(This Sermon is the first of a pair. The second will deal with saints.)
As we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 we heard lots of talk about heroes, and I thought it might be useful to discuss what heroes are, and what they are not. It is worth mentioning that Heroes are not victims; a victim’s life is taken from him. A hero lays down his or her life for the sake of others, sometimes all at once, sometimes little by little, over time. I think it worth mentioning that some people are not heroes but anti-heroes. Isaiah warned, “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink.” It follows that heroes are not just famous. There is a difference between a celebrity and a hero. A celebrity enjoys his or her fifteen minutes of fame. People flock to them for a season, then the crowd fades away, and so does the celebrity. A hero is for the ages, because a hero inspires other people, and provides us with a path to follow.
Many heroes of history have been soldiers. In the Bible, Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho,” and Sampson killed a whole passel of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. King Saul was celebrated because he killed thousands of Israel’s enemies, and David was celebrated because he killed tens of thousands of the same. George Washington was the consummate soldier of the American Revolution. He won few battles, but he did the impossible: He kept an army in the field and won the war by wearing out the British. Every war produces its heroes. Sgt. Alvin York was the most the celebrated soldier of World War I. He killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 others. York was a devout Christian. He told one of the officers who awarded him the Medal of Honor that he only took life in order to save it, especially the lives of his men. Many heroes have been soldiers, but not all soldiers are heroes. Those who serve in times of peace do an essential job, but our service cannot compare with those who have born the cost of battle.
Not all heroes are soldiers, and the first responders of 9/11 prove that point. The life of a police officer is different from the life of a soldier. A soldier’s life often consist of years and years of training and a few terrifying months, or weeks, or days, of combat. A police officer must act with courage over the course of his or her entire career, and often alone. A soldier goes into battle supported by his unit; a police officer sometimes walks into a seemingly harmless situation, never knowing when the situation will erupt in violence. The shooting in Oklahoma reminds us that a police officer must act with a measured calm that few people possess, even after rigorous training. Likewise, a firefighter never knows when an ordinary day will turn into hell on earth. I remember watching the firefighters of 9/11 march into the twin towers. Perhaps because my uncle Paul was a firefighter, I found myself wishing that I was there to help. Of course, at the time, I did not know that many who marched into the burning buildings would never come out again.
The unlikeliest people often become heroes. Perhaps you have seen Tom Hank’s movie, “Forrest Gump.” In everybody’s favorite scene, Forrest is sitting on a bench waiting on a bus. He turns to the woman who is waiting with him, and says, “My mamma always said that life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” That simile is perfect for studying heroes. The men and women we call heroes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, and ages. The Bible is filled with stories about “mighty men of valor,” but it also celebrates strong women, too. Women like Sara who believed that God could work a miracle in her, Ruth the ancestor of David, Esther the Queen who made the life of the Jews in exile easier by marrying a gentile king, and Deborah, one of the greatest of the judges. Likewise, heroes may be young or old. St. Paul demanded heroic behavior of his young friend Timothy saying, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. ” On the other end of things, Abraham became a hero as an old man when he left his country and his kindred and his father’s house to follow God to the land of promise. Abraham went out not knowing where he went. God’s heroes are not handicapped by anything. King Saul was a head taller than any other man in Israel, but Zacchaeus had to clime the sycamore tree because he was short, or, as many scholars have suggested, because Jesus was short, and Zacchaeus really, really wanted to see him. Likewise, Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would “have no beauty, so that none would desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) In 2nd Corinthians 12, God speaks to Paul (through his prophet) saying that God’s strength was made perfect in weakness. God’s heroes don’t need to be anything special, because the God who calls them is everything special.
Anybody can be a hero, but people with access to intelligence, or power, or wealth have opportunities for heroism that others do not. Take wealth for instance. Wealth comes with great opportunity and responsibility. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to praise America’s great entrepreneurs. He lauded people of wealth for creating jobs for workers and wealth that was often multiplied to others. John Wesley spoke to the early Methodist about money saying, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie said that making money was admirable, provided it was honestly done, but he also insisted that anyone who dies rich, dies disgraced. Carnegie happily spent his wealth creating public libraries all over America—and in Great Britain, too. Of course, not all the wealthy are public minded. Teddy Roosevelt called the robber barons who opposed his reform presidency,“malefactors of great wealth.” Today, no one who lives for the sake of conspicuous consumption can be a hero, and some of the wealthiest people in the world have come to understand that. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have appealed to the other member’s of the world’s billionaire club to give their wealth away. Thus far, 81 billionaires have accepted their challenge, pledging over $731 billion dollars to charity. Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have signed-on, pledging to give away their 55 billion dollar fortune in their lifetime, designating it to “cure all diseases.” They believe this it can be done in the lifetime of their children. It is interesting that Paul Johnson, the British historian who writes for Fortune Magazine, says that it is not the super-rich, but the moderately rich who tend to be stingy. When compared to the rest of the world, each of us belongs to the classification of moderately rich, and we all know how challenging it is to turn loose of our hard-earned money. I have no doubt that Jesus aimed the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (whom tradition calls “Dives,” (Luke 16:19-31) at people just like you and me, so that we will not overlook the poverty at our gate and on our door step. The difficulty for us is to support those who are worthy of support, and challenge those who need to be challenged. In 2nd Timothy 3:10 the apostles says that if a person will not work, he should not eat. Of course, there is a big difference between will not and cannot.
Perhaps it ought to be said that not everyone has the same heroes. We tend to make heroes of the people have something in common with us. My mother’s hero was Minnie Mae Hartman, the woman who trained her in book keeping, at the old Downtown Garage. A famous author says, “All my heroes are writers.” A famous musician says, “Most of my heroes are musicians of one kind or another.” Doctors look to famous healers like, Jonas Salk who gave us the polio vaccine, and Christian Bernard who performed the first heart transplant. Lawyers look to the great lawyers of the past, people like Abraham Lincoln,William Jennings Bryant, and his nemesis, Clarence Darrow. Above all they look to the great law-givers like Moses, and Thomas Jefferson, and great judges like Oliver Wendell Holmes, who taught us to seek the simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. When it comes to heroes no one has it better than carpenters and builders. They can point to Jesus. William Barclay wrote that Jesus was a master workmen, and when he said, “My yoke fits well,” he meant it literally as well as spiritually.
In our society sports heroes are prominent figures. Baseball players usually make heroes of the those who have played the game of before them, as do athletes in almost every other sport. Of course, some heroes transcend sport, people like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball, and Pee Wee Reese, his southern teammate who once walked over to Jackie, during a game in St. Louis, and put his arm around Robinson, just so the fans in the stands would know where he stood. Stan Musial was a hall of fame baseball player who knew he was a hero to the children of our nation. He played for the Cardinals who were owned by Gussie Bush, the founder of Anheuser-Bush. Musial liked a cold one as good as anybody, but he refused to do beer commercials because he knew his young fans would be watching.
Every profession has its heroes, but some heroes touch us all. President Jimmy Carter said that Billy Graham was his hero, because he reached so many people for Jesus Christ, thus changing their lives for the better. And it was Guy Kawasaki, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who said, “Teachers are society’s heroes. If you have to put someone on a pedestal, make it a teacher.” I will vote for that. My life was changed by my teacher, the late Garnett Clark. When I was in 3rd grade at South Park, Mr. Clark introduced our class to the Jack tales, and taught me to love learning.. When I was in 7th grade at Philo, he worked with me in gym class until I could climb all the way to the top of the rope. Then, in 8th grade he caught me throwing spitballs in math class, and did not let me get away with it.. Mr. Clark took me to the office where he applied the “board of education” to my “seat of knowledge.” I left that office a better student, if not a better person.
All heroes have a few things in common:
1. Heroes don’t set out to be heroes, and we are suspicious of those that do. In his book, “Heroes,” Paul Johnson, writes that, Lord Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo was suspicious of heroes, and of the cult of hero worship. Napoleon was a prime example. He set out to be a hero and ended up a tyrant, responsible for the death of more than 5,000,000 people. Johnson adds that not only did Napoleon end-up a tyrant, he also inspired countless other tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and the like. No wonder the prophet Jeremiah disparaged those who boast before the world saying, “We are heroes and mighty men of war!” Heroes don’t set out to be heroes, they simply give themselves in some great cause. The truth is that many heroes, like the passengers of United fight 93 don’t have time to think about becoming heroes, they simply act with courage when courage is called for, and the rest is up to history, or not.
2. Heroes never give up. Bono, the rock musician of U2 fame, says that his heroes are those who try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, but never quit trying. Ronald Regan, the 40th President of the United States, said that heroes are not any braver than anyone else, they’re just braver five minutes longer.
3. Heroes all pay a price. It is frequently said that politicians cannot be heroes. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the U.S.A. would disagree. In his book, “Profiles in Courage,” he tells the story of heroes like Senator Daniel Webster. Webster’s story is particularly telling. In 1850, six southern states were threatening secession. On a cold night in January, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the great compromiser, went to Webster and asked him to set aside his life-long dedication to the abolitionist cause in order to support a compromise on the fugitive slave law which would preserve the Union. At great personal cost, Webster agreed. On March 7th he gave the greatest speech of his career, pleading for the preservation of the Union. At the appropriate time he cast his vote in favor of the compromise. Friends of a lifetime turned against him. The people of Massachusetts thought he had betrayed them. Webster’s hope of becoming the president was dashed to pieces. Some historians think that the price was too dear. It was the political bad end of a good man, and Civil War came anyway. Other historians point out that Webster bought the Union more than ten-years time. In that decade, the northern states continued to grow in population and in industry, while the southern states made little progress in either. The progress of that ten years allowed a northern victory in the war between the states. All heroes pay a price, but they do not count the cost.
4. Heroes move us to action. Perhaps you have seen the Movie Gandhi, staring Ben Kingsley. I saw it many years ago. Gandhi was the Indian national who started the movement that drove the British out of India, and brought about the end of the Empire. Like Jesus before him, and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, Gandhi taught non-violence. He faced off with the British and said, “We will match our capacity to endure suffering against your capacity to inflict suffering, and we will win.” That would not have worked with the Nazi’s who were ruthless; but it did work with the British, who honored courage above all. There is one scene in the movie that moved the audience to tears. In it, nameless Indians line-up, single-file, and present themselves before a British soldier who knocks them down, one after another, with the butt of his rifle. Their act of sacrifice is so great, so self-less, and so-moving, that the soldier soon looses heart, and must be replaced by another. It makes no difference, the line of willing victims grows longer and longer. As I left the movie, I heard one movie goer say to another, “I wish I had seen this movie in the 1960’s. It made me wish I had taken a more active part in the struggle for civil rights in America.” Real heroes move us to actions. They lay down a path for us to follow. Rosa Parks was just one tired, forty-four old Black woman on a bus; but when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, she she inspired countless others, black and white, to take up the cause. How does the poet Lawrence Tribble put it?
One man awake, awakens another;
the second awakens his next-door brother.
The three awake can rouse a town by turning the whole place upside down.
The many awake can cause such a fuss; it finally awakens the rest of us.
One man awake, with dawn in his eyes, surely then, multiplies.
Not all of us will be heroes, but all of us need heroes, because heroes bring out the better person in many of us, and when we all work together, we can do amazing things. It was Hellen Keller, a hero in her own right who wrote, “The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” For us, Jesus Christ is the greatest hero of all time, because he lived, die, and rose again, not for a select few; but for all. Jesus gave the world a mighty shove, but he asked each of us to make a tiny push, knowing that all of us together can do even greater works than he did. Jesus was asking for our tiny push when he said,“If anyone would come after me, let them take up their own cross, and follow me.”