ordained freedom to enslave; in the case of the north the God ordained freedom of those held in slavery.  Julia Ward Howe, not a Presbyterian but close enough, captures this sentiment in her Battle Hymn of the Republic

Powerpoint slide about Julia Ward HoweIn the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make us holy, let us die to make men free
While God is marching on

 Christ died for us, therefore we are called to die for others.  Christ made the ultimate sacrifice so we could be free from the wages of sin and death.  Because of God’s promise of resurrection we are not to be afraid of death.  Therefore we’re called to march into the fray, make the ultimate sacrifice in service to God’s cause, his kingdom, a kingdom embodied by our nation, defined by our laws, defended by our soldiers, agents of divine justice against our evil, ungodly foes.

What does it mean to believe in something so fiercely you’re willing to die for it?  What does it mean to believe so deeply in Jesus Christ you’re no longer afraid of death?

Powerpoint slide about the Confession of 1967Fast forward a century.  The great moral victory of World War II fades as we slog through the cold war and its unwinnable Asian conflicts.  The great Presbyterian general turned President Dwight Eisenhower becomes a leading voice for peace.  The Presbyterian Church approves a new confession focused on the church’s work toward reconciliation. 

“The church, in its own life,” the confession states, “is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and commend to the nations … the search for cooperation and peace … even at risk to national security.  The church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ.”

Powerpoint slide about Joseph & Michael HoferIn 1918, as the United States was entering the first World War, Joseph and Michael Hofer were drafted along with other men from their North Dakota community.  Unlike the others, Joseph and Michael were Hutterites, theological cousins of the Mennonites who believed Christians should place their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his call to love our enemies above duty to country.  Upon their refusal to serve, the army arrested them, dragged them from prison to prison, threw them in basement dungeons, denied them food, left them outside in freezing weather.  They died in prison at Fort Levenworth, two of the 116,000 Americans who died in World War I.[1]

What does it mean to believe in something so fiercely you’re willing to die for it?  What does it mean to believe so deeply in Jesus Christ you’re no longer afraid of death?

Powerpoint slide about Chaplain John EstesOne more story.  Its just another fall day, in Baghdad in 2007.  A platoon of American soldiers disgorges from Humvees to patrol a Baghdad neighborhood.  As the soldiers get into formation, guns at the ready, one stands out.  He carries no weapon.  The unarmed soldier is Captain Ron Eastes.  A devout Presbyterian, Ron enlisted in the 82nd Airborne in the 1990’s but felt called to fight deeper battles and serve in a different way.  He left active service, went to seminary, became ordained as a minister and returned to his unit as a chaplain.  He now follows in the tradition of John Rosbrough fighting to protect his men from the spiritual horrors of living on the front lines of hell, a battle in which a rifle is of little use.

Later Captain Eastes watches in the command center as soldiers from his unit capture a sniper suspected of wounding an American officer.  They bring the sniper back, throw him into a cell. Captain Eastes goes over and speaks calmly to the young, obviously agitated soldier assigned to guard the prisoner.  In war evil is only one wrong action away.[2]

What does it mean to believe in something so fiercely you’re willing to die for it?  What does it mean to believe so deeply in Jesus Christ you’re no longer afraid of death?

 

[1] www.martyrstories.org

[2] Presbyterian Pastor Patrols with his Flock of Soldiers, Christian Science Monitor, 11/28/2007.