Rev. Cathy Cox

Homily – 4 Epiphany C, January 30, 2022 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

I do not want to speak abstractly about the love that is God – and that comes from God. I want to show you what it actually looks like in practice, in the life of an ordinary person. And it has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, or chocolate, or hearts and flowers.

On December 16, 1944, the famous Battle of the Bulge began in the Ardennes forest in Belgium. It was Germany’s last major offensive, and was intended to divide the American, French and British troops to keep them from moving on to Berlin. The cold was ferocious. The food was bad. And the attacks of the German army were unrelenting.

US Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, the “Golden Lions” was captured by German forces at the very onset of the battle. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Edmonds was twenty-five years old, and had only been on the front line for five days when his unit was overrun. You can imagine how he felt.
Edmonds’ captors took him to Stalag lX-A, a camp for enlisted personnel just east of Bonn, Germany. As the senior non-commissioned officer at the camp, Edmonds found himself responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

On January 27, 1945, the day Auschwitz was liberated, when it was obvious to most that Germany was losing the war, the camp Commandant ordered Edmonds to assemble all the Jewish soldiers so that they could be separated from the other prisoners. This could only mean a forced death march or immediate murder at the camp itself.

Defiantly, Edmonds, assembled all 1,275 American POWs.
Furious, the commandant walked up to Edmonds, put a pistol to his forehead, and demanded that he identify all the Jewish soldiers in the ranks. Edmonds, a committed Christian, a Baptist, responded sternly, “We are all Jews here.”

Edmonds then coolly warned the German commandant that if he intended to shoot the Jews, he’d have to shoot everyone. He reminded him also that if he harmed any of Edmonds’ men he would be prosecuted for war crimes when Germany finally lost the war.
And he reminded the commandant that the Geneva Conventions required POWs to give only their name, rank and serial number, not their religion.

The commandant, faced with that calm defiance, that act of love by Edmonds for his men, backed down.

Edmonds’ actions are credited with saving the lives of 200 American Jewish soldiers. After the war was over, Edmonds returned home.
But he never told anyone about this event.

It was only after his death in 1985 and the review of his diaries by his son, that this story came to light. After investigation, many of those American soldiers, Jews and others, affirmed the truth of his diary’s account.
The state of Israel declared Edmonds “Righteous among the Gentiles” in 2015.

Now here’s the thing. In every place of horror, there are very ordinary people like him who do extraordinary things to protect and defend those who cannot help themselves. This IS love. Thousands of stories are told about German, Dutch, French, English and other European Christians who stepped forward to shield Jews from certain death – often at very great risk to themselves, just as this American serviceman did. Some of them died for their trouble. Of those who survived, none of them ever said they regretted it.
Most of them never spoke much about what they had done. And none of them bragged about it. They did what they did without fanfare, and without thinking of themselves as heroic, or even unusual. They simply said, later, that they did what anyone would do – what was normal, and what the Gospel told them to do.
But in fact, most people didn’t do it. Most people under Nazi occupation found themselves claiming ignorance, or were afraid for their lives, or were actively complicit. This is one of the realities of the Gentile response during the holocaust. And it ought to shame us.

Why? Why were so many, including Christians, unable to act, when others did? I think it was simply that they hadn’t practiced resistance to evil, or truth-telling, or hope or love long enough or courageously enough before the crisis, so they found themselves unprepared when it came. This was true of most American Christians during the Civil Rights movement as well.

Now the text today doesn’t say that if you are a preacher or teacher without love that your words will be useless. They might well still change someone else’s life. But you, yourself will be empty – like a noisy gong. You will clang away, but you won’t have a real person who preaches or teaches our of the abidance of your heart.

It doesn’t say that the one who offers herself in place of another who is endangered, or who gives away all her possessions to the poor, has done anything worthless. The ones who receive the gifts will still benefit. But she herself will have gained nothing – will not have become the soul she was intended to be in Love. And that is tragic.

Love, Paul says, is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful; love is not arrogant or rude; it isn’t irritable or resentful – it doesn’t demand its own way. I would add that Love doesn’t seek its own safety and security either. You see that in Jesus’ own life – and in today’s gospel.
He doesn’t retaliate against the Nazarenes, his neighbors. He doesn’t even try to defend himself. He doesn’t attempt to out-argue their rage. Jesus simply walks through them and goes on his way.

And he went on for the next three years doing what he had been given to do. He welcomed the strangers, the outcast, the unapproved, the marginalized, foreigners, tax-collectors prostitutes, gentiles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, taught preached, challenged every status quo -enduring everything, believing, hoping, enduring everything. He accepted suspicion, rejection, and ultimately death without turning aside to an easier way. That is Love – It never fails – never ends – never gives up.
But Jesus became who he was by practicing love. Not even Jesus became who he was in a day.

Every individual act – whether good or bad – will come to an end.
Every word, once spoken or written, is done.
Our faith grows and changes, is challenged and matures – but it, too, will finally end.
Hope, however courageously we practice it in dark places – will end.
Hatred will end, as the Third Reich did.

But Love? Love never fails. It never comes to an end.
Why? Because it alone originates in God, and participates in God’s own nature which is itself everlasting. God never ends. Love cannot.
That is why it is the “greatest.”

So how do we live like that now?

We practice. Like learning the piano, or basketball, or a foreign language, we practice love. We make mistakes, we fail, we flounder around and make a mess of it sometimes. We have to go back and begin again a whole lot of times to get it right even in small ways.

And as we do, we learn – like my grandchildren do in basketball tournaments, not to be afraid of any opponent or any competitor. Opposition show us our strengths and our weaknesses.

We learn also to tell the truth even in little things. The other day a friend of mine remarked that it wasn’t “the schools” that were banning important and valuable books, but some vague, right-wing “them.” She acted as if there was nothing love could do.
I disagreed. And I disagree right now. Where were the teachers who refused to go along with an order to stop sharing books and discussing the holocaust, or racism, or sexism? Where were the principals who stood in the door and refused to allow “them” to come in and remove books? Where were the librarians who hid the texts so that “they” couldn’t find them? Where were the school boards and parents who stood up to governors and mayors and said “NO?”
The holocaust began in book-burning too, after all.

You see? It’s the little things. I don’t know the whole story of Roddie Edmonds. But I know this: If he hadn’t steadily practiced faith and hope and love and truth-telling before January 27, 1945, he wouldn’t have stood with a pistol to his forehead and declared, “We are all Jews here.” “If you intend to shoot Jews you will have to shoot us all.”
Souls aren’t made in a moment.

Look. Fear can’t afford love. Pride doesn’t understand selfless love. Self-centeredness can’t make room for the inconveniences of love. But we can. And those who receive such love never forget it, even if the one who gave it never tells anyone.

But there is this, too: We can only be what we are. We can only give what we have been given, what we have been willing to receive. In Christ Jesus, that is Love – and not one other thing.

And that is why we come together week after week to tell the story, to sing it, to embrace its power, to celebrate it, to receive the God who comes to us as Love in bread and wine. We rehearse it. We practice. We confess our sins. We offer peace. We receive forgiveness. And we get up and determine to live who we are the next day.

So let’s do it – let’s determine to love that kind of love – consciously, deliberately, eagerly. We never know when it might make the difference between life and death for someone else. When Roddie Edmonds left Kentucky, he didn’t, either.



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