Pentecost 18, Proper 20 September 23, 2018 Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver City, NM Rev. Paul Moore
LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
The Rev. Frederick “Ted” Howden was a local boy. As you can see in the bio provided in your bulletin, he has roots in the southeastern part of the state. He was, if anything, a constant builder of institutions, especially ones of learning. His ministry as an army chaplain was originally not that particularly distinguished, except for his obvious dedication to his ministry.
When I served a church in Killeen, TX. before coming to Silver City, I got to know a lot of chaplains. A question I liked asking them, probably due to my own perversity was, “How do you manage the implied double-loyalty of God and country? What would you do if those loyalties ever conflicted?” I got a lot of answers, from, “they never were in conflict,” to “I struggle with it all the time.” It seems to me that Ted Howden didn’t struggle with it. He served his country as Christ served the Church. The subjects of his ministry were soldiers. The economic, historic and political drivers of the war did not seem to concern to him much. He was a minister of the Gospel and these were his congregation. To this ministry he was wholeheartedly committed.
The Scripture lessons today help us understand. Jeremiah knows things have been devised against him, but he trusts in the Lord. I don’t know if Ted knew what the Japanese army intended for them or not, but the fact is they did put them on a death march. They randomly killed prisoners, whipped those who stumbled, or just left the starving and sick to die. Yet in the midst of this Ted held his trust in the Lord.
The Psalmist is in a similar situation, complaining about the machinations of the wicked, but trusting in the Lord for vindication. Ted would have prayed this psalm in his daily prayers sometime during the march. One wonders whether or not he reflected on how he felt like the Psalmist, and how he waited for the Lord’s vindication.
The Epistle lesson today suggests that wisdom is known by her gentle good works rather than power and force. By this measure the Japanese abuse of the prisoners is the opposite of wisdom. Yet in the midst of it “Chappy”, as he was known, was the calm worker of good works among his men until the very end.
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus tells us that he who would be first should be last. Chappy became the servant of the captives of which he was one himself. He began giving his own rations away to keep other soldiers fed. Finally, his acts of self-sacrificed cost him his very life. Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus went on to do exactly that for us. Chappy was just following his Lord. In the midst of life, be it adverse and otherwise, Ted Howden was all about following Christ, and Christ said, the first should be last.
How does one “do” being last? This is not a direct action that one chooses to do. If I choose to mow the lawn I get the lawn mower out and I mow the lawn. If I choose to eat lunch at El Gallo Pinto I drive to the restaurant and I eat lunch. If I choose to go to bed I crawl between the covers. But how does one “be last?”
This is not a specific action but a way of acting. One “is last” when one works in the kitchen cleaning up while all others have left after the Church potluck. One “is last” when one spends a few extra dollars to buy a sandwich for a homeless person waiting outside Albertsons. One “is last” when he or she stands up for the poor, the outcast and the oppressed because it is the right thing to do, even if it costs them. One “is last” when one gives of one’s means, even to the point of sacrifice, for the sake of God’s work. There are a hundred ways to “be last.”
Being last is an attitude of the heart that is expressed in the actions. When Ted Howden gave up his rations he wasn’t making a political statement about the war. The economic, cultural and political drivers of the war were probably the farthest thing from his mind. He was just attending to those who were under his care as Jesus would have. His actions certainly stand over against those of his captors from an ethical standpoint, but it seems unlikely that this was Ted’s motivation. He was just attending to those under his care as Jesus would have. In the midst of the horrors of war Chappy was a haven of peace. He found ways to be Christlike in the circumstances in which he lived, and his commitment to that way of life was total and complete.
Perhaps this is the meaning behind being last—to be totally and completely committed to the way of Jesus. You’re not on a death march, and you may or may not have people intentionally messing you up, but you can be like Ted Howden. You can be totally committed to the way of Jesus, no matter what the cost. When you are at work; do you own the business? Be a servant to your employees. Are you an employee? Be a servant to your fellow workers and your boss. When you are at home, the others in the household are your community. Be a servant to them as you can. When you are out having fun at whatever it is you do to have fun, look around at those who are with you. How can you make a time of recreation a way of self-giving service?
It’s the same with hanging with your friends, your church life or your civic life. The way of Jesus, of self-giving love, is the way that defines the Christian. Greater love has no man than this… Being last doesn’t mean that you don’t have any power, or that you give up what power you have. It means that you use who and what you are to follow Jesus completely, walking faithfully in his way of self-giving love, even when it costs you everything.
The Rev. Frederick “Ted” Howden was a Christian man. You know it by the way he followed the path of Jesus, the Christ. Can people say the same thing of you?