On this Remembrance Sunday, when we honor those who served and died in Canada’s wars and peacekeeping missions, I want to focus our attention on these words of Jesus in our gospel reading: “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Did you hear that? God is the God of the living.
Canadian historian Desmond Morton points out that among the survivors of World War I “many returned from the war mutilated in mind and body.” Some of them gave up on life. Others continued to exist but not really live. The scars of war were too deep; their spirits were too wounded ever to fully recover.
Today we talk about soldiers returning from Afghanistan suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even if soldiers survive the battlefront, a war in their souls may still rage on the home front. Getting their lives back together and facing the future with hope and confidence is often difficult and painful.
But it’s not just our military, is it? So many people come to a point in their lives when they basically give up living. They may not kill themselves but they give up on life just the same. Perhaps it is the death of a spouse or the death of a child. Perhaps it is the announcement by the doctor of a crippling illness. Perhaps it is the loss of a job or a relationship. Perhaps it is a failure at school, but for whatever reason, there are people who give up on living. Even if they do not literally end their life they settle for a bleak, desolate existence. They lose the joy of living and the hope of a better future. Thus, the importance of this phrase: God is the God of the living!
God does not want us to give up! That doesn’t mean life is easy. Sometimes, in fact, life is tough, very tough. No one, for example, wants to fight and die in a war, but sometimes that may be necessary to combat a greater evil. Sometimes the call of duty is to do things we would rather not do but we know we should do. Duty is to live for a higher purpose than just ourselves, even if that means sacrificing what we hold dear.
Pastor Gordon MacDonald and his wife Gail spent a month in South Africa when that country still had apartheid as its policy. One of the their hosts, Methodist Bishop George Irvine told them of a black pastor in his district whose home was firebombed and destroyed one night. Early in the morning the bishop went out to the township and found the pastor and his family standing in front of their burned-out home. Nothing was left but the chimney. All personal belongings, furniture, books, and sermon notes were gone. Only the clothes they were wearing were left.
The bishop said as he looked on the ruins of their home, he suddenly noticed that the pastor had done one thing that revealed his determination not to lose heart. For there on the chimney wall – the only part of the house left standing – the pastor had taken a lump of coal and written the words that were spoken as a vow by all Methodist pastors each year at the district conference:
Put me to what you will,
Put me to doing,
Put me to suffering,
Let me be laid aside for you,
Let me have all things,
Let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield
All things to your pleasure and disposal. (1)
God is the God of the living. God does not want us to give up. We can even say that God wants us to be fighters. By that I don’t mean that we all are called to serve in the military. But we are called to resist adversity and to refuse to be passive and accepting about the challenges and difficulties of life. You hear someone say, “Well, this is God’s will for me. I’ll just have to accept it.” But are sure it is God’s will or simply life throwing you a curve?
Now, admittedly, there are those events in life – for example, the loss of a loved one or the onset of a terrible disease – we cannot do anything about. But we can do something about our response to those events. We can become fighters. We can become over-comers. We can respond to life not with passive acceptance but with aggressive determination.
Like the young French soldier in World War I who was seriously wounded. Surgeons had to amputate his arm. The young man gained consciousness, and the surgeon leveled with him: “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you have lost your arm.”
“Sir,” the young soldier replied, “I didn’t lose it. I gave it for France.”
That gutsy determination to keep going and not to allow setbacks to discourage you is the key to a vital life. You fight back when adversity comes your way. You don’t give in to discouragement or self-pity. You take control of the situation rather than have the situation take control of you. It was the famous psychologist William James who said that we cannot control our situation but we can control our response to the situation. In other words, we have more power about our lives than we think. You can heal from that divorce. You can rebound from that school failure. You can come back after you lose that job. You can overcome that addiction. If the Gospel means anything, it means there is hope. God doesn’t abandon us or forsake us. And so we fight on because God is here, God is with us, and God will get us through whatever difficulties and challenges come our way.
When I was a priest in Pennsylvania, there was a wonderful medical doctor by the name of Dr. Connelly who was highly respected and much loved in the community. Dr. Connelly served in the United States Army Reserve as a medical officer. When the country embarked on the campaign to liberate Kuwait, Dr. Connelly’s regiment was mobilized and sent into battle. There he treated the wounded of several allied forces. And although he survived the end of the conflict, Dr. Connelly was killed a few days later when his vehicle ran over a landmine.
Back in Pennsylvania, the large church was packed for his funeral. People in the church and community could not do enough for his wife, children and relatives. The outpouring of love, compassion, and concern was overwhelming. Dr. Connelly had given so much to the community, and now the community was giving back to his family.
Some days after the funeral service, his wife wrote a letter that was read in church. Here is what it said: “Dear friends, I thank God everyday for the time that I had with my dear husband. I still feel the hurt of never being able to be close to him again, or tell him how much I love him, or thank him for being such a good father. The pain is almost unbearable. When he died, something in me died too. I questioned why God would allow such an awful thing to happen. But because you prayed for us and because you love us, my children and I will be able to move on with our lives. There is now a warm, living presence of the Risen Christ in our lives. He has given us a wonderful sense of God’s peace…Keep on praying for us and keep on loving us. God does not forsake us. God does not fail us. Thanks to be to God!”
On this Remembrance Sunday, we mourn those who have died in our nation’s wars and peacekeeping missions. We commit ourselves to care or those who return scarred and wounded by the horrors of battle. But in life and death, we are not without hope because we are people of resurrection. Regardless of the outcome, and no matter how much life breaks our heart, God is always with us, and will help us through our darkest days and bring us to the light and life of his eternal presence. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont. He delivered this sermon on Sun. Oct. 31, 2010.