It was William Shakespeare who said, “Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them.
There was a cruise ship just putting out to sea, a young woman fell overboard, and was heard to scream that she couldn’t swim.
Seconds later, to the astonishment of all present, an elderly man of over seventy went hurtling after her, and eventually, amid rousing cheers, brought her to safety.
Such was the admiration felt for the old man’s heroism that a banquet was held in his honor at which the Captain of the ship made a speech. “Do you have anything you’d like to say to us?” he asked the old man.
“Yes! Who pushed me?”
This coming Wednesday is Remembrance Day when we gather to honor the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in several wars – not just their physical lives but in many cases their emotional and spiritual lives.
It is important that we reflect on their dedication and sacrifice, especially in the light of another smooth and joyful transfer of power in Ottawa. Aware, as we are, of what a priviledge to live in a country where this can happen in that way, we need to remember that this gift of freedom was purchased at a high cost, with the lives of many women and men, in the forces and outside of them.
It was probably 30 or so years ago, I was at a cenotaph on Remembrance Day. It was a dismal, cold day, and the crowd was small. I found myself standing beside a man I vaguely knew – his name was Dietrich, a recent immigrant from Germany. During the sound of the last post, I happened to glance in his direction and noticed that he was crying.
When the service was over, I said to Dietrich. “I’m cold, and I think you must be too. Would you like a cup of coffee?” So we adjourned to a nearby café.
After a half hour or so of conversation, we were relaxed enough that I could ask him about the tears at the cenotaph. There was a long silence and then very quietly. “It was such a waste. Such a terrible waste.” Dietrich, I discovered, had been a prisoner of war in Canada, and then shipped back to Germany at wars end. “My home had been in Dresden,” he said. “There was nothing left.” More than 1200 bombers flattened the city of Dresden 3 months before the end of the war, killing 25 thousand people, much as the city of Coventry, in England had been devastated by repeated bombings killing hundreds of others. Carpet bombing they called it. Only a few of the casualties were military personnel.
So Dietrich had returned home to find his entire neighbourhood flattened, and all his family, friends, everybody he knew, was dead.
Then, with a bit of anger in his voice, he said to me, “We knew nothing about why we were fighting in this war. We were conscripted and so we went and many of us died, and the rest of us wished we had died too. We knew nothing about what Hitler had done to the Jews or homosexuals or gypsies and all the others. It was such a waste. Such a terrible waste.”
I told Dietrich about my father. Dad was too old to join the military in the Second World War, but during the last several years of the war we lived in Ottawa where dad was part of the censorship corps. Dad was fluent in three languages – English of course, but also in High German and Low German. So his job was censoring the mail going back and forth between people in Germany and prisoners of war being held in Canada. Prisoners like Dietrich.
And I remember Dad saying the same kind of thing. “This is such a waste. War is a loser’s game. Nobody has ever won a war. And the people writing the letters I censor have no idea what it is about. No idea at all.”
And it’s always been this way. At least since humanity has graduated from small tribal skirmishes, nobody has ever won a war. There may be victors, but no real winners.
In medieval wars, far more people died of typhoid, dysentery, starvation –than were ever killed in actual battle. Even in the American Civil War, for every three soldiers that died in battle, five soldiers died of disease.
The losers then, as always, were the people at the bottom of the social ladder on both sides of the battle line. If they survived the battle, they did not survive the devastation of crops, cattle, houses, everything. In the complicated battle going on in Syria, the big losers are the ordinary folks who watching their land being devastated. Ruined.
When we honor the sacrifice of those who suffered for us, we must be careful that in the process we do not glamorize war, or see it as any kind of a solution to the problems of humanity. Yes, sometimes war is the only option available. But whenever people resort to violence, it’s an admission of defeat.
This tendency to glamorize war, to turn it into something exciting and almost fun, has become a real and present danger in our technological age, where the person who presses the button to do the killing is in no danger and a thousand miles away from the spot where the missile does it’s terrible work. It’s almost like a computer game.
Plain and simple, war is hell. Whether it is fought with primitive clubs or sophisticated drones. War is hell.
That takes nothing away from the courage and the sacrifice we honour here this morning. In fact, their heroism shines more brightly because we know it happened in the cold and dirt and slime and stink of death. Not at all the way it is portrayed in the movies and on TV.
And let’s not forget that it is not only the men and women in uniform who we honour. In any war, there are thousands who made sacrifices, big and small – who showed courage and generosity even though their physical lives may not have been in danger.
There are many kinds of heroes. Many examples of courage. We publically honor those who perform dramatic rescues from fire, drowning, and other dangers. As we should.
But in this Remembrance Day service we need to take time to honor the quiet heroes. Their numbers and their courage are far greater than any of us imagine. There are untold stories of women and men who have given up lucrative careers to follow a path of service and caring. Sometimes this has been to care for a child with special needs. Sometimes to spend a lifetime in public service. There are hundreds and hundreds of capable men and women who have given up lucrative, prestigious careers to undertake various kinds of Christian ministry.
You may remember Jim and Jean Strathdee who led worship with us here about a year or so ago. Jim Strathdee has written many songs that we often sing here in church, but there’s one song that only Jim can sing. It’s about a time when Jim, as a child, was desperately ill, and the doctors had given up hope. But his father stayed at his side, day after night after day, and in the song Jim sings of the “fierce love that drove away” the angel of death.
That kind of fierce love is the kind of deeply courageous love that is lived over a lifetime, not in one spectacular moment, and it happens in thousands of unspectacular ways. Jim and Jean Strathdee have lived their lives in a fierce love for their fellow humans in their struggles for social justice – in their work with the church – in their love for their children, one of whom was bi-polar and eventually took his own life.
It’s the fierce love we heard about in the gospel reading. Jesus is in the temple with his friends, and they see the high-rollers making big speeches, offering loud and elaborate prayers, making high profile donations to the temple treasury. But then Jesus points to a tiny, elderly lady, a widow who puts a small coin in the offering. Those guys with their speeches and prayers and elaborate gifts – Jesus points to them and says, “Look. They’ve got their name in the papers. They’re interviewed on TV. They’ve got what they were looking for. They gave because they had lots to give, and lots of money left over. But this widow tries not to be noticed. She puts a tiny coin in the offering. She gave all she had. And that’s the kind of sacrificial giving, the fierce love that God celebrates.”
That kind of giving takes courage. That kind of giver is a hero.
There’s the story about a wealthy man who stood up in church to give his testimony. “When I was a young man, I came to this church because I had no place to go. No job. No prospects. I was desperate. I had ten dollars in my pocket. That’s all the money I had. And I decided to trust God. I trusted God, and I put the whole ten dollar bill in the offering plate. Now I am a wealthy man. I own several large companies. In fact, I am a multi-millionaire. At it’s all because that Sunday morning in church, I trusted God, and gave God everything I had.”
The man felt a tug on his sleeve. He turned around to see an elderly lady who looked him in the eye, smiled and said, “I dare you to do it again.”
Sacrificial giving. Courageous giving. Heroic giving. It’s not about how much you give, it’s about how much you have left after you give.
We heard another love story in the lectionary readings this morning. Or at least parts of it. It was the story of two heroic women, Ruth and Naomi.
The story takes place in Bethlehem, several hundred years before Jesus was born there. Naomi and her husband and their two sons are facing a crises. They are farmers, but there has been a drought for years, and they are starving. In desperation, they decide to move to Moab, a neighbouring country, because they hear the crops are growing there.
Things go well in Moab for a while. The two sons get married. All seems to be well. But then Naomi’s husband dies. The next thing she knows, both her sons die.
So now you have three widows in crises. There was no such thing as a social safety net in those days. In fact, widows had no means of surviving at all. A woman survived because of who owned her. A woman was owned by her father, who could give her away in marriage to a man who then owned her. If her husband died, one of his brothers should take her as his wife whether or not he already had a wife or two or three. But in the case of Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, there was no such brother. These women were out on their own.
What to do. Naomi decided she had to go back to Bethlehem where she at least had some relatives. She told her two daughters-in-law to go back to their families, but one of them, Ruth said no. She was loyal to Naomi, and she would go with her to Bethlehem. Naomi tries to discourage her, but Ruth is adamant. And in the Bible story, she makes this beautiful commitment speech. It’s a poem about fierce love, which Bev and I had read at our wedding ceremony 58 years ago.
Where thou goest, I will go.
Where thou dwellest, I will dwell.
Thy people shall be my people
And thy God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
May God do so to me and more also,
If aught but death, part thee and me.
And so they set out for Bethlehem. They walked the whole way. It took weeks. And two women travelling by themselves were totally vulnerable. No police. No one to protect them. They could have been robbed, raped, murdered, and no one would have really cared.
And when they got to Bethlehem, things were not much better. Ruth went out to be a gleaner in the fields during harvest, which means she followed after the folks cutting the grain and tying it into sheaves, and picked up any tiny bits and pieces they left behind.
Still, the situation for the two women is desperate. Finally Naomi has an idea, and sends Ruth out with an elaborate plan to seduce Boaz, a distant relative, to force him to marry her. Now before we look down our long noses at Ruth for this kind of immoral and degrading act, remember that this is an act of desperation. This is plain and simple survival. Boaz could as easily have murdered Ruth as marry her.
Naomi and Ruth were heroes. We can’t even imagine the fierce love it took to do what they did, especially the fierce love of Ruth who went with Naomi to a strange country where she would be a penniless widow and a foreigner.
Ruth and Naomi, and the widow in the temple, have become for us symbols of inspiration for all the heroic women, who down through the ages were powerless and exploited, but who lived lives of deep courage – courage not just for a few brave moments, but courage and a fierce love that had to be lived day by day for a lifetime. They were heroes.
So in this Remembrance service, let’s honor the commitment of those courageous heroes who down through the ages, in heroic war time struggles and quiet, unnoticed dedication, have shown the fierce love that inspires us all on our journeys.