On February 16, 2016, the Rt. Rev. Jay Magness, Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at The General Theological Seminary. In his sermon, Magness spoke of courageous acts—particularly of those in combat—as acts of sacrifice, and how God's call may bring those in ministry to places unknown, places of potential personal sacrifice.
A full list of guest preachers for the Spring term in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd can be found here.
The full text of the sermon by Bp. Magness:
After teaching the disciples a prayer, in a seeming summation Jesus tells them, “…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly (Abba) Father will also forgive you…”
A little over a decade ago Mitch Albom wrote a book length parable about forgiveness, reconciliation and, above all else, sacrifice. Albom’s parable was the “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” The story is wrapped around the late in life experiences of a man named Eddie. In his younger years Eddie had been a Soldier who fought in the WWII Pacific Campaign. Initially we are introduced to a much older version of Eddie. Eddie is working as a maintenance technician at an amusement park. He is, as soon we find out, near the end of his life.
The first significant glimpse of Eddie is in the course of his work as a maintenance man. Walking through the amusement park he is obviously very well-known being greeted by all of the employees and guests as well. During Eddie’s walk he looks up at a gondola ride, one he has worked on and seen hundreds of times, only this time something is not right. A cable from which the gondola is suspended is beginning to fray. Though Eddie walks with a significant limp, he picks up his walk. He can see that an unsuspecting young child is walking beneath the gondola. Just then the fraying cable snaps and plummets toward the child. Despite Eddie’s truly heroic effort, he is not successful and cannot save the child’s life. As a result of Eddie’s efforts, he is reaches the child just as the gondola makes contact, and he dies as well.
This begins Eddie’s sojourn in heaven. While I am not entirely sure what I expect heaven to be, my meager expectations of that realm of existence are far from Albom’s descriptions. Not long after his arrival in heaven Eddie meets up with his “captain,” the Army officer who had been his commanding officer during WWII in the Pacific; the man who led Eddie and the other Soldiers through their combat engagements; the man whose mantra was, “I want to bring them all home.” Actually the Captain might have succeeded had he and his men not been taken as prisoners of war. After their capture in the Philippines, they were held in crude bamboo cells. Through repeated episodes of torture by their captors, the Soldiers were gradually hardened to point at which they became almost immune to physical pain. Then one day, through no small amount of creative cunning, the captive soldiers managed to escape. In some very important ways their escape would set the stage for the central confrontation awaiting Eddie.
Both Eddie and his Captain would soon experience significant physical losses. Eddie’s knee was shattered by a well-intentioned bullet. As a result, for the remainder of his life Eddie would hobble along with a debilitating war injury. In contrast the Captain literally sacrificed his life. On a road the escaping Soldiers needed to transit the Captain was walking ahead of their truck scanning for explosive mines embedded and hidden in packed roadway. Through a misstep – or perhaps an intentional step - the Captain detonated the explosive device that killed him, an explosive device which would have killed Eddie and the other Soldiers. Through this act the Captain saved the lives of his men. The Captain gave his life that his men might live and get to go home alive.
In what I can only describe as Eddie’s transitional heaven, Eddie is emotionally, morally and spiritually stuck. He can’t seem to get beyond the fact that as the result of the war experience, he lost at least 50% of the use of one leg. Eddie had assumed the role of an unforgiving victim, and he could not get unstuck!
In the next scene the Captain, now post-death and very much alive again, returns to engage Eddie in a dialogue. Through a heated exchange between the two, the Captain brings Eddie up short for his self-victimization and says to him:
“’SACRIFICE,’ the Captain said. ‘You made one. I made one. We all make them. But you were angry over yours. You kept thinking about what you lost. “You didn’t get it. Sacrifice is a part of life. It’s supposed to be. It’s not something to regret. It’s something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices’…Eddie shook his head. ‘But you…’ He lowered his voice. ‘You lost your life.’ The Captain smacked his tongue on his teeth. ‘That’s the thing. Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.’”
Jesus said it: if we want to inherit eternal life and be his follower, we are going to engage in personal sacrifice, adopt the way of the cross and engage in kingdom behavior. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from the false gods to which we cling - and which wrongly we think will give us satisfaction. For more than a few of us, our refusal to sacrifice our blame of the other and embrace forgiveness is one of those false gods.
When you work with active duty military men and women, and veterans, sooner or later there will be some talk about sacrifice, often as it relates to forgiveness. This is particularly true for combat veterans. Once they begin putting words to the sights, sounds and smells that are so embedded in their memories, something begins to happen. With little or no prodding, they will talk about things done and things left undone. They can teach all who will listen about sacrifice – and may even tell you about sin and the need for forgiveness – both forgiveness of self and forgiveness of the other – who may be the enemy.
Edward Masure was a clergyman who lived in France during WWII. There he experienced the brutalities of combat and in simultaneous contrast, numerous courageous acts that saved lives as well. Reflecting upon his observations he defined the courageous acts as sacrifice: something a person does when he or she knows that the other needs what you can give and for which you can get nothing in return.
You can test this definition. Find a service-member or a veteran and ask him or her to tell you to what it's like when you give to and serve others, when you have neither hope nor expectation that you'll get anything in return for what you have given. Listen closely and you'll hear about how people of character give and forgive out of the deepest part of their being.
In the environment in which most of my priests work this challenge is no small thing. Most of them would resonate with the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “Whenever Christ Calls us, his call leads us to death.” They know that during the last decade plus of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, // and Afghanistan and Iraq again, though the death may not have been theirs, death was all around them. The priests knew the sacrifices they had to make in order to be Christ-followers who travel into the valley of the shadow of death with those they serve. They know that for them, there is no higher calling.
For the vast majority us, either we have entered or are about to enter a sacrificial profession. Make no mistake about it. There are little sacrifices and there are big sacrifices.
Over the years I have observed that inevitably this will catch some of us by surprise and throw us off balance. For example, you will care for people, some of whom may get sick, some of whom may die and you will grieve with them; and then a member of the family will call and ask to have the funeral on Friday, which happens to be your day off.
Then it happens. In the midst of a passionate calling and vocation – with no small amount of passion for the Gospel of Christ and for God’s people – you get comfortable – and just then it happens. You sense that God has called you to a new thing – perhaps to go to places you’ve never been – to be with people you may not know or may not even like – to be challenged in situations where you don’t even think you have the right skills. Then comes the question: does my passion extend to the possibility of giving up my familiar surroundings, my abundance, and perhaps my comfort, to go, do, and be where I may be uncomfortable? To what extent will you go, do, and be in order to “Bear one another’s burdens?”
As leaders within our Christian faith community I want to encourage, to even push you, to consider an even deeper understanding. Disciples of Christ know that personal sacrifice must be a part of what they do and who they are. For many of us this is the call to divest ourselves from the hard grip upon behaviors as well as possessions that separate religion managers from spiritual leaders.
Jesus calls you and me to a way of life that involves knowing how to sacrifice for the people whom God loves. But be careful. Sacrificial spiritual leaders whose lives embody Jesus’ way of forgiveness know that they will be used and abused – that their sacrificial forgiveness will at times go unnoticed and even unappreciated.
One night in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus acquiesced to his Father’s desire and sacrificed all of his own desires, he knew that as well – that there would be those who would see his death as merely one more execution of a criminal on Golgotha hill. Sacrifice is the humbling action of the spiritual leader.