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Sermon 5.4.24 Lead me to a Calvary

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“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

At the main crossroads of pilgrim trails in Brittany France, there have been statues erected to guide Christian pilgrims for more than 500 years.

These statues are markers that the pilgrims are on the right track.

They are also sites of devotion so that the pilgrims will remember why they are on their pilgrimage.

These sacred sites are called Calvaries.

They are often ornate depictions of the three crosses of Calvary hill.

The oldest one still standing dates back to around 1450.

But, France isn’t the only place that one finds these.  You have probably seen them as you’ve driven across the country here in the US.

Of course, in the US, our calvaries tend to go for size rather than beauty, and though they serve a slightly different function;

More of an ostentatious billboard for Jesus than a pilgrimage marker,

And yet, they tend to be situated along major routes of travel just like their European and South American counterparts, so that people remember Jesus.

They recall what Jesus did for us.

But more importantly, if we can bring ourselves into a pilgrimage mindset, their main goal is not just what Jesus did, but why he did it.

Last week, you helped me to preach about abiding in love, and we renewed our commitment to the idea that “if it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.”

This morning, as we continue to contemplate Jesus’ Abiding Love and the sacrifice that he made for his friends,

I’m moved to preach to you; Lead me to a Calvary.

I grew up in Hawai’i about 2 miles from the Kaneohe Marine Corps. Air Station.

On most Sunday afternoons after church, (and look you can feel sorry for me if you want to) we would go sailing in Kaneohe Bay on my uncle Bert’s sail boat.

As we sailed through the bay on the way to a sand bar that was at the mouth of this vast oceanic inlet,

There were buoys that made sure we didn’t run onto the reefs on our left, and military motor boats making sure we didn’t get too close to the air station on our right.

I had lots of friends who lived on base with their parents, who were service members.

We had members of our church who came from the base to live a life of service to God while they served their country.

I remember we had a friend named Colin, whose dad had been in the army in Vietnam, and as kids we all knew, nobody messes with Mr. Gandy.

But, if you were going on a camping trip, he’s the parent that you wanted to have with you.

Both of my grandfathers served (one in the Navy, who was a POW in Japan, and one in the Army, who was a French translator for officers with Charles DeGaulle),

Both of my grandmothers served (one as a communications officer for Admiral Nimitz, who had no idea what Iwo Jima meant, and one who was a secretary in the British secret service office in Canada).

I’ve had aunts and uncles who served in the Air Force and Navy.

I remember that along with collecting baseball cards and marvel comic cards, at some point, we also started collecting military cards.

They didn’t have individual people on them, but instead, they had all of the jets and helicopters and tanks.

Just like baseball cards, they had all the stats;

Top speed, armor thickness, most-used battle configurations, deployments, and history.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when we were growing up, the military was cool.

But somewhere along the line, for me anyway, something changed.

After September 11th, when so many people were clambering to join up and go to Iraq, I left the ROTC at the University of Nebraska.

My twin brother Patrick and I both qualified for pilot training, but with the build up to the war going the way it was, I had the feeling, “yes, I would lay down my life for a friend,” but would I lay down my life for someone else’s political expediency?

In my experience of life, very few people have a literal understanding of Jesus’ words about laying down one’s life than those who have served.

For most of us, these words are theoretical or figurative.

I’m sure there is today, and have been for many generations, preachers who get up and talk about laying down one’s life in this way or that way;

Making different kinds of sacrifices for friends, family, neighbors, strangers, sojourners in the land.

But rarely, when we talk about laying down our life, do we mean the actual possibility of laying down our life.

In the military, that possibility is a real and present danger.

This is something that William D. Jones recognized, when he joined the 54th regiment of Berkshire County Massachusetts along with a few dozen other black men at the age of 45 in 1863.

He fought at the Battle of Morris Island in Beaufort South Carolina in 1864, and lived to be 84 years old.

William Jones knew what it was like for people to lay down their lives for something they believed in, because by 1863 there was no pretense anymore.

When that war started in earnest at the Battle of Centreville Virginia, people went out to the battlefield and took picnics to watch the spectacle.

After that first major battle, it wasn’t a dress-up game anymore.

People were really dying, people were really laying down their lives because of the decisions others had made on their behalf.

This week, William D. Jones got a new headstone, and it reminds us of what people are willing to do for their friends because of Jesus’ commandment to love on another as he loved us.

Another soldier who helps us to learn this lesson was Lieutenant Wilfred Owen.

He was a 25 year old poet, who fought in World War 1.

A few months ago, I read you the most famous English poem from that War called In Flanders Field.

Owen wrote many poems in his life.

He began writing when he was 10 years old.

He rekindled his creativity after being knocked unconscious and stuck in bomb crater for several days on the front lines in France.

As he recuperated in a hospital from shell shock and other injuries, Wilfred Owen began writing again at the advice of his doctor with a new friend, Siegfried Sassoon.

He was encouraged to use his art to help heal his body and soul.

Reflecting on seeing the calvary monuments in France, Owen penned one of his most famous poems At a Calvary near the Ancre.

It goes like this:

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

In this war, He too loses a limb,

But his disciples hide apart;

And now the soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied

The scribes on all the people shove

And bawl allegiance to the state,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their life; they do not hate.


In this poem, Owen puts us in a type of anamnesis while at one of these decorative calvaries that mark the crossroads of the French countryside.

(remember anamnesis, the idea that when we do Eucharist, we are transported into the upper room of memory)

What Owen sees in his life as a soldier is the life and love of Jesus.

As he passes a calvary, where one of Jesus’ limbs has been hewn by battle, he sees that Jesus is wounded like he is, and he recognizes a nearer solidarity with the God who laid down his life for his friends.

The disciples hide apart, but the soldiers bear with Him.

The priests stroll by, seeing the what, but not the why.

Understanding what Jesus did, but never coming close to figuring out why someone would lay down their life out of love.

The scribes, the journalists, who fan the flames of patriotism in a time of devastation and sacrifice are equated with the Scribes of the Bible, who called for Jesus’ life.

They also see the what, but not the why.

People dying, sacrifice, greater glory, Rule Britannia, down with Tyranny.

But they don’t get that at the fundamental level that the only people passing by a Calvary are those who are willing to give their life as Jesus did.

To the rest, it was a theoretical proposition, to Owen it was real.

Wilfred Owen died on November 4th 1918, almost seven days to the hour before the armistice.

In some ways, he never should have been there after his injuries.

In some ways, he was a bit naïve and had a romantic idea of being a war poet.

But, in his poetry and in his letters home to his mom, there was no doubt that he was under no illusions about what war cost, and why people lay down their lives;

The Greater Love, the Abiding Love of Jesus for His friends.

In all of these stories, the common theme is the commandment to abide in love.

Notice, it’s not just a suggestion, it’s a commandment.

Abiding in Love isn’t just a good idea, or a beneficial thing like daily moisturizing or vibing good energy.

Abiding in Love is the only way to be in relationship with Jesus.

Did you know that even trees live this kind of life of abiding love?

If you see an old tree that is dying, scientists have recorded instances where a dying tree will send all of its nutrients into the soil so that when it dies it continues to take care of all of the trees and plants around it.

Too many times, political decision makers take for granted the fact that our soldiers are willing to lay down their lives for each other and for us.

They’re like the priests and scribes of Wilfred Owen’s poem, walking past the Calvaries and only seeing the what, taking advantage of the why;

Or like the disciples, hiding apart.

Instead, Jesus invites us to abide in love and to become our brother’s or sister’s or sibling’s keeper.

His logic is circular, “abide in my love, if you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, this is my commandment that you love one another…”

Jesus is inviting you into a circle where he wants you to follow his commandment, and his commandment is to love.

We can talk about all kinds of love, when we are talking about abiding in Love, but when Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you,” he is leading us to a Calvary.

You see, we are on a pilgrimage in this life; a pilgrimage toward abiding love.

And every now and again we need a place to stop and to remember what love looks like; we need to find a Calvary where “shelled roads part,” where trees put their life back into the soil.

We need to remember that love means me sacrificing me, not you sacrificing me, or me sacrificing you.

Did you know that we even have one of these Lead me to a Calvary moments in our service, a stop during our pilgrimage after the Peace.

Every week, when I stand here at the front of the chancel and declare, “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…”

It is a Calvary, where you are invited into a place to think about the why as we celebrate a savior who sat at table the night before he layed down his life for his friends.

It’s a head up, “hey pay attention, you’re about to see what love looks like;”

Sharing food with friends, forgiving one another even in the face of denial and betrayal, allowing ourselves to be changed from servants of Jesus into his friends.

We have a song we’ll sing in a little bit, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Jesus is your friend, when you obey his commandment of abiding in love.

Today, eventhough it’s not a major holiday for our veterans, let their devotion and these stories remind you that laying down your life is not meant to be a hypothetical, it’s meant to be a call to the greatest type of love.

May we never take this kind of love for granted,

May we never miss the point of our Calvaries.


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