Sunday, November 11, 2012

"That Lays Upon the Altar the Dearest and the Best:" Sermon, Remembrance Day, November 11, 2012

Christ didn’t enter the holy place (which is a copy of the true holy place) made by human hands, but into heaven itself, so that he now appears in God’s presence for us. He didn’t enter to offer himself over and over again, like the high priest enters the earthly holy place every year with blood that isn’t his. If that were so, then Jesus would have to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. Instead, he has now appeared once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by sacrificing himself. People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
- Hebrews 9:24-28, Common English Bible

As Jesus was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honour in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
- Mark 12:38-44, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Much of today’s service was written by United Church of Canada chaplains serving in the Canadian Forces. At the church’s General Council this summer we had worship led by Canadian Forces chaplains. There are chaplains wherever Canadians are serving, including Afghanistan and the Middle East. I want to take a few minutes on Remembrance Day to talk about chaplains and tell the story of one chaplain in particular, my Great Uncle, Claude Hayward.

Claude was born on a farm in Carleton County, New Brunswick, in 1904, and in the 1920s he felt the call to ministry in the Presbyterian church. When the United Church was formed, he stayed Presbyterian, but we won’t hold that against him. He served congregations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick until the Second World War started.

I should mention that on the day war was declared Claude’s brother Bill, my grandfather, also went to join up. Grampy had been a private in the militia, but the year before the war started he was working in the lumber camps, as most farmers did in the winter, and he was run over by a logging truck and was so seriously injured he couldn’t farm anymore. So it was no surprise that the Army turned Grampy down and gave him a certificate of general discharge. Grampy said that was pretty good, he went into the Army a private and came out a general.

Great Uncle Claude, however, passed the physical and joined the Navy in Halifax. He became the chaplain on HMCS Prince Robert, which was a coastal ferry converted into a cruiser. For much of the war it was the largest and most heavily armed ship in the Royal Canadian Navy. The Prince Robert escorted convoys in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean, took Canadian troops to Hong Kong, and participated in the American and Canadian campaign in Alaska. At the end of the war the ship returned to Hong Kong to represent Canada at the Japanese surrender.

On board the Prince Robert my great uncle was the spiritual advisor to 500 officers and men. He held worship services on board every Sunday, in all weather. His duties also included acting as the ship’s censor, because in wartime all letters had to be examined in case they contained sensitive information, so he had to read an average of 700 letters a day when the ship was in port.

After the war Claude left the ministry, moved to BC and worked for the provincial forestry department. Now, he died 38 years ago, so I never got to ask him about his wartime experiences in chaplaincy and how they affected him.

The Hayward family had more children than Claude and my grandfather Bill. There were four girls and three other boys. During the First World War the oldest boys, Sandy and Walter, joined the Army and went to France. And, two months before the war ended, Claude was 14 when a letter came to the farm.

The letter was from an Army chaplain, and it read:

Dear Mrs. Hayward,
It is with deep regret that I have to convey to you the sad news that your son, W.C. Hayward 709857, has died of wounds in 57 Casualty Clearing Station. Also his wound had rendered him unconscious and we did not speak to him. He only lived a short time after he came in.

We laid him reverently to rest in the cemetery close to 57 CC Station. The number of his grave is 58 Plot 4 Row E. If you write to the War Office, Winchester House, St. James Square, London SW1, they will have you a photo of it. The cemetery is well kept and each grave is marked with a cross bearing name and date of death.

May I express my sincere sympathy with you in your great loss. It’s so little a stranger can say, but I pray God may comfort and sustain you in your heavy trial. You join with him in laying on the altar of sacrifice the greatest offering a man can make, and Jesus has said there is no greater love than that.

Yours in sorrow,
Rev. W.M. Kinletsale

Letters make me think of another story about chaplaincy in the Second World War. This was written by Rev. R.M. Hickey, a Canadian Army chaplain, in his book The Scarlet Dawn:

“Padre,” the soldier said, “you told us if we couldn’t write you’d write for us.”

“Sure,” I said, “anytime.”

“Any kind of letter? A love letter?”

I assured him I was a master of love letters and I’d write just what he said.

“Dear Mary.” I wrote that. “I love you.” Again: “I love you.” He kept repeating, “I love you.”

“Yes,” I said. “I have that. Now, how much?”

“I love you… Well, I love you as much as I love the Lord.”

Heresy? Not at all. That was his way of telling Mary he loved he a whole lot. Six months later they were married.

Four years later, one evening during the Battle of Carpiquet, in Normandy, I knelt and looked at the lifeless face of the boy who’d had me write that letter. I lowered him into his rough and narrow grave and, as I whispered the prayer, a voice from the past said over and over: “Dear Mary… Dear Mary…” And when I wrote to tell his wife I had prepared him for death and buried him, that same voice awoke again: “I love you, I love you as much as…”

I wonder how many letters like that Great Uncle Claude had to write in the Navy, and if any with his signature as chaplain, informing a family about a death, are still preserved in boxes and drawers in homes across Canada. I wonder if writing these letters and seeing starving Canadian prisoners of war in Hong Kong and watching the crews of torpedoed ships die in the water had anything to do with his quitting ministry.

In our Scripture reading today Jesus sees a poor widow put two copper coins, all that she has to live on, in the offering box. This story is often the subject of sermons on stewardship, but it’s not really about money. It’s about sacrifice. The widow gives everything she has. And in two world wars, Korea, peacekeeping missions and Afghanistan, Canadian men and women in uniform have given everything they have. A lot of widows and grieving families have given their loved ones.

That chaplain's letter in the First World War talked about an offering laid on the altar of sacrifice. At the end of the service we will sing a verse of the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country. The first verse of that hymn talks about “the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.” My great uncle Claude laid his career in ministry on that altar. His brother Sandy, wounded in World War I, laid his health on that altar. His brother Walter laid his life on that altar. They gave everything they had.

We remember them and so many others, chaplains, soldiers, sailors, aircrew. And as we remember them and their sacrifices - so many lifeless faces, so many bodies lowered into rough and narrow graves - we need to reflect on this Gospel story of the poor widow giving all that she had. We must do more than praise her sacrifice. We must ask why she was forced into that position of giving everything in the first place. And then we must turn back to the wars of the last century and this one, and question the attitudes and fears and behaviours and systems that led to the sacrifices of so many lives.

That hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country, goes on: "There’s another country, and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace." That is the kingdom of God, and we truly remember sacrifice when we work for the coming of that kingdom where there is no more sorrow or pain or death, that realm where there is true peace with justice and the sacrifice of lives in war is unnecessary, for Christ himself has been offered for us. Blessed are the peacemakers, of the past and today, for they will be called children of God.

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