Sunday, April 20, 2014

Medal of Honor (The Rev. Rick O'Brien. Easter Vigil. Sat., Apr. 19, 2014)

William Robert Caddy was born on August 8 in Quincy Massachusetts.  Quincy is about 8 miles south of Boston, and has always been a working man’s town.  He attended Quincy High School where he was a standout player on the varsity baseball team.  But life was tough for Bill and his family, and he had to drop out of school to help pay the bills.  He worked as a helper on a milkman’s truck, making the princely sum of $25 a week.  Those of you who don’t know what a milkman is, please ask your parents. But Bill was destined for other things, and that manifested itself when he was drafted into the United States Marine Corps.  You see, Bill was born in 1925 and came of age when the world was engulfed in the latest war to end all wars.

On March 3, 1945, the young man who was just 5 foot seven and weighed only 139 pounds found himself climbing down the cargo netting to board a landing craft bound for an insignificant little island that he had never heard of called Iwo Jima.

For 12 days Bill and his comrades fought a constant battle.  On what was to be the last day of Bill’s young life, he and his platoon mates were advancing against machine gun and small arms fire in an isolated sector.  Seeking temporary refuge from the murderous fire, the three marines dropped into a shell hole where they were immediately pinned down by sniper fire.  After several unsuccessful attempts to move, a hand grenade landed at their feet.   1 – 2 – 3.  Three seconds is about the time it takes for a hand grenade to explode.  Not exactly a great deal of time to think.

PFC Caddy didn’t need to stop and think.  He threw himself down on the grenade, absorbing the explosion with his body to save the other marines.  In the process, Bill Caddy never lived to return to Quincy Mass.  Brave men like Bill Caddy react and sacrifice themselves to save others.  They are heroes, and are honored as such.   PFC Caddy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism on Iwo Jima; one of thirteen Marines who threw themselves on grenades to save others.    There is a park named after him in his hometown, a fitting honor for one who gave his life to save others.

It is often said that we are an Easter people, and that is a true statement.  Throughout the season of Lent we have been impatient to get to Easter, sometimes treating Lent as something to be endured on our journey to a more comfortable place.   In the process we tend to turn Lent into a speedbump in our haste to get to the more comfortable setting of Easter.  But before we leave Lent in the rear-view mirror, I think it wise for us to pause one last time for reflection. 

While we are an Easter people, the resurrection could never have been achieved if it was not preceded by the crucifixion.  And there is where my problem has always been.  You see, for many years I was confused.  As a youngster I understood that Jesus had died for us, in order to redeem our sins and bring us back to God.  John eloquently told us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that all who believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  I was confused however about the crucifixion.  Most specifically, why was what Jesus did so much different from Bill Caddy?  Both didn’t stop and think of themselves, but surrendered their lives to save others.  There had to be a difference, but what was it? 

Let me tell you about another young man who came of age around the same time as Bill Caddy.  Dietrich Bonheoffer was born in Breslau Germany in 1906.  A dedicated believer in Christ, he was ordained to the ministry in 1925 and became a pastor and preacher.  Bonheoffer strongly opposed the Nazi party, and was an outspoken critic.  He was one of the only voices in the German church to speak out against the persecution of German Jews.  In 1943 he was arrested and put in Tegel prison where he was held for two years before he was finally executed.  During this time he wrote many letters and sermons which were smuggled out of prison by sympathetic guards and remain to this day. 

In his writings, Bonheoffer speaks of another trinity, that of the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Each is an essential part of Christianity, and is not divisible from the other.  If Bonheoffer is right, and I believe that he is, here is where I find the answer I had been seeking.  Indeed, there are many answers.   

Think back to the garden at Gethsemane.  How did the soldiers and Pharisees come to find and arrest Jesus? Mark tells us it was Judas, one of the twelve.  Judas, one of the twelve. The son of man was betrayed, not by some unknown informant, but by one of the twelve.  You see, the disciples were more than just a bunch of guys who followed Jesus around.  They were his friends, his brothers.  He had hand-picked each one.  He trusted, and loved them all.  To be betrayed by one so close was surely a cruel blow.

Jesus was deserted.  These same disciples, who had only an hour earlier pledged their undying love and faithfulness, turned and ran when Jesus was arrested.  When the going got tough, the disciples got going.  Gone was their pledge of faithfulness, replaced by an all-too-human desire to save their own skins.  Only John and Peter followed Jesus to the Chief Priest’s house.  And we all know what happened there.  Peter denied the Lord, not once, but three times.  Betrayal, desertion and denial.  I am starting to see a picture emerge.  But there is still more to come.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was hailed by the crowd with loud Hosannas.  After all, he had performed miracles; he had raised Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus preached a new teaching of love and called out the Priests and the Pharisees for being hypocrites.  Everyone seemed to know and love Jesus.  And yet this same crowd that had loved him on Sunday, turned against him by Friday.  When Pilate offered to release a prisoner, the crowd shouted for Barabbas, a known murderer.  Jesus, who had harmed no one in his entire life, was destined for death.  The same crowd who shouted Hosanna on Sunday was shouting Crucify Him on Friday.  Truly he was despised.

And still there was more.  When Pilate could find no reason to condemn him, he had Jesus flogged in an effort to appease the crowd.  They beat him with a leather whip that tore the flesh off of his body.  Then they dressed him in robes and mocked and spit on him.  They forced him to carry his own cross to Golgotha.  There they nailed his arms and legs to the cross and hung him on it to die.  Even one of the other condemned men, crucified next to him, mocked him as he hung on the cross.

Betrayed by one he loved, deserted by his friends, denied by his brother, despised and mocked by the crowd, he endured suffering that no one should ever have to bear.  But there is one more difference, and this is the one that proves without a doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ.  He could have stopped it.

He could have stopped it.  Through the incarnation, Jesus was fully human, but he was also fully God.  He had power over all and could have exercised that power to stop his suffering and end his persecution.  But that was not his way.  In all of the gospels, Jesus never uses his power to his own benefit but only to the benefit of others.  No, Jesus endured all of these things willingly, even though he didn’t have to.

Why would he do that?  Why would he endure all of these unbearable things when he didn’t have to do it? Because he loves us.  Jesus knew that the pain and suffering he endured were the path to salvation for all of us.  Indeed, that was the reason that he became human.  He knew from his first breath that he was destined to die in this way.  His death was the death of sin and it was only through his death that the resurrection would come to pass.  I think at last, that I have the answers I seek.  Bill Caddy, and all men who give up their life for another, are heroes and are truly exceptional people.  But their sacrifice, while heroic, is not even in the same league as Jesus.

And so, we end Lent and move on to the Glory of Easter, for we are indeed people of the resurrection.  Paul tells us that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life and be united with him in a resurrection like his.  But as we claim our share of that resurrection, let us also claim our share of the suffering that Jesus endured for us.  For it was the act of incarnation that led to the crucifixion and that act led to the resurrection, and all three are integral parts of our inheritance in the faith.