How often have we been inspired, or at least drawn to the Kleenex Box by stories of great courage. Against all odds, the hero stood unyielding. One, who was initially weak became strong, inspiring all those around him, giving hope when any rescue was well beyond reason.
As children, many of us were fed the required dose of Kipling, usually in the form of The Jungle Book. My father felt the core of Kipling’s message was to be discovered not in comical animals but rather in a courageous soul named Gunga Din. Perhaps you remember the poem. Gunga Din was a small Indian boy whose only job was to carry water into battle to quench the thirst of the mighty warriors. Kipling was quick to identify the disdain the British had for Indians in general and this young man in particular. Yet, through out the battle, this unarmed boy, time and again risked his very being to bring life giving fluids to those who most probably would never see the sun set. The poem ends with an officer of the British Empire eulogizing this Indian slave with the words, “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.” My father would close the book and respond, “That is what heroism is all about.”
I know, each of you has an equally impressive example of courage under fire. We were taught, from birth, to honor heroes and aspire to be heroic. To again quote Kipling,
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or be lied about, but not lie,
Or be hated, but not give to hating.
If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings and not lose your common touch.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
what’s more you’ll be a Man.”
What makes someone courageous? Do we even have an understanding of what that word means? When I read Paul’s words, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” on this Memorial Day I can’t help but think of those thousands of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy over 60 years ago. What inspired them to even think they had a chance of being successful against such overwhelming odds? Their courage could not have originated completely within themselves. Those who had fought in Africa and Italy knew the obstacles of Omaha Beach. Who were these men, those brave brothers? Far too often citizens of death’s gray land are called to untie a political knot that would not yield to the tongue. On June 6th, 1944, farmers, shoe salesmen, fishermen and kids barely 18 believed their countries motives were pure and their leader’s words were true. They fought and they died, because their faith overcame their fear. Just believing in yourself is never quite enough. The quest to be truly heroic begins and often ends beyond our feeble thoughts.
Paul, probably under house arrest, was writing to folks who understood death. Each morning they awakened to the possibility that this would be their final day. How many of us would consider dying for the right to worship as we please? Perhaps that is a difficult question in an age where faith is assumed and seldom challenged. Paul wrote to these soon to be martyrs, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope”. But before giving them this eternal pep talk he began by saying, “since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.” Like those brave men who charged the beaches of Normandy, actions are often predicated on a belief in something beyond ourselves.
How many times can we go into the darkness of the unknown if we do not trust that there will be a tomorrow? How is it possible to see suffering as productive if our faith does not assure us there is hope beyond the moment? When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome he did not say, “Don’t worry, your fears are imagined.” He did not state, “Just believe in Jesus and your life will be spared.” Instead, he reminded them of God’s eternal sacrifice. “Christ was broken, Christ died and yet God lifted Christ up. This same God will be with you.” Courage, originating from a less than holy cause, will drive us mad or leave us broken. So how is it that courage born in brokenness could inspire humanity for 2,000 years? Before Christ died, he brought us water. Before he became king of heaven, he was the servant of humankind. And at his death an officer of the Roman Empire was heard to say, “You’re a better man than I.”
The words of Paul seem so out of place in this modern world. If we are persecuted by anyone it is those who claim to be religious zealots. Today, often our modern day band of brothers and sisters lay bloodied in the sand to protect an empire more powerful than Rome. My father’s generation learned endurance from surviving the depression. When have I ever been broken? How can I appreciate what I have always taken for granted? What have I sacrificed to merit God’s grace?
If we are bold enough to suggest our courage comes from faith, then we must be bold enough to reexamine what we claim to believe. Then, if we are bold enough to declare our brokenness has been overcome by God’s sacrifice, we need to honestly consider the source of our brokenness is our sin. When we pray, “forgive us our sins”, do we specifically have something in mind or are we just repeating well worn words? Perhaps we need to be more focused, more intentional when we pray. Might I suggest the most courageous thing we are ever called to do is admit our brokenness, our sinfulness, as an individual, and as a community and as a nation? Then and only then will we discover if our courage originate from God’s forgiveness or from our misguided depravity?
Paul wrote to people who were slaves to an empire and he gave them hope. Can Paul’s words still hold meaning to those of us who are masters of an empire? Let us return once again to Kipling.
The tumult and the shouting dies,
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands thy ancient sacrifice,
A humble and contrite heart,
Lord God of Host, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – Lest we forget.
We celebrate we are justified by God’s grace. But let us also stand humbled by God’s mercy, “Lest we forget; Lest we forget.”