God, in the Existential Crisis: A Memorial Day Sermon

Presentation1*Sermon of Sunday, May 27, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), on the second Sunday in Pentecost, a Memorial Day weekend.  This photo above was taken of the late Rev. E. Tipton Carroll, Sr., when he was burying soldiers following the Battle of Munda in 1943, in the New Solomons.  “Tip” was an amazing minister of the Gospel, trusted friend and mentor.  He was integral to the path that led me into the ministry.  I have quoted a huge part of his letter, but while I have had my own experiences, his insights just “speak.” -Vinson

Gospel of John 3:1-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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INTRODUCTION

Memorial Day.

It isn’t on the church year calendar and yet how do we not address this day which has an element of dissonance?  A time to relax and enjoy treasured relationships, and yet also a day of remembering deceased family members and friends who gave the last measure of devotion in military service to us and to our nation.

Each of us comes to it with our own life experiences.

I know for me, the day is a fresh reminder that I am no longer conducting memorial services for service members who died on active duty, and it’s Veterans Day that is set aside to honor those who did not die on active duty, truth is my mind still tends to bring to my remembrance the veterans whose graveside military honors I provided over the years, especially the three chaplains I served alongside: all of whom I buried in 2015, with two of their lives cut short – one who had been medically retired due to combat-related exposure to nerve gas and the other a suspected suicide.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up because while it is perhaps routine to think of tomorrow as a national holiday, as those who seek God, I am going to suggest the day may have something powerful to teach us about the meaningfulness of each of our lives with the very presence of God at the center of our existence.

FOR INSTANCE

To get at this, let me tell you about a friend of my parents I got to know after my Dad died when I was in college.  In his mid seventies, the barrel-chested son of Kentucky mountain coal country, Tip Carroll had finally fully retired a few years before from active ministry.  In my early twenties, I wasn’t prepared for someone fifty years my senior to so well understand me… as he became my confidant… always knowing the right questions to ask or sage counsel to quietly offer.  I noticed that in everything there was in him an unusual peace.

When I wondered how he came to be this way, we ended up talking about his experiences as an Army chaplain during the Pacific Campaign.  At 40 years of age, he left his congregation to serve for more than three years in the extraordinarily strenuous life of a combat chaplain.  Leaving the comfort of home, he took up the care of young men amid the carnage of war, even as he began a very personal search: – the desire to understand the true nature of people – whether or not we are “good or evil”… whether or not we are truly created in the image of God – by experiencing with his men their reactions and responses in battle.

Back about eight years ago, I ran into one of Tip’s sons at a General Assembly back.  Himself an Army chaplain who had served in combat during Vietnam, Tip Jr was gracious enough to send me some copies of some of his dad’s wartime letters.  So, on this Memorial Day, I’d like to read you a portion of what was a much longer letter, written by Tip to a minister friend in late 1943:

As you supposed, a fellow does do a lot of thinking and rethinking of his beliefs and convictions during combat experience.  I am no exception.

There has been little or no change in my fundamental beliefs and attitude.  I have had confirmed some things I believe.  One is that man is fundamentally good and unselfish.

During combat I have seen, time and again, men completely forget self and repeatedly risk their lives to aid a comrade.  These actions were not due to a sense of heroism, they sprang from a fundamental urge that men are mutually dependent upon each other and actually are each other’s keepers.  The last drop of water and morsel of food, with no more in sight for hours or perhaps days, were freely given to some fellow soldier who needed them.  Men with starved expression refused food when offered by another soldier because they knew the man was as hungry as they.  There was enough for one, but not for two.  One chose possible death that the other might survive.  The other chose possible death that he might share with another.

When men are stripped of all social props and are on their own, to live or die on their own, with death behind every tree, every jungle entanglement; when lying helpless while machine gun bullets graze their backs; when mortar artillery shells blow the occupants of the adjoining hole into bits; when bombs whine down at an accelerated speed and number, hitting within a short distance; when little white regularly spaced puffs of dust are headed straight at a fellow lying prostrate on the ground as a plane zooms past strafing; men are fundamentally religious not because they are afraid to die.

They have walked into the face of death several times, knowing that they probably would come back alive.

They are religious because there are none of the social acts and mores to separate them from God.  [emphasis mine]

They are face to face with God and they know it.  [emphasis mine]

They rely upon God absolutely because the death dealing weapons in their hands are useless.  They realize how weak and useless they are, notwithstanding the might and power of physical force at their disposal.

There are moments in their lives when they realize they are undone unless there is a God who cares for the individual.

There isn’t time to stop and reason about which theology of God is best, which one satisfies the intellect, which one is most logical.

There isn’t time to turn over slowly and deliberately each hindrance involved in accepting God as real and present.

Seconds are sometimes all there are.  But in those seconds the wisdom of ages is crowded.

Man bursts through all the partitions which separate him from God; he comes boldly into the presence of God and finds God there.

Reason as one may; explain psychologically and philosophically as some will; men who have had the experience of God’s presence will never be convinced there is a doubt of his reality.

They may not be able to give a clear, understandable intellectual account or proof of his presence.  But they know he is real.

They have been with him when all other realities have faded out of experience, leaving only God and the individual.

You may call this mysticism or by some other name.  By whatever name it is called or however it is explained, it reveals this; that when men are deprived of all human achievements and are left stark nude as simply man, there is a part of them which recognizes God because [that part] is of the same character as God.

These words, were penned by Tip not long after a series of battles in the New Solomons campaign, one in which he earned a Legion of Merit for Valor, repeatedly having dragged his dead and dying men to their lines – often from within 30 feet of enemy pillboxes while under machine gun fire.  It was during that time that the photo on the screen was taken of him burying the dead after the Battle of Munda.  As an aside, this photo was taken by the AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, who would two years later photograph the iconic flag-raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

It is in such moments in life, as Tip wrote, that one “comes boldly into the presence of God and finds God there,” for in that moment “there is only God and the individual.”  An experience that confirmed and deepened Tip’s faith, which came through to me as a young man via his utter absence of judgment when I found myself in a time of challenge – finally putting me on the path leading to ministry.

I think we would be mistaken if we limited his keen insight only to those who’ve worn the cloth of our nation.  ANYONE who’s been through the fire of existential crisis — in whatever form it has presented itself — knows full well that moment when those partitions — of which Tip spoke — fall away.  It is an image not unlike the veil shrouding the Holy of Holies falling away at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion.

SO WHAT?

It seems to me that this is the very place in life which Tip described in 1943, as he rested between island battles, of the clarifying moment in life when one is faced with the reality that one is undone, unless there is a God who cares for the individual.  It is then when one comes face-to-face with the God who cares for the individual.

If it is amid such existential crisis that the clarion call of the Gospel and its word of hope stands out in starkest relief against the darkened sky, the words are ever-present and eternal.  Said our Lord, in ageless words,

“… God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” [John 3:16-17].

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