Sunday, October 2, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Croix de Guerre"

Philippians 4:10-20

I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress. 15 You Philippians know from the time of my first mission work in Macedonia how no church shared in supporting my ministry except you. 16 You sent contributions repeatedly to take care of my needs even while I was in Thessalonica. 17 I’m not hoping for a gift, but I am hoping for a profit that accumulates in your account. 18 I now have plenty and it is more than enough. I am full to overflowing because I received the gifts that you sent from Epaphroditus. Those gifts give off a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice that pleases God. 19 My God will meet your every need out of his riches in the glory that is found in Christ Jesus. 20 Let glory be given to God our Father forever and always. Amen. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Four

The Croix de Guerre—literally, “the Cross of War”—is France’s highest award for military valor, and despite the country’s historical close ties to the United States, it was not until the First World War that any American soldier was awarded the Croix de Guerre—two soldiers, in fact, were: Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, both of whom were good friends who met in the 369th Infantry. Their unit, nicknamed the Hellfighters, were embedded with a French unit when both men saw the action that would necessitate their extraordinary acts of valor in preserving the French military camp. The valor of Henry Johnson in particular was remarkable, as he was only 5’4” and weighed a scant 130 pounds, yet despite taking 21 wounds that day, he held the French position.

But why were Privates Johnson and Roberts embedded in the French military to begin with, rather than the American military? Were they specialists sent to do a particular job, or were they French speakers themselves? No, they were fighting alongside the French because they were both black, and the American regiments overseas had refused to fight alongside black troops.

That lack of regard for soldiers of color came through in the aftermath of the war as well, as the treatment of Henry Johnson could not be more stark in its differences between the French and American peoples (per

Indebted to their efforts in saving the camp, the French military hierarchy awarded the two men with the Croix de Guerre military decoration. France’s highest award for bravery, this was a massive honor to the two privates who were the first Americans to receive the medal, and (both were) promoted to sergeant. Johnson was additionally given a golden palm wreath on his ribbon for ‘extraordinary valor.’

After the defeat of the Triple Alliance, the Hellfighters returned home to be greeted by a parade in New York. Johnson rode in an open-top Cadillac, but the parade would be the limit of his rewards. The hero was denied a disability pension and was even refused the Purple Heart…

…in private, the great man was struggling. After being denied work back at the Union Station due to his wounds, he found it difficult to get another job. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Johnson, like so many of the other returning soldiers, could not overcome the trauma and injury he had suffered in France. The turmoil eventually drove him to hit the bottle and soon his wife and children left him behind. He died penniless in 1929, aged 32.

It was not until 1996 that Henry Johnson was finally awarded the Purple Heart, 78 years after his courage became known to the country and to the world. He did not receive the Distinguished Service Cross until 2003, and the Congressional Medal of Honor until 2015.

We usually take Philippians 4:13—“I can do (or endure) all things through the One who strengthens me”—and yet while Henry Johnson did indeed do and endure all things that day in 1918, his country collectively could not and would not in terms of honoring him until just last year. And it is precisely because of such failings that we have to see Philippians 4:13 in its communal context.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer has at long last finally given way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

The best—and funniest instance—of taking a verse out of context I’ve seen, though, is the one we’ll be talking about today, the to introduce this series: a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”

Paul says those words in Philippians 4:13 as one part of two much broader contexts: first, Philippians is, along with the letters to Philemon and to the Colossians, one of Paul’s prison letters—he was imprisoned at the time, and when he speaks in this passage of the Philippians sharing in his distress, it is not unreasonable to think it a reference to his imprisonment, just the same as Paul telling them that he has learned “how to be content in any circumstance,” which you might be more apt to find on the bookshelf in the self-help section, but is an incredibly important trait for someone who is being persecuted to have.

Paul’s words here, though, are not really about him—it is, as the late New Testament scholar Father Daniel Harrington, S.J., said, something of a thank-you note to the Philippians, one that expresses Paul’s gratitude for everything that they have done for, and in solidarity with, Paul during his trials and tribulations.

That word “still” in verse 14 indicates the importance of the Philippians in those trials: even though Paul can endure them with the help of God, *still* the Philippians do right by him. It means that even if someone may be okay on their own, we are not to leave them on their own. And when they are not okay on their own, sadly, we still have this terrible tendency to set people adrift to struggle.

So the matter at hand really isn’t the individually inspirational sentiment of 4:13, but that even when we may well be able to live up to Paul’s example in that verse, it never really was about us to begin with, but about the community and society around us that is meant to lift us up and be there for us, not to write us off.

Think again of Private Henry Johnson. He was able to do so much in a moment of need through whatever faith may have strengthened him. But his Philippi, his community, did not reciprocate.

Or, rather, another community, another country did: France. But France was not where he went back to live and ultimately, to die at far too young an age. It was here. And it continues to be here for so many people: veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, people who become homeless because of untreated mental illness, people with addiction, and so many others. In our regard (or lack thereof) to those who are not in our immediate circle of loved ones and friends—and sometimes, even when they are—we are still not a Philippian world yet, not by a long shot.

For if we did, then, indeed, we all could do all things through the One who strengthens us, because God strengthens us in so many ways, not just in our own individual relationships with God, but through our relationships with each other. That is Paul’s hope and expectation for us, just as it was for the church in Philippi.

So for today, for this week, this time, take to heart Paul’s words not because of what they say about him, but because of what they say about the community that surrounds him. Perhaps the easiest way we can do that is to take out the subject word of verse 13—“I”—and replace it with “we.”

We can do all things through the One who strengthens us.

And all those things does include, and must include, strengthening one another.

Strengthening all of us.

Strengthening, ultimately, the eventual kingdom.

Let us be so encouraged, so exhorted, and so empowered by the God who strengthen us, through our own church of Philippi, to do such great things.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 2, 2016

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