May 29, 2016 “Memorial Day”
Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
In December of 1862, the confederate and union army lined up against each other in a town called Fredericksburg. For four days they fought, and in the midst of the battle was a confederate soldier by the name of Sgt.Richard Kirkland. Sgt. Kirkland was raised in the low country of South Carolina, the son of a farmer, not unlike most of the boys who served. When he enlisted in the confederate army, he enlisted as a private under Captain J.D. Kennedy’s company (E) of the Second South Carolina volunteers, but on the days of Fredricksburg, he was serving under General J. B. Kershaw, who, after the war, would take it upon himself to tell this young man’s story. During the battle of Fredericksburg, the union was taking terrible losses. In the field that lie between the army’s lines lay hundreds of union soldiers who were wounded. As shots continued to ring out across the field, no one was able to go and give them aid, and for a day and a night, they lay there, begging for help, pleading for just a drink of water. And yet, no one ventured into the line of fire to help them. Until Sgt. Kirkland came bounding up the steps to find Gen. Kershaw, asking permission to go into the field, and bring water to those soldiers. According to Kershaw, Sgt. Kirkland said, “General! I can’t stand this. All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water.” With profound anxiety, the General watched as Kirkland stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy. The General will later write, “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “Water, water; for God’s sake, water!” More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering.” (Source: civilwar.org; Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, April, 1880. No. 4.)
Mercy is a precious commodity in the midst of war. The mercy that Sgt. Kirkland showed to those Union soldiers speaks of a depth of mercy that we do not often witness. But we do get another glimpse in our Scripture passage from Luke. The centurion is quite a character in this story. He is part of the Roman occupying force in Israel. He is the conquerer in a conquered land. He is there, in Capernaum, to make sure that the conquered remain that way. And yet, with the piteous cry of his servant, who he shouldn’t care about, not really, battle lines are blurred just for a few moments. Under normal circumstances, the centurion should have gotten a couple of his soldiers to just go and get Jesus. After all, he had no status, no title that would have caused the centurion pause over just commanding an audience with this itinerant preacher. But mercy is not commanded, and on some level, the centurion seems to know this. So he asks the Jewish leaders in the town to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf. “When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’” (v. 4-5) This centurion, due to his prior relationship with the Jews, has demonstrated that he is a man of faith, a philanthropist, a good man of character, and the Jewish leaders do not seem to be surprised that he is going out on a limb for his slave. But these Jewish leaders are just the first envoys that the centurion sends to Jesus. They don’t make it across town to the centurion’s house, until some friends, probably Roman, meet Jesus in the road with a message. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”(v. 6-7)
There’s one thing about this that sticks a bit in our parsing of this passage, and it’s this word “worthy.” According to the Jewish leaders, this Roman occupier is “worthy” of having this miracle performed for him. After all, he has shown himself a man of faith prior to this incident. But the centurion himself claims to be unworthy, just to have Jesus under his roof, most less to have a miracle performed for him. By all accounts, all measures given to us by this world: financial, military, political, even religious, this centurion was “worthy” of all kinds of things, but what does it mean to be worth of mercy?
In this fight we call life, we tend to draw all sorts of “battle lines” between ourselves, battle lines that not only give us identity and tend to tell us who our friends are, but also identity those who are deemed “enemies.” We draw lines between democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals, gays and straights, blacks and whites, rich and poor, native and immigrant, and these are just name a few. I’m sure each of us could come up with a list of our own. And sometimes, in the heat of battle, all we tend to see is the enemy on the other side the wall. But maybe the truth is that between the battle lines lies a great field, and in that field are the cries of those desperate souls who are caught in between the fighting. On this field, we might find a single parent, working 50 hours a week to make ends meet while the other parent skirts child support. We might find a child, struggling to understand what it means to be a boy or a girl. We might find a teenager, contemplating suicide because he’s been called a faggot one too many times to bear, or the girl called a slut from those she thought were her friends. On this field you will find those suffering because of their lack of access to affordable healthcare and dentistry. While the battle rages on, does anyone hear their cries for mercy? From all parts of the field arise fresh cries of “Water, water; for God’s sake, water!” More piteous still the mute appeal of some who can only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering. In the race to defeat the enemy, these cries go unheeded, collateral damage in the theology of “the ends justify the means.”
Was the centurion worthy of Jesus’ help? Well, really, are any of us? Jesus could have been on solid ground to refuse him. After all, in Matthew, when a Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter, he replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 15:24) But Jesus does not refuse him. This Jewish rabbi goes out of his way to help one of the very ones who are occupying his land, and oppressing his people. Across the field of battle, Jesus wanders across to offer water and mercy to those who would do him and his people harm. Sgt. Kirkland risked his own life to offer mercy to those union soldiers on that December day at Fredericksburg. In our own Book of Order, it states that, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301) In these days of church decline, it’s risky to wander off the sidelines to help those who cry out. And while it often seems to us that we are risking our lives to help those who are caught in the middle of these battle lines, but, at least for Sgt. Kirkland, the battle stopped as soldiers on both sides figured out what he was doing. He was out in that field for almost two hours, and he raised his head to find no bullets were flying, no cannons being shot off, no grenades being thrown his way. For just a little while, on a cold December day, the battle stopped, and mercy prevailed. Maybe if God’s church spent more time in the field, the battle would not just stop for a little while, but for a long while. More would come to know the meaning of Christ’s mercy, and while no one might claim they deserved it, or was worthy of it, Jesus might just stand amazed, once again, and say, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” May it be so for God’s church. Amen.
Memorial Day is to remember those soldiers to have already died. Have people submit names of those relatives/loved ones who served this country, and have already passed. During worship, read the names of each one, followed by the chiming of a bell or the lighting of a candle. At the end of all the names, you could have someone play “Taps.”
Give those family members a camouflage stole to wear during the service.
Hymns might include those about mercy, and reliance of God:
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
“There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy”
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (Navy Hymn)
*Call to Worship
Leader: Welcome to God’s house, where all are nurtured and loved!
People: God has loved us, and welcomed us into this holy place
Leader: In this sanctuary, may you find peace and wholeness, rest for the week ahead.
People: May God put a new song in our mouths, so that many will see and put their trust in the Lord!
Leader: Happy are those who put their trust in the Lord!
People: Let all those who seek God rejoice, for the kingdom of God is near!
*Prayer of Confession (Philippians 4)
Holy God, we are citizens of this earthly realm, and we spend lots of time debating and arguing. We are invested in “our side” winning the argument of the day. In this, we miss so much. We miss your call to be citizens of heaven, and we miss those who are suffering in the midst of battle. On this Memorial Day, as we remember those who gave so much for this country, remind us what commitment and sacrifice truly mean. Forgive us for being more loyal to our cause than we are to you. Then, by your mercy, transform us and make us subject to you and your call to peace, justice and righteousness.
*Assurance of Pardon