May 25, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

1 John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

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Sermon: “Stranger bear word to the Spartans...”

In a time of 24 hour cable news and journalists embedded with troops on the front lines, it may take an act of considerable imagination to have a feeling for the story I’m about to tell. For this story takes place over two centuries ago, even before the time of Christ.

The place of our story is Greece, and the date is 480 BC. The Persians, centered in what is now Iran, have emerged as a dominant power on the world scene. To the people of Israel this is good news. Cyrus, King of the Persians, is viewed in the Bible as a great hero because he conquered Babylon - Babylon, the nation that laid waste to Israel, burned Jerusalem, torn down the temple, and deported the people into labor camps far from home.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon he allowed the captive people of Israel to return to their homeland and begin rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. For this he was praised as the anointed one of God.

After Cyrus died his son became king and he was followed by Darius I, who also has a very good reputation in the Bible because he enabled the Jews to finish the rebuilding of the temple. But he has no such place in the history of the Greeks. The Greeks see Darius as an aggressor and an invader.

In 490 BC the armies of Darius and the armies of the Greeks squared off at the famous battle of Marathon, where after tremendous loss the Greeks turned back the armies of the Persians.

In the course of the battle the Greeks sent a runner to get help from the people of Sparta, and later this same runner later carried news of the Greek victory to Athens, a distance of 26 miles - and so the tradition of the marathon run was born.

But who brings home news of a battle when your side loses and all your soldiers lay bleeding into the soil. This was the situation the Greeks faced ten years later at the battle of Thermopylae when the Persians returned under Xerxes I.

Thermopylae was a narrow pass that the Persian Army would have to travel through to attack the main cities of Greece. It was bounded by the sea on one side and high cliffs on the other. And even though there were many more Persian soldiers than Greek, the Greeks were able to hold their position for three days until a traitor showed the enemy a mountain path that allowed the Persians to outflank the Greeks.

When the Greeks realized they had been betrayed, many counseled retreat, but King Leonidas and the soldiers of Sparta refused to retreat and in the end they were surrounded and massacred by the Persians. No one remained to carry the sad news home; no one survived to tell the story of their bravery.

In the days before cable news, telephones, or even mail delivery, when a soldier died far from home, a stone might be placed at the site of the battle with an epitaph that would read something like, “If you are ever in the town of Corinth, tell Daniel, the son of John, that his son is buried here, far from home.”

And although it was not on a stone at the site, the Greek poet Simonides wrote such an epitaph for the soldiers of Sparta at Thermopylae, an epitaph that students learning Greek and Latin in the old days would have known well as part of their classical education. The epitaph has different translations, but one reads

"Stranger, thou who passest by:
Go tell the Spartans that here, faithful to their commands, we lie."

Later the opening line of this epitaph was translated by the German author Heinrich Boll as "Stranger bear word to the Spartans...” and was used as the title of a short story he wrote about a young German soldier in World War II.

This young solider, mortally wounded in battle, is brought back to his former high school for medical treatment. Three months before he had been a student here, but now the school is at the front lines and the old art room has been set up as an emergency surgery. He thinks he recognizes his surroundings, but in his disorientation from loss of blood and painkillers the soldier is not certain that it really is his old school until he sees his own handwriting on a blackboard - the blackboard where he was translating the poem of Simonides to celebrate the bravery of the Greek warriors: Stranger bear word to the Spartans...

Does this young solider, now bleeding to death on the same school table where he used to draw and write his lessons, does this young solider feel any of the ancient honor embodied in the words of the Greek poet? Is his pain and sacrifice transformed into heroic deeds because he has been loyal to his country, because he was willing to die rather than surrender, because he was faithful to his comrades in arms and ready to face slaughter rather than turn away in shame and save his own life?

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, says the Lord. And even though Jesus was speaking to disciples, not soldiers, I’m sure that the truth of these words has resonated in the hearts and minds of many who witnessed their friends fall by their side in times of war.

Of course, the situation of this young German is somewhat complicated by the fact that he is a soldier in Hitler’s army, an army whose aims were aggression and who were deployed in service of one of the most morally corrupt ideologies of all times.

During the course of that war the combatants on either side probably had little sympathy for each other. And yet with the passage of years those who met in mortal battle were brought to reconciliation and even mutual respect.

We see a similar process taking place among veterans of Vietnam who travel back to the battle zone and meet in peace with those they once faced in war. They accept that in spite of being on different sides of a brutal conflict, the conflict will pass and the eternal truth is that they share a common humanity and common values of loyalty to their family and community.

Every solider has been brought face to the face with the question: What are you willing to die for? In the book Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt makes the point that his father was always asking him if he would be willing to die for Ireland, and the priests were always asking him if he would be willing to die for the faith, but no one ever asked him what he was willing to live for. I suspect, however, the answer is not that different, and all of us, soldiers or not, should at some time ponder it and be prepared to give an account of our answer. What are you willing do die for? What are you willing to live for?

Sometimes veterans feel ashamed being honored as heroes on their return home - they feel the real heroes are those who did not live to see the day they now enjoy - No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And yet the task of surviving and living on also requires love, loyalty, and perseverance. Victory in war is not the only honor of a nation, for the requirements of God’s mercy and justice persist through war and peace, through times of want and times of prosperity. God rewards those who are righteous in their living as well as those who are heroic in their dying.

A little of the sense of sacrifice which we applaud in soldiers might do us some good on the home front as well; perhaps with it we could get beyond the battles over school budgets and social services and better serve the common good.

It is a good thing to honor those who served their county in war on this Memorial Day weekend; it is also a good thing to remember those who gave themselves to us in love through their living - those whose names we inscribe in our book of remembrance. Our defenders, our parents, our teachers, our family and friends - they served and sacrificed for our sakes and whether their time among us was long or short, we remember them and honor them and pray to live a life worthy of their love.
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