Sermon on Philippians 4:8-9 for May 28, 2017, Memorial Day Weekend, Easter 7A
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
The text from Philippians tells us to think about things that are:
“true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent praiseworthy”
So, on this Memorial Day weekend here in the USA, I want to do just that: think about those kinds of things. I was speaking with one of our member this past week, and together we were reflecting about her recently departed husband and their mutual passion for our veterans. In their home are numerous tokens of appreciation from the Veteran’s Home for their work.
That conversation and this weekend got me thinking about the values that are stated and lived-out, in practice, in the military. They are honorable and commendable, excellent and worthy of praise, as Philippians say, so they are well worth thinking about. In fact they are helpful to consider by us, as a church.
So we are going to reflect on some of the core values of the military today, in line with the Philippians mandate, and then we are going to look at some of the values that are important to us as Christians and to us as a church.
I looked up the values that the various branches of the military have posted on their websites. Here is what I found: The Navy and Marine Core’s values are honor, courage and commitment. They define honor this way:
“to never lie, cheat, or steal; to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity; to respect human dignity; and to have respect and concern for each other…maturity, dedication, trust, and dependability…to act responsibly, be accountable for our actions, fulfill obligations, and hold others accountable for their actions.”
Courage, according to the Marines, is
“mental, moral, and physical strength …the mastery of fear, and [the power] to do what is right, to adhere to a higher standard of personal conduct, to lead by example, and to make tough decisions under stress and pressure. It is inner strength…”
Commitment, for Marines includes:
“the spirit of determination and dedication…the highest order of discipline concern for others, and an unrelenting determination to achieve a standard of excellence in every endeavor”
The Army lists its values as:
“Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage”
The Air Force lists its values as:
“Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do”
The Common Good
If we step back from these lists of specific values, we can see some underlying principles. The most fundamental is the commitment to the common good. Each soldier, sailer, airman or airwoman and marine is committed to denying their own wishes, pleasures, preferences, conveniences and desires if they in any way run counter to the mission of the whole.
This is true at every level, from the squad to the platoon, to the company all the way up to the field army. The individuals and individual groups work for the common good.
In the military, there is a command structure that comes with the authority to enforce orders to keep everyone working to accomplish their common mission. In the business world there is another kind of authority to make sure everyone does their job.
Outside of work in civilian life, we all get to choose to cooperate or not. When we do, it is beautiful. When we decide to join together and work for a common purpose, we can accomplish great and good things.
Implicit in the commitment to the common good is another underlying value: self-sacrifice. There are countless stories from the military about people who literally sacrificed their lives to save others. They dove on the grenade, or they put themselves in the line of fire to save others. They ran towards danger to rescue fallen comrades.
So the fundamental military values of working for the common good and self-sacrifice are an important part of their success, and they are deeply Christian values.
The Church and our Values
So, should the church see itself as a kind of army? I am old enough to have sung that song in Sunday School “I’m in the Lord’s army.” Paul, in Ephesians, does use the metaphor of putting on the “armor of God” so that we can withstand the “fiery darts,” as he calls them, of evil and temptation.
I do not believe that an army is the most helpful metaphor for the church, but there are interesting parallels. I believe we are called to the high standards that these military values hold up. We are called to be people of honor and virtue. We are called to be people of integrity and commitment.
The challenge we have as Christians is that the standards we are called to actually go even further. Let us look briefly at these two fundamental values from a Christian perspective.
God and the Common Good
The soldier works for the common good of the army she is in. The army is working for the common good of the country it serves. Christians, however, are called to a common good that is far broader. For us, the common good extends beyond family and neighborhood. It is broader than state or even country. For us, the common good is defined for us by God.
We read the creation story, and come to understand that every human being is made “in the image of God” and pronounced, “very good.” The common good then includes every human being on the planet. There is no national border on our commitment to the common good. There is no racial restriction on our vision of the common good. Languages, customs, religions, all of these ways we identify ourselves are real, but they are not the most fundamental reality. For us, God’s love for the world shows us how broadly to define the common good.
Jesus’ parable that we call the Good Samaritan makes this exact point. The wrong question is “who is my neighbor?” The right question is “who was a neighbor to him?” We are called to care for all people as neighbors.
And it does not stop with the people on the planet; the broad common good that we are committed to includes the planet itself and all life on it. The creation story includes the mandate to be good stewards of the earth on which all of us depend.
In fact, the common good for Christians who seek to follow Jesus extends even to enemies. Love of enemies is the most radical thing Jesus taught, and the most costly value he practiced.
Sometimes a commitment to the common good comes at a cost, and so self-sacrifice is called for. It is also beautifully pictured in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan used his own resources, his oil and his wine, to treat the wounds of the victim. He took him to an inn and put up his own cash for room and board.
We do not believe that a person’s life consists in the abundance of their possessions, as Jesus taught, so when doing good costs money, we are generous. When the common good takes money to accomplish, we are self-sacrificial.
In civilian life, literal self-sacrifice is rare, so we honor those who put themselves at risk for others. We are humbled when we hear stories on the news of people rescuing strangers from floods or from burning buildings, and we admire them for it.
But self-sacrifice is not just for the rare occasion. Self sacrifice is also the value we show when we choose not to let our egos get offended by someone’s ill-chosen remarks or political views. Self sacrifice is the value behind tithing and serving on a ministry team.
It is the value most clearly seen in Jesus who said, in prayer,
“not my will, but yours be done.” (Matt. 26:39)
Self sacrifice was what Jesus was talking about when he said,
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
So yes, on Memorial Day we reflect on the values we live and die by. We, who follow Jesus, are not an army, but like one, we believe in the common good and in self-sacrifice. In fact we are called to standards even above and beyond a military understanding of the common good and self-sacrifice.
Unlike an army we do not have a general, but we do have a king. We believe the good news that the kingdom of God is among us and within us. We do not want to describe our mission in battle terms, but we are committed to God as king who calls us to “honor, courage and commitment.” We feel compelled, not out of a command-obedience authority structure, but out of joy and gratitude that comes from love. No army can top that.
If we must speak of an enemy to fight, let it be fear. Let us fight ignorance. Let us fight poverty and discrimination. Let us fight for the little guy, for the least of these, and for the other. Let us fight against ugly version of God as cruel and fight instead for a beautiful understanding of God who is love itself, who is for us and with us and offers us new possibilities every day to find beauty and truth. And let us live in self-sacrificial service on behalf of the common good of all of God’s children.