LAYMAN ‘ S SERMON SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
by Dr. John A. Howard October 28, 1962
During the Second World War the Allies had advanced to the Rhine, when, shortly before Christmas, the Nazis launched a bold and desperate counterattack which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The unit in which I served, a Tank Battalion, found itself on the north flank of the Nazi drive. We were in a small town in Belgium through which ran one of the few good roads to the industrial cities of the north. Our mission was to ward off any enemy attempts to move Northward at that point.
The tide of the war had swept beyond the town several weeks before and the civilians who had survived in their basements or in the neighboring woods were trying to put together some pieces of daily life when the war returned and their town was once more a battleground.
On Christmas morning as we watted in our tanks for the next attack, we were sheltered at least from rifle fire and shrapnel. We were therefore amazed to see a girl who could not have been more than eight or nine years old hurry from the nearest building to the side of our tank. She asked if we had any food to spare. She told us her mother had taken the younger children to another town but she stayed behind to try to care for her grandfather who was wounded earlier and unable to travel. The soldiers without hesitation gave her their rations. She said simply, “I thank you. It is a lovely Christmas after all.” And away she hurried with her arms full of the ugly, brown, heavily-waxed boxes of K rations.
The pathos of this young girl’s plight is not the point of my story. The truly remarkable thing about this episode was that the soldiers who gave up their food felt even more strongly than the girl that it was a lovely Christmas after all.
These men who for weeks had been living outside in the snow, who had had little sleep and little food, and who had been under imminent threat of death for many days and nights, were suddenly restored and refreshed by a simple act of generosity.
At this moment I thought l understood fully and for the first time the words of the Bible, “But now abideth faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Why is love, or charity, the greatest emotion that man experiences? Well, everyone has in him the capacity to receive satisfaction from helping someone else. What more convincing proof of God’s existence and of his spirit in us could there be than this universal capacity for enjoyment in giving? A creature that was wholly self-contained and self-inspired would not derive strength from sacrificing to a stranger.
When Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive, He was not just sounding a warning that by giving man marks up plus points on his tally sheet in Heaven; Jesus was making known how man fulfills his spiritual nature and rises to his highest stature in this life. He who lives a life in service is fortified against the ebb and flow of circumstances, against the international shocks of history on the move and the personal tragedies that befall every one of us.
Here, then, is what seems to me the central message of the church. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. The gifts need not be money or things; gifts may also be kindness, forbearance, and love and understanding. Indeed, if gifts of money and things are not inspired by charity or love, they are no longer gifts, but merely transfers.
This brings me to one final observation about this Christmas episode. It is an irony of our times that the services man renders to man have become so highly organized that the human qualities which constitute the difference between a gift and a transfer have been largely washed out. As we call upon the government to meet the needs of the underprivileged here and abroad, we are perhaps acknowledging certain rights of man, but if, in so doing, we salve our consciences and think that we are fulfilling God’s injunction to us to give and serve, we have missed the whole point of the blessedness of giving. God’s claim upon us cannot be met by group action. The restorative powers of the Christian life, courage and serenity, and the abolition of fear are God’s gift to us, if we will earn them, if we will individually nourish the divine spark within, and prove in our own lives the meaning of Paul’s statement, “The greatest of these is charity.”
In these days when we are beset with danger and subject to fear, not unlike the tank crew waiting for attack, perhaps we can perceive, as they did, the actuality of Christmas, and Christ’s message to man. Our glory and our strength are not to be found in temporal possessions or in temporal defenses but in the fulfillment of the spiritual parts of our being and “The greatest of these is charity.”
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