Who Stands For Us?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Reading: Romans 8:31-39
We are here today, not by accident, or simple fortune, good or bad. We are here today to recognise those who made sacrifices. We gather today not with a sense that only this moment matters, but that this moment is lived because of those who have lived before us. We are gathered here today because we recognise that we stand on the shoulders, the lives, and the tombs of those who have gone before. We come in humility, we come in prayer, and we come in faith.
We do not come here to relive the past or to live in the past, but that we might live in the present, having learned from the past and having seen the hand that was played for us to live now. We are here because of sacrifices that were made. We do so in the spirit of the very faith that calls us into this place. We do so in the call of our text from the book of Romans. In it there is a line that is often overlooked in the magnificent poetry about the sacrifice of Christ and the power of eternal victory of Christ’s love: “For your sake,” wrote Paul, “we face death all day long. We are as sheep to be slaughtered.”
He was, of course quoting from Psalm 44:22, and originally that psalm was a rendition, an account of the people of Israel’s courage when they left Egypt. It was those who paid the price, who faced death, who walked from the constraints and oppression of Egypt into a new land. It is the recognition of those who gave their lives for the sake of freedom and the promised land. It’s a powerful psalm.
The Apostle Paul now applies it to himself, to those also in prison for their faith, under the power of the Romans. The Apostle Paul was commending to those who were in the church in Rome, their sacrifice and willingness to lay down their lives for the faith. “For your sake,” he writes to the Romans, “we face death all day long.” Paul knew and understood that the fledgling Christian church was not on its own a source of freedom, that there were others who were paying the cost for their freedom to live their newfound faith in Jesus Christ. Paul commends himself and those that were his followers, to the new Christians in Rome. “For your sake we face death all day long.”
When you think about this passage, you recognise that there are those in the past, whether it was for the people in Egypt from the Jewish faith, or the early Christians who suffered and were persecuted under the power of Rome, who made sacrifices so that freedom of the faith and life itself, could be celebrated. This applies to all generations. It certainly applied specifically to the freedom of the Passover celebration of the people leaving Egypt, and of the Easter and the Good Friday story that Paul is trying to capture as well. We all are the beneficiaries of those who made sacrifices for us. We are not here on our own, we don’t have our freedoms because they simply happened, or were a gift. There have been those who gave their lives for this gift of freedom.
Such sacrifices are important to remember, as Paul wanted to be remembered, and as the people who left Egypt wanted to be remembered. We should remember all those within our own lives, and faith and culture, who have made sacrifices so that we can enjoy our freedom. That’s exactly what we’re doing here today in this act of remembrance.
I would like to use a little poetic licence, if I might, though keeping the essence of the text of which Paul spoke. I would like us to say, “for our sake, they faced death all day long,” and by the “they” I mean those who laid down their lives sacrificially for the sake of our freedom.
It’s also about our faith, and profoundly, our culture. It’s not as if you can peel our faith away from the cultural conditions that have allowed it to flourish. You cannot separate faith and culture as if they are two solitudes. They walk hand in hand, they share many of the same stories. We bear faith and witness to what it is that we believe, but we do so within the context of a culture that gives us the freedom to be able to believe it.
Now of course, there are those who look upon a remembrance service such as this, and believe it is a form of militarisation of the faith, when in fact, what we are doing is thanking God for those who made sacrifices on our behalf and committing them again into His hands. There are also those who feel that such places should not perform a celebration of remembrance, that liturgical and spiritual acts should not be the place where those from the military, should participate, because it might appear exclusionary, or cause harm. I find both extremes disquieting. I neither feel that this is the militarisation of the faith, or that there is anything to be gained from prohibiting places of worship, and those who are making sacrifices, from coming together and remembering those who gave their lives.
I make my case this morning firmly on a photograph in our boardroom, taken in the 1940s, during the height of World War II, those that belonged to the Royal Air Force, gathered in this church, filling it with prayer, before they went to their theatres of war. They did so with the blessing, they did so with the prayer. Those who gathered here all those years ago, did not question their religious convictions. There was no polling of whether they were Protestant or Catholic, Jew, Hindu or Muslim, indigenous or of European descent, it made no difference. They came because they knew they would face danger. It is soulless – soulless – to think that these things do not matter within our culture. They are the things that bring us together, not divide us. These are the things that recognise that our freedom came at a great price and should be honoured both in the secular realm in the cenotaphs, in the churches, and in other places of worship. To have a soul that recognises that we are not here on our own but are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. This is what needs to be heard.
When I think of the examples that I can give of such moments where those of diverse backgrounds have given their lives for the sake of all of us, my hands tremble, my knees buckle, and my heart pounds in gratitude and in sincerity. If you look at the east wall here, you will see the colours of what were known as the Bantams of World War I, those that belonged to the 216 Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expedition Force. They were part, eventually, of the Third Reserve Battalion. These Bantams were of a reduced height, shall we put it that way, and they came as their own battalion. They did so, having their uniforms made by members of Timothy Memorial Church. This was the Bantams’ home in many ways. In 1917 they arrived in the fields of battle of World War I, after Vimy Ridge, but before Passchendaele. Need I say any more?
They went, blessed by us, supported by us, encouraged by us. For our sake, they faced death all day long.
When I think of those within our own nation who gave themselves so courageously in World War I and World War II - and beyond, in the other conflicts that have followed, lest we forget – I'm reminded that many indigenous people also made the same sacrifice. In World War II there was some three thousand enlisted members of the indigenous community, and members of the Métis and Inuit, whose names were not recorded. In total they received seventeen decorations for bravery. Two are of note – Chief Joe Dreaver from the Mistawasis Cree, who was a World War I sniper, and received the medal of bravery in Belgium. He gave everything in World War I. But when World War II came along, he wanted to enlist again, but was told that at the age of forty-six, he was just too old. So, what did he do? He spent his time training the young and giving of his time in service.
Brigadier Oliver Milton-Martin, a Mohawk from the Six Nations Grand River, who during World War I was part of both the army and remarkably, the air force. And again, in World War II, became a trainer. He received the Canadian Auxiliary Forces Medal and he did so courageously. For our sakes, they gave of themselves day by day.
From within our own ranks, a grandfather and father, someone who worshipped here on many occasions, and whose funeral is here on Wednesday. I speak of Bill McCormick, whom I know well. At the age of twenty-one, he left the University of Toronto to enlist. He gave up his academic career at that time for the sake of his nation. He went into training, and even during that training, there were casualties. Training is not a passive and safe thing; it is dangerous to train in the theatres of war. Then in 1944, his day came. He, as part of the D-day Juno invasion, was a commander of C-Squadron. He took three tanks into a small town to liberate it along with British snipers. They liberated the town but five days later his tank was hit, his driver died, his assistant was shot, and he was too. He was dragged from his tank through the wheat fields, bleeding, with mortar fire going overhead. He did not know if he would live or die, for he was in immense pain. He was eventually taken to a hospital. He complained at one point that there were pins and needles in his leg, and he couldn’t understand what was going on, until he was told that he had developed gangrene and they’d removed that leg.
Years later he returned to the place that he helped liberate, and a young boy who had given him wine as his tank had gone through the town, came and greeted him as an adult. Bill said in a video interview with his grandsons, that he lived to honour those who died, and that his life was to honour them. One of our own.
For our sake, they gave their lives day by day.
With these remembrances, with the countless number of people of so many backgrounds, it causes us to go back again to that passage in the book of Romans. Not only out of gratitude for those who have given their lives for us, but to understand that the supreme sacrifice of God’s very own Son for us on the cross who, as Paul says, did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. How much more then should we be honouring the cross of Christ? How much should we see that all subsequent sacrifices are a sign, pointing to the ultimate sacrifice that God made on our behalf in his Son. And through that ultimate sacrifice, there is a victory over death, over war and violence, sin and hatred. The cross unites us by the hand of Almighty God and that cross makes a profound difference in the way that we live.
We would not be giving those who sacrificed their lives for us their due. We would not be treating their life with justice if we did not commit ourselves to have a world in peace that does not copy the sins of war. A world that looks to the future with freedom and with faith in recognition that nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
This was driven home to me not long ago when I was given an account of the life of John McCain, the United States senator. This wasn’t to glorify McCain, or his politics. It was simply a reminder of the power of the cross and the power of faith. In 1967 John McCain’s aircraft was shot down in North Vietnam. For five and a half years he was a prisoner of war. During that time, his life was formed; he experienced sadistic torture, and for the rest of his life, sought to end any form of torture in any means. He had a conversation with another one of his fellow inmates one day (you were not allowed to speak to each other) and he was placed in solitary confinement, forced to sleep on a dirt floor, in darkness and solitude, his hands tied with ropes firmly behind his back. There he sat.
One of the guards, who he calls his good Samaritan, would come in the evenings, loosen the ropes, and untie his hands, allowing him to have some rest at night. He would come back again early in the morning, before anyone else could see him, and tighten them all up again, so that nobody knew. He did this for the entirety of his solitary confinement. On Christmas day the same guard came in again. Their eyes didn’t meet, they didn’t wish each other merry Christmas, they didn’t exchange any words, but the guard simply, with his toe, inscribed in the dirt floor the symbol of the cross. One Christian to another. John McCain wrote of this event and said it was one of the seminal, if not THE seminal moment of his life. I quote from McCain:
For just that moment, I forgot all my hatred for my enemies and all the hatred most of them felt for me. I forgot about the jerk and the interrogators who persecuted my friends and me. I forgot about the war and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on Christmas morning.
I saw him again, occasionally, but he never looked at me or attempted to speak to me, we never worshipped together again, but I have never forgotten him or the kindness he showed me as a testament to the faith we shared. That experienced helped to form my lasting appreciation for my own religious faith, and it took the faith of an enemy to reveal it to me, the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable divisions in humanity, the faith that we are all sinners and saints alike, children of God. I became a better man, a stronger man, a more faithful man, who for at least one moment, could love his enemies.
That, my friends, is the power of the cross, and it is under the shadow of the cross that we gather here today, for the Bantams who gave their lives, for those who served us from a variety of parts of our nation from coast to coast to coast. For those within our own ranks who live their whole lives trying to honour those who had died. To those who continue to serve us every day in theatres of war, that are unimaginable and hard to define. To all of those we recognise that for our sake, they face death all day long. And so, we place them and ourselves and our nation in the hands of the One who died for us all. Amen.