Martyrs and Memories (Sixth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

 

 

I.
During World War I, British military chaplain, the Reverend David Railton, stumbled across a grave on the Western front. The grave marker was a rough wooden cross that had the following words inscribed on it in pencil: “an unknown British soldier.” What Chaplain Railton saw that day caused him to appeal to his government, urging it to create a national monument in memory of all the unknown, fallen soldiers who’d given their lives in service to their country.  The idea received support from the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as King George V. What resulted was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in London’s Westminster Abbey.
The French soon followed suit and erected its monument in the Arc de Triomphe. It is called La tombe du soldat inconnu.
The United States may have been third to create such a monument. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here in our country, in Arlington National Cemetery, was originally a mausoleum in which the unidentifiable remains of a lone soldier were interred, and the remains of that soldier were symbolic of all the remains of countless soldiers whose lives had been lost in service to their country and who, once fallen, remained unknown. Identities were unknown.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was reconstructed and after the reconstruction officially became known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, still at Arlington National Cemetery.  It contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from World War I and World War II and the Korean conflict. Each soldier was presented with the Medal of Honor at the time of her or his internment. The tomb is guarded 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year by a special trained group from the Third United States Infantry nicknamed The Old Guard.  A different soldier comes on duty from the Old Guard every 30 minutes of every 24-hour period, and guards the final resting places of the Unknowns.
To be a member of the Old Guard is regarded as a high privilege.  Whoever is invited to join the Old Guard must make a total dedication of self to serve in this essentially sacred capacity.  This is the pledge each soldier chosen to serve in the Old Guard must take before her or his service can begin:

 

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest
under my eternal vigilance.

 
The soldier who wishes to undertake this responsibility/opportunity must commit two years of her or his life to this singular specific task.  During this time, she or he lives in a barracks under the Tomb.  The soldier may never, ever use alcohol while undertaking these duties, nor may she or he use curse words or other foul language.  In the beginning, the soldier is said to have pledged not to drink any alcohol on- or off-duty during the two years of active guarding or for the rest of his life.  Similarly, he could not swear in public during those two years of duty or for the rest of his life.  Back to the present, a soldier serving in this honor guard cannot disgrace the uniform by fighting interestingly enough during the two years of guarding the Tomb or ever thereafter.
Guards who serve are given lapel pins indicating who they are and what they do.  These may be and usually are worn after the two year term is over as well.  These military women and men are rightly proud of the duty they have undertaken.  Presently, there are some 400 active and retired military personnel who may wear this badge of honor.
The memorial words engraved into the mausoleum read: “Here Rests in Honored Glory American Soldiers Known But to God.”
I did not know until I began putting my thoughts together for this Easter sermon that our country has two other tombs for unknown soldiers. One is right up the road in Philadelphia: it is the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier and is housed in Washington Square. The third is the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier at Fort Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi.  I believe these were built after the Tomb of the Unknowns even though the history they reflect preceded World War I.
It turns out that there are several of these all around the world. A few I’d mention, for no particular reason, are the Australian War Memorial in Canberra where the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier stands.  Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the National War Memorial, in Ottawa’s Confederation Square. Egypt has its Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo very near the tomb of President Anwar Sadat. In Greece the Monument of the Unknown Soldier is in front of the Greek Parliament building so the lawmakers see it coming and going; like the American Tomb, the Greek Tomb is guarded around the clock by an elite guard.  Their guards are part of an elite presidential detail called the Evzones.  In Iraq there is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad.  Israel has the Garden of Missing Soldiers on Mount Herzl near Jerusalem.  The Philippines, in the city of Makati, has its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Spain has its monument to the anonymous fallen near Madrid.
You don’t have to have a known name to be remembered for your bravery and your sacrifice.  Neither do you have to have a tomb so that your contribution may be appropriately recognized.  In a nonmilitary context, Wolfgang Mozart’s body was tossed into a mass grave for paupers and sprinkled with lime until the grave was full enough to fill in with dirt.  This unseemly farewell to the most amazing musical mind of all time because he was poverty stricken at the time of his death, having wasted all the money he could make, hasn’t kept musicians from giving Mozart and his compositions their due.

II.
Viktor Emil Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.  In 1930, as a young psychiatrist, he was put in charge of a ward in a psychiatric hospital for the treatment of female patients with suicidal tendencies.  When the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938, Frankl was made director of the Neurology Department at the Rothschild Hospital, the only Jewish hospital allowed to remain open and receive patients during the early Nazi years.
In 1942, with hatred of Jews in Europe at its highest, he, his wife, and his parents were deported to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp near Prague.  This would be the first of FOUR concentration camps in which he would be imprisoned.  One of the four was the most feared of them all:  Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
At Theresienstadt, he caught on immediately to the effective emotional games the Nazis were playing with those whom they captured.  Upon entering the camps, the men and women–including husbands and wives–were separated from each other.  In their respective areas of the camp, the new prisoners were forced to strip; their clothing was taken away and destroyed.  They were shaved so that even the hair on their bodies was taken from them.  Their names were forgotten, and each one became a number.  Frankl had carried with him a manuscript of his life’s work, the only copy; that was yanked out of his hands and burned to a crisp.  The Nazis were trying to steal everything from them, most significantly their identities, their inner selves.
In time, Frankl’s wife, father, mother, and brother all died in those camps.  Only he and his sister survived–a handful among countless tragedies, but each one just as tragic and just as significant as the next.
Dr. Frankl believed that there were two different kinds of meaning in life:

 

1. Ultimate meaning
Ultimate meaning is a meaning we can never fully reach, but we can catch a glimpse of it at the horizon now and then.  It can be God, he said, but also science as the search for truth, nature, and evolution for those who do not believe in God.
2. Meaning of the moment
All the time each of us has to answer the questions life asks us; and, therefore, it is important to understand the meaning of each moment by fulfilling the demands life places on us. When life has no meaning, it becomes empty.  Under these circumstances we live in what Frankl calls an “existential vacuum.”  It is a state of inertia, boredom, and apathy.  All too many of us know exactly how that feels.  If this state persists, it progresses into existential frustration, and eventually becomes a “neurosis.”   So what do we do?  We try to fill the existential vacuum with drugs, violence, also with food, overwork, sports, etc.  Yet, if we are under the power of the neurosis, we remain unfulfilled.  That is not the only option open to us, however–regardless of how grim a present situation may be.

 
So, if we don’t know how or if we’ve forgotten how, how can we find meaning in life?   Frankl points to three ways, and he calls them the “meaning triangle.”

 

1. Creativity (giving something to the world through your own unique self-expression: using your talents in various ways to create something tangible or intangible for someone else).
2. Experiencing (receiving from the world: through nature, culture, relationships, interactions with others, and with our environment).

3. Change of attitude (Even if we can’t change a situation or circumstance, we can still choose our attitude toward it; this is often a self-transcending way of finding meaning, especially in unavoidable suffering such as he experienced and observed in the horrid concentration camps).

 

Our healthy human core lies in our spiritual dimension, which Dr. Frankl called our noetic dimension; therefore, the medicine chest of his method of doing therapy with patients, especially after his experience as a Holocaust survivor, called logotherapy, is to be found in the noetic dimension.  There, the “defiant power of the human spirit” has to be activated and brought to bear on current life situations to cause the desired change that is healing or life-giving.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!  Hear that again; it’s the sink-in sentence for the week, and just in case it isn’t yet evident to you, this is powerfully related to resurrection.  Here it is again:  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
Attributes of a healthy noetic dimension include:

 

1.Responsibility (not from, but responsibility to)
2. Authenticity and creativity
3. Choices
4. Values
5. Self-transcendence
6. Will to meaning
7. Love
8. Conscience
9. Ideals and ideas

 
Somewhere, Dr. Frankl tells the story of a night in the barracks when he tried to discuss some of these ideas with his fellow prisoners.  He was surprised when several of them came up to him with tears in their eyes wanting to know more about how to make a decision not to lose themselves whatever the Nazis did or didn’t do.  Frankl was surprised because so many of the prisoners had had to let their emotional selves die to be able to withstand all the abuse that took place before they were marched into the gas chambers.  Though they’d be buried in mass unmarked graves by people who thought they were no more than trash to be thrown out, Frankl insisted as he talked with them that their lives and their deaths had meaning.  You don’t have to have a casket, a grave marker, or an obituary in order for your death to have meaning for you and those who love you.
Holocaust memorials, in many ways, serve the same purpose as tombs to unknown soldiers. Great writer and himself a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel says that the one thing we must not do out of respect for the martyred millions is to forget what happened to a staggering number of people–all officially anonymous as far as Hitler’s minions were concerned, but not to their loved ones and not to God.

III.
Martyrs other than Jesus have a powerful supporting role in the great drama we call the book of Revelation.  Two key passages take us where we need to be today.
The first passage is from Revelation chapter 6, and remember that everything–seriously, everything–that you hear me reading from the book of Revelation is a symbol, but it isn’t there simply for literary creativity; it’s there to make a point.  This segment is from the famous section where the Lamb of Heaven, who is the resurrected Jesus, is opening the seals of a great scroll.  As each seal is opened, an event of significance takes place.  Listen to the words of the drama, especially the words of the martyrs.  John the visionary who wrote the drama is narrating.

 

Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!”  I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.  When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, “Come!”  And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.  When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”  When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!”  I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.  When the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”

 

They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
That doesn’t seem very encouraging to me.  Hang on a little longer while the rest of your families are killed as you were.  In the mean time, you get to wear these gorgeous victors’ white robes.  Aren’t they lovely?
These anonymous martyrs wanted their deaths avenged.  After all, they’d died as martyrs for doing what they believed their faith demanded of them.
I presume the martyrs mentioned in chapter 20 is a different group of martyrs; they’d been martyred in a specific way–by beheading–refusing to worship the Roman Emperor’s statue on command.

 

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.  He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.  Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the risen Jesus a thousand years.

 

These martyrs who’d been beheaded as their punishment were called on to rule with Jesus during the thousand years when instigations of evil on earth are locked away.
Of course, there’s no literal thousand year reign or literal embodiments of evil, but the symbol of those who got the worst that life could hand them, Jesus included, are now rulers, not prisoners.  Those who had known them on earth had been taught to believe that those who were executed had displeased God somehow, and the book of Revelation is saying, “No!”  Look at where your loved ones are in the vision.  They are in God’s care, and they are ruling with Jesus.
You know who they were and are, and so does God.  Your memories, then, are much more than you knew.  Your memories allow you to relive emotionally, though not physically, every bit of joy, pride, excitement, and love you had for your loved one who was martyred for her or his faith.  No one can take that from you just as no one could take your loved one’s core identity from her or him.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
The typical Roman followup to a crucifixion was to have the body of the criminal tossed into the City of Jerusalem’s garbage dump where it would decay and/or burn up if a round of spontaneous combustion hit near the place where the body just happened to have been tossed.  Further, final ignominy.  Jesus’ body was spared that.  How a few of his followers got special Roman permission to handle the burial themselves is shocking, but that’s how the story goes.
The earliest written Gospel to tell a resurrection story is the Gospel of Matthew.  The earliest of the Gospels, Mark, has no clear resurrection story to tell; it has an empty tomb tale to tell, but no detailed resurrection account.  Whatever else you may want to make of the resurrection stories that show up in writing thirty-plus years after Jesus’ execution, we know that in part they were developed or fine-tuned to try to make sure no one could ever say that Jesus had been a nobody–one more anonymous martyr whose faith stance and bravery were cut down like a stalk of dried grass and suddenly gone with the wind, never to be heard from again.  Their memories of their encounters forced them to find a way to keep Jesus’ ways and his words.
Rather miraculously they have been kept alive.  Jesus’ earliest followers made certain people kept listening to his teachings as well as what those who knew him best wanted to preserve of stories of his acts.  Many of us are still listening and acting accordingly.
Awaiting execution or suffering as he hung from the cruel cross, Jesus himself undoubtedly needed to be reminded of what others have needed to know as they awaited for their call to the executioner’s block.  With the awareness that we are spirit, we recognize that what we have can be taken from us, but who we are never can!
Amen.

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