Worship: Maurice of Thebes Sermon

The following sermon was preached by Executive Officer Logan Isaac on Sep.22 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, based on Revised Common Lectionary readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (which are featured below in bold): Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, & Luke 16:1-13. “Proper 20,” in 2013, fell on September 22, the feastday for St. Maurice, whose passion is drawn from heavily (featured in italics). Preceding the sermon were hymns “This is My Song” (United Methodist Hymnal #437) and “When the Church of Jesus” (Hymn #592). Following the sermon was “O God of Every Nation” (Hymnal #435)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Grace to you and peace from your brothers and sisters in Durham, North Carolina, where I join you from Saint Josephs Episcopal Church, and greetings from your humble servants in Centurions Guild, an ecumenical community of soldiers and veterans wrestling between Christian faith, military service, and national identity, for whom I speak as Executive Officer.

I have come to this beautiful house of worship at the invitation of Reverend Bob, to share with you the stories of soldiers and the word of God we might have for the Church in our day, a day that has seen more prolonged war than ever before in national history. While war is not new by any means, its current length is unprecedented for those of us here in these united states.

Some people say that nothing good can come of war, and I used to think that as well. As a combat veteran, I know precisely the kinds of things that occur in war, how degrading and morally destructive acts performed in combat can be. I once heard a group of so-called peace activists shouting at soldiers in uniform, yelling “Monsters!” “Baby killers!” I could’t help but think to myself, just weeks from my own discharge, “Well, that’s half right…”

But far from being merely destructive, war produces great works of literature, provocative and inspiring oratory (including sermons), and sweeping changes in human civilization. More importantly, it produces people refined by the infernal flames that General Sherman quite astutely compared to modern combat. “War is hell,” he said, after laying waste to Atlanta upon his march south during the Civil War. I think he might be right, but if good things go into war, they sure as hell can come back out. After all, the earliest Christian creed insisted that Christ himself descended into the perditious abyss and rose to tell the tale.

Between his resurrection and ascension, we might think of Jesus as the exemplary combat veteran, if indeed Sherman was right in his comparison. Though without a doubt rough-hewn, I think Jesus as veteran is an appropriate and timely image. It certainly might speak prophetically to the 22 veterans in America who fall upon their own swords each and every day. Indeed, according to Department of Veterans Affairs internal reports, on average, a veteran will take their own life every 65 minutes. That is equivalent to one during each service this morning and another 20 besides that.

The presence and persistence of this pandemic seems a harsh word, a pill too bitter to swallow. It may be, and certainly has been. For many years now I have felt called to write it and to preach it, to make sure the people of God knew the hell that veterans bring back home with them. The whole church is to help us veterans wrestle the demons back to where they belong, to storm the gates of hell and then re-chart the maps to better navigate our route home again. Notice, however, that the wounds afflicting Jesus stubbornly refused to disappear upon his own return. Though his scars remained, Jesus’ post-deployment leave was not spent in mourning. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus suggests that until he ascends to heaven, his disciples shall not fast, saying “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” [Matt.9:15] This may lead us to wonder why and how, if our own veterans have such a hard time of it, he is able to shake the ash and brimstone from his sandals and get on about the life he was made for.

More broadly, there is much to be said for discerning the baby from the bathwater in Christian military service. It is a Word I continue to hear and speak, and I hope you will join in those conversations as they develop, through Centurions Guild or right here in your own community with those who’ve seen hell and have difficulty coming all the way home. But we should not dwell only on the dismal, for that is part of what fuels the epidemic of suicide. As much as I might harp on the subject of martial service, the goal is to eventually incorporate martially appropriate concepts into the otherwise “ordinary” life and worship of the church. Therefore, today, let us focus on one way in which a martial perspective informs our faith. For today we have been given the gift of Saint Maurice, whose passion helps illuminate today’s selection of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Maurice of Thebes

September 22nd is the feastday for Maurice, who was the commander of a large Roman military unit of some six thousand men. David Woods, a British scholar, has translated the story of Maurice and his North African unit, which was drafted from Thebes, near Luxor in Egypt. Maurice and his Theban Legion served in the third century, when Christianity was still illegal and suffered under occasional persecution. It was written that the entire unit was composed of Christians, which gives us a clue that the story was probably a fabrication. But like many Christian stories, the moral is more important than historical accuracy.

Maurice is close to my heart because he is the patron saint of infantries, like the one in which I served during my deployment to Iraq in 2004.  We both served in the most powerful military in the known world: Maurice for the Roman imperial command, and I, 1700 years later, for the United States Army. During Maurice’s time, it was rare to see Christians serving openly in the military not just because the religion was illegal, but because theologians cautioned that military and national allegiance could corrode Christian identity were the faithful not very careful to preserve important distinctions. In our own day, our country is thought to be Christian and the military God’s hand of judgment, but this idea fails to differentiate the baby from the bath water, it can lead to deep confusion about the nature of our service as Christians, as though the term “Christian soldier” is redundant.

The Bible, however, is clear that the nations of the world are not one and the same with the people of God. Indeed, we hear from today’s Psalm; “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?”

Jesus is not beholden to the nations of the world. At best, they are charged with maintaining peace and justice, with punishing evil and rewarding the good. Romans 13 reminds us that they, the nations “do not bear the sword without reason.” [Rom.13:4] Rulers and authorities are merely servants beneath God’s rule and are required to do good and punish evil. Insofar as presidents and prime ministers serve the interests of justice and peace, they are to be obeyed, but obedience is contingent upon adherence to this principal. Christians do not obey for obedience’s sake, for we know better than to “just follow orders.” Soldiers who happen to be Christians obey based upon the nature of the command and its alignment with God’s will. Maurice knew this and learned the hard way that all too often the authorities are in name only, that there are times in which they forfeit their claims to our obedience by overstepping their bounds and asking of us actions that God commands against, like killing.

The year was 287 A.D., so the story goes, and Maurice’s six thousand strong unit, “active in battle and renowned for their courage,” was on the march to help with a campaign near modern day France. Along the way, they were redirected to a place not far from Geneva, in Switzerland. There, the Caesar gave them orders to “harass” Christians in a small town along the way. With Christianity being illegal at the time, killing Christians was technically a lawful order.

Maurice, however, knew his allegiance was to a higher power than brute force. He refused to harass innocent people, and made sure his commander in chief heard of his refusal. In response, Caesar put the unit under orders to be decimated, which meant that every tenth soldier was selected to be executed as punishment for the seditious centurion’s selective objection. That day Caesar took a tithe of Maurice’s men as an example, and indeed, it is Maurice and his men who remain today as our examples. The centurion had messengers relay to the emperor this message:

We are your soldiers, but we are God’s servants first. We take arms for citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought for justice, piety, and the welfare of the innocent. We have fought for faith.

With these words, Maurice sealed his fate and that of those under him. It is written that despite their being armed themselves, each and every man willingly sacrificed his life rather than do evil in the sight of God. The men of this Theban legion knew that earthly powers only served God by serving justice, that Christians ultimately must obey God rather than the officers appointed above them. [Acts 5:29] Such officers are in fact only middle management and, upon dislocating themselves from the divine chain of command by pursuing vengeance or retribution, forfeit any claim to Christian obedience.

When summoned, Maurice recognized that the oath he swore to the emperor was worthless if he violated his baptismal vows of rejecting all that is evil. As Saint Luke reminds us this morning, “If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another [Caesar], who will give you what is your own” (which is God’s gift of eternal life)? Maurice is in agreement, having told the emperor “what faith will we keep with you at all, if we do not exhibit faith to our God? We swore oaths to God first, oaths to the king second; there is no need for you to trust us concerning the second, if we break the first.”

The problem for Caesar is that he does not understand that Christian service is not as material and tangible as he assumes. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual forces of evil at work in the world. [Eph.6:12] It is for this reason that Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, can request “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.” Christians debating publicly with pagan philosophers in the first few centuries frequently evoked Jeremiah 29:7 in insisting that the Church in fact prayed for “the welfare of the city” knowing that in its welfare, we will find our welfare.

In matters of war, however, the ancient faithful prayed specifically for all hostilities to cease, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Christians prayed not for victory or defeat, for our citizenship transcends the nations of this world. We do not take our citizenship lightly, but are called to be, in a democratic sense, better citizens than those that sometimes find themselves in power. Our obedience to lesser vows like the pledge of allegiance, or the oath of enlistment, is contingent upon our lips and our lives truly reflecting the selfless and dignified interests of the nations in which we find ourselves. Maurice bears beautiful witness to this, his central concern; If we cannot even take very seriously our vows of citizenship, how is God to trust us with the gift of eternal life? On the other hand, if we mess up what belongs to God, how can we be trusted with things of this world, like Hellfire missiles or the nuclear codes? If our loyalty is only self-serving, only in the interests of our own transient national identity, how can God trust us with the great gift of life that transcends all time and places?

Here we see a glimpse of what it might mean to believe that those who serve in the military have a gift to give to the Church universal. Soldiers we would call “good” do not obey for the sake of obedience. As Nuremberg starkly made clear, “just following orders” is no defense at all. But if you listen closely to heroes of war like modern Medal of Honor recipients, their refrain is startlingly similar; often deflecting platitudes with “I was just doing my job.” Obedience, therefor is not what Christian service is ultimately about. The thin red line drawn between war criminals and war heroes is painted in the blood of innocents. The former demands it violently from others, the latter offers it lovingly from themselves. Honor in war is not earned, it is discovered in the heat of battle, when your fellow soldier has every reason to duck away from a grenade but jumps toward it instead. The passing of mere trinkets is merely a confirmation of the courage made possible in such situations. The early martyrs of the church were also given great honor, for martyrdom was called the crown of faith, and early theologians compared the crowns worn by Roman soldiers to those that innocent martyrs were given in heaven.

This begs the question, an important one that soldiers face daily, of where those “ordinary” places are in the Church that make possible the kind of courage we read about in scripture, Church history, or in the pages of military biographies. Where are those sites in which grave injustices take place in everyday life that demand the presence of exemplary Christians? If a broken world prays to God for justice, in what way is the Church being God’s answer thereto?

Consider the prayerful lives of the following saints; 

  • Florian, patron of firefighters and a captain in Caesar’s personal guard, drowned in a river after revealing himself as a CHristian and insisting upon being treated no differently than other, lower ranking Christians who were being sought out and killed
  • Sebastian, patron of athletes, martyred twice for encouraging fellow Christians condemned to death, accusing the emperor’s cabinet of deceiving him about what Christians were praying for
  • Marcellus, killed after throwing down his military attire on Caesars birthday and calling the gods deaf and dumb, whose bones are buried at a university whose motto is “God, Country, Notre Dame”
  • Maximillian, beheaded by his local draft board for refusing to be measured for a military uniform
  • Franz Jaggerstatter, who defied his bishop’s advice to tolerate being conscripted into the Nazi army and was beheaded

As these stories make clear, obedience to God does not spare Christian soldiers from grave and obscene evil in a broken world that defines for itself what it means by justice. Caesar betrayed his own duties as an earthly authority and vengefully cut down his own innocent soldiers who refused to obey unjust orders that would endanger rightful Roman citizens who happened to live an unpopular faith. Maurice’s murder, and the massacre of the six thousand soldiers who faithfully served and died under his watch, is a witness to all the Church that survival is not a virtue. Death has, in Christian terms, failed to have the last word. The day we remember Maurice is not the day of his birth, when he entered this world we know, but the day of his death, when he entered a world we do not yet know fully, but have glimpses of. Baptism is for us a new birth, a death to the flesh and new birth in the spirit.

Maximillian’s passion depicts him encouraging other Christians;

Beloved, with an eager desire, hurry with as much courage as you can so that it may befall you to see the Lord and that he may reward you also with a similar crown!

His words remind us that we have died to the world and may be given life everlasting in God’s Holy Spirit. Maurice himself prophetically reminds his commander in chief that, “from nations we may have received worldly security, but from God we have received life itself.”

Despite our political leaders acting in ways that betray our common allegiance, contradicting the very character of our constitution, we must persist in our “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.” Furthermore, we must diligently watch for those times or places in which God waits for us to be his answer to such prayer. The stories of soldier saints like Maurice and others like him are answers to our prayers for peace in a world obsessed with war. Soldiers in our pews and in our lives bear witness to the timeless nature of martial formation. They have a gift to give the Church, if she has eyes to see and ears to hear. Let your own prayer find its response in such lives, for soldiers know all too well the beauty and tragedy of war and its profound effect on human being.

Finally, friends, I ask you to continue in earnest to supplicate, pray, intercede, and give thanks for all those who have seen this hell we call war. Be patiently faithful with these precious vessels of the faith, which and who are for the world in its brokenness. Persevering in these seemingly pointless pursuits, in the midst of rampant rumors to the contrary, assures for you the gift of God, which is our baptismal inheritance. In the end, though we must have only one master, we are called to have many friends. Hating neither warriors nor warmongers, but being devoted to God and one another.  For our love is ultimately for God and country (in that order).

Amen.