Text: Matthew 22:34-40 (the Greatest Commandment)
Today as we honour sacrifice and mourn loss, we remember the start of a war 100 years ago in 1914 and the end of a war 75 years later in 1989.
Twenty five years ago today on November 9, 1989, the Cold War ended as the Berlin Wall was breached. Germans from East and West rushed to the other side to hug loved ones from whom they had been separated for 28 years. They wept with joy as Communism crumbled in the face of popular protest and as they tasted the first fruits of a Europe that might finally become whole.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was not only the end of the Cold War, but of the wars that had preceded it. World War One from 1914 to 1918, World War Two from 1939 to 1945, and the Cold War from 1946 to 1989 can be seen as three stages of the same nightmare, a nightmare that began 100 years ago with the start of the Great War on July 28, 1914.
By November 1914, 100 years ago, several hundred thousand soldiers had already been slaughtered, and hopes for a quick victory by either side had faded — although no one imagined that 17 million more people, including 60,000 Canadians, would be killed before an armistice would be signed, on November 11, 1918.
So much horror and death. So much to remember and honour. So much sacrifice. But sometimes I fear that we do not remember the sacrifices that might best help us connect the horrors of war with the Greatest Commandment that Jesus highlights in our Gospel Reading today.
Jesus says that the Greatest Commandment has two parts: love of God and love of neighbour. In his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus models the path to salvation, which also has two parts. With God’s help, it is a path on which we are willing to die for love of God and neighbour but are unwilling to kill for empire.
Willingness to die for the sake of love; and refusing to kill for the sake of empire: together they equal salvation, I believe. All the rest is commentary.
But before the choir sings, this sermon does offer commentary including stories from Germany in 1918 and Hungary in 1989. It might seem unusual to tell stories from two of Canada’s First World War enemies on Remembrance Sunday, but I hope they will reveal some of the links between sacrifice and salvation
For me, World War One is the model of a perfectly useless war. Most scholars say it arose from the frustration of the German Empire, which had vaulted ahead of its European neighbours economically but found its colonial ambitions cut off because most of the world had already been colonized by Britain and France.
The scale of the First World War is staggering. More than 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians were killed.
The Canadian young men who enlisted did so for the best of motives. Their King and Emperor, George V, told them it was the right thing to do. Their Prime Minister and elected government said the same. Their churches told them it was a sacred duty to kill Germans, Hungarians, and Turks. It was supposed to be over quickly. It was a chance to see Europe. Why wouldn’t they go?
The same can be said about the soldiers on the other side. Their various emperors and governments had declared war on Britain, France and Russia. All churches blessed the slaughter: Lutherans in Germany, Catholics in Austro-Hungary, and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria and Serbia for the Central Powers; Anglicans in England, Methodists in Canada, Orthodox Christians in Russia, and Catholics in France and Italy for the Allies. 100 years ago, almost all churches were state establishments. Church and empire were often one.
Millions went to the trenches to slaughter their neighbours with the blessings of priests and ministers ringing in their ears. It was supposed to be a sacred cause. And the soldiers did make it sacred by sacrificing their youth, their health and often their lives for the cause of church and empire.
The words sacrifice and sacred share the same root in the Latin word sacer, which means holy. And so, for the past 96 years, the celebration of the end of the First World War each November 11th has been a sacred moment. Each year, with great feeling, we say, “Lest we forget.”
Except some things, I fear, we have forgotten, which leads to a question: why did the Great War end on November 11th, 1918? The simple answer is that after four years of slaughter, the Allies had finally defeated the Central Powers. The war had been a stalemate until the United States — encouraged by the overthrow of the Czar in Russia in March 1917, which briefly led to a liberal Russian government that the Americans found acceptable as an ally in a way that the Czar was not — entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917.
By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and finally the Turks surrendered to the Allies.
Throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson seeking honourable terms for an armistice. But Wilson was an idealist. Unlike the European powers, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy.
Wilson also insisted that the Kaiser — who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of both King George V and Czarina Alexandra of Russia — abdicate as a condition for peace. Abdication was not acceptable to the German military, so on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch a final attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. Except this time, the sailors of the German fleet said, “No! We refuse to kill any more British, Canadian, or American sailors. We won’t go.”
Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 7th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution and handed power to the Socialist Party. The Socialist government then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.
Without the revolution that swept the Kaiser and his government from power, World War One would still have ended. But without it, many more thousands would have died, and the war might have limped on until December or January, in which case the 11th hour of the 11 month of each year would not have the sacred significance it has held for us these past 96 years.
After years of obedience to church and empire and after more than one million German deaths, the German sailors had said, “Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war.” They had realized that English, Canadian, and American soldiers were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours, and as neighbours, they deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, the Kaiser, who along with his government and church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In that moment of rebellion, these German rebels received their own salvation. They expanded their notion of neighbour and led the world a huge step toward its salvation as well . . .
As for the Berlin Wall, there are many reasons why it finally fell 25 years ago. One of them was the unwillingness of ordinary East Germans, Poles, and Hungarians to continue to obey the military orders of their Communist dictators. The brief story I now tell comes from 25 years ago in Hungary on August 19th, 1989.
In early 1989, Communist Hungary held a multi-party election for the first time. It led to a more liberal government, which opened its border across the Danube River to Austria. Being able to travel to the West was a huge gain for Hungarians. It also excited people in East Germany, who had been separated from their countrymen in West Germany since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Some of them travelled to Hungary to see if they could make it to West Germany via Austria.
On August 19, 1989, anti-Communist activists in Hungary and Germany organized a peace picnic on the Hungarian-Austrian border. After the picnic, the Germans decided to walk across the bridge to Austria. The Hungarian border guard in charge of that bridge, Bella Arpad, was taken aback when he saw them approaching the bridge. He had orders to shoot any Germans who tried to cross.
But in an instant, he decided to disobey those orders. He told his soldiers to stand down. The picnickers made it to Austria, and tens of thousands of East Germans started traveling the road down to Hungary to make the roundabout trip back to family and friends in the West. It was the first breach in the Iron Curtain in 45 years, and it soon unleashed a flood of protests in Leipzig and Berlin, which brought the Wall down on November 9th, 1989.
Bella Arpad might have been jailed or killed for his disobedience; but on that day he decided that he would rather be punished or even die than kill for empire. He decided to sacrifice his career and potentially his life so that he could properly love his neighbours — the East German peace activists. Today, Bella Arpad is a hero, as are the millions of eastern Europeans who organized, rallied, and protested until the Wall came down, and 45 years of Cold War ended.
In all wars, soldiers sacrifice themselves for love of neighbour, for their fellow comrades in arms in the first instance. Sometimes in times of crisis, they expand their definition of neighbour to include so-called enemies. This is what happened in Germany in 1918 and Hungary in 1989, I think. At such moments of Grace, peace becomes possible and Love blossoms into its full flower.
Jesus lived in a time not so different from that of World War One. Like everyone in Palestine, he lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Jesus stood up to religious leaders who collaborated with that empire, and he blazed a path of non-violent resistance to it. Jesus could have stayed away from Jerusalem, but he went there knowing that it would mean sacrificing his life. He was willing to die for his friends. God raised him to new life and revealed a path for all of us to follow.
Every Sunday, we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, and with God’s help, we participate in his resurrected life by trying to follow him on the painful but joyous path to Jerusalem and the cross.
This Tuesday, when we remember the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in the wars of the last 100 years, I will also remember the path of love and sacrifice taken by German sailors in 1918 and by eastern European rebels in 1989.
Like Jesus, they expanded their definition of neighbour to embrace so-called enemies. Like Jesus, their willingness to die for love of neighbour and their unwillingness to kill for empire moved them and this broken world closer to salvation.
May we all receive the same Grace to rise to a new life in Christ that is beyond empire and war.