June 2019

Marching as to War

3rd Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019
– 1st Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Luke 9:51-62

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

On this Sunday before July 4th, we naturally think of and sing songs associated with this special day, such as The Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, and God Bless America. You may therefore find it odd that as we approach our Independence Day at the beginning of summer, I’m reminded of a classic Christmas movie, the music of which was written by a Jewish composer Irving Berlin. White Christmas, is a production starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye who play a couple of World War II veterans who later become popular entertainers who, nonetheless, never forget their unwavering devotion to their infantry commander, General Tom Wavery who, after the war, becomes a Vermont innkeeper. As a tribute to their trust, they compose a military marching tune in his behalf.

We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go,
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.
We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to stay,
Long as he stays away from the battle’s fray.
Because we love him, we love him,
Especially when he keeps us on the ball.
And we’ll tell the kiddies we answered duty’s call.
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all.1

Now, we Christians also create marching songs celebrating our unwavering devotion to God and Christ. Sometimes the tunes are meant to inspire faithful followers waging peaceful wars against evil, while at other times the songs are intended for followers marching into violent and bloody battles.

Many of you may recall the final scene of the academy award-winning, World War II drama Mrs. Miniver, in which the Anglican vicar of Belham, a fictional village outside London that suffers the tear-jerking loss of several of its beloved residents, declares from the pulpit of his bombed-out church that the war was not only one fought by soldiers in uniform, but a people’s war to be fought by everyone against the evils of tyranny. And as he closed with the words, “May God defend the right!” the British Royal Air Force is seen above the gaping hole of the church’s roof flying in the V-for-Victory formation against the Nazi foes as the congregation sings:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle, see his banners go.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.2

No matter how barbaric and inhumane Hitler and the Nazis were, and other tyrants may be, war drags us all down into the bowels of degradation where we no longer see our adversaries as human, giving us license to treat them as wild animals from which we must be protected.

Such license James and John thought they had when they sought permission from Jesus to cause fire to fall from heaven and kill the Samaritans because they would not receive Jesus or follow anyone whose center of worship was in Jerusalem where Jesus was headed, and not on Mount Gerizim where they worshiped 30 miles north of Jerusalem. The disciples probably felt justified knowing that the Prophet Elijah centuries before had killed the prophets of the pagan deity Baal. And still, another of Jesus’ disciples would later feel compelled to attack those who came out to arrest Jesus. But Jesus, in each instance, rebuked this violent impulse.

Yes, Christ seeks followers so devoted and eager to serve that they should not hesitate one moment in following him. He probably felt his cause was so urgent that time would not allow people to settle domestic matters, such as burying their dead or bidding farewell to loved ones. These matters must be dealt with well in advance of his invitation to follow him. Nonetheless, our devotion, eagerness and sense of urgency should not lose sight of the divine image housed in every soul.

The purpose of the church is not to force, intimidate or scare the hell out of you, but to nurture, encourage and love heaven into you.

On this Sunday before Independence Day, the Christian church must confess before God, Christ and the world its sin of complicity with the powers of corporate greed and tyranny that have steam-rolled over and trampled underfoot the lives and dignity of people throughout the world with the concept of a God of judgment and wrath who is to be feared rather than a God of justice and compassion who seeks to be loved.

I’ve long felt that America’s national anthem should be We Shall Overcome, a tune forged in the quest for peace, not the Star-Spangled Banner, a song penned in the depths of war. As a nation within the world household of God; as Americans amid a commonwealth of nations, we must remember that we cannot be reconciled with the multifaceted and diverse world beyond our borders until we have been reconciled with the multifaceted and diverse world within our borders, as ”one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome someday.3

1 Irving Berlin, We’ll Follow the Old Man, White Christmas, 1954.
2 Onward Christian Soldiers, written by Sabine Baring-Gold in 1865, composed by Arthur S. Sullivan in 1871.
3 We Shall Overcome, lyrics and music by Zilphia Hart., Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger.