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Texts: Romans 8:14-25
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17
Holy and Ever-Present God, surround us with your Loving Spirit
and open our hearts and minds to your Living Word.
In Christ and through Christ, we pray. Amen.
Memorial Day took on a new meaning for me in 2006. I was serving the Japanese-American Congregational Church in Chicago and, until Memorial Day weekend came around, I had no idea that a few of the older men sitting in the pews of the church had eagerly volunteered to fight in the Second World War. They were all “Nisei” – the second generation of people of Japanese background living in the United States and the first generation of Japanese-Americans that grew up as American citizens. Talking to those mild-mannered and self-effacing men who would often huddle together during coffee hour to chat about the Chicago Cubs or speak fondly of their grandchildren’s academic achievements, you would never guess that they were veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team – the most highly decorated unit in the history of the U.S. military. I only began to understand how much those men had given and sacrificed when I was invited to be part of the ecumenical service that is held every year on Memorial Day at the Montrose Cemetery to honor the Japanese-American men who fought and died under the American flag.
Makoto Fukuda, who served as the chaplain at the Chicago Nisei Post, told me that the Montrose Cemetery was one of the very few cemeteries in the city that allowed the interment of Americans of Japanese descent. After the service, I sat down with Mak and his wife Ayako and over lunch they opened a small window into what it meant to be a Nisei during the wartime. Like hundreds of other young Japanese-American men, Mak had his life turned upside-down by President Roosevelt’s executive order that required all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to be relocated to internment camps further inland. Even though he was born and had grown up in America, Mak along with all Japanese-American men of his wage were classified as “enemy aliens” and, for that reason, were forbidden to enlist in the military. But by 1943, desperate for more boots on the European ground, the Administration reversed its policy and Japanese-Americans were permitted to join a segregated military unit that was called the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Mak and more than 2,000 other Nisei joined the new unit and were shipped off to the frontline of the war.
The 442nd Battalion, which the U.S. military had once spurned, fought so hard and so well that General George Marshall commended the Nisei soldiers for their “rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit.” But the greatest challenge the 442nd faced was on October 29th, 1944. Due to a tactical error, the men of the 141st Regiment, known as the Texan Lost Battalion, found themselves surrounded by the Germans in the Vosges Mountains of France. The Japanese-Americans were dispatched to rescue 275 men trapped in the mountains. The 442nd lost 800 troops to save the lives of 211 men of the Lost Battalion. At the end of the war, the Japanese-American regiment had suffered 9,486 casualties and became known as the “Purple Heart Battalion.”
Mak Fukuda still remembered the faces of the friends he lost. He said that on the battlefields of the world, it was the thought of his parents and siblings, relatives and neighbors still living in the relocation camps in the States that kept him alive. Much like all the other Japanese-American servicemen, Mak was fighting not just against Nazism and fascism in Europe; he was also standing up against the racial discrimination and cultural intolerance that had forced his family out of their home, out of their business and that had stripped him of his most basic constitutional rights. Along with the Nisei men of his time, Mak also wanted to prove that it is possible to be American even if your parents were Japanese immigrants. He wanted to prove through his actions, his willingness to face off the peril of the Nazi racial ideology, and his readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom that he believed in the timeless American values - values that affirm certain unalienable rights the Creator granted to all human beings and that among those are the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As I listened to Mak’s story of discrimination and humiliation, valor and purpose, hope and faith, I thought of the words Jesus said to his own disciples on the night before his death on the cross: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I was amazed at the choice so many Nisei made to lay down their lives for a nation that had decided they were a threat and labeled them “enemy aliens.”
After he spent some time in Japan working for the U.S. Military Intelligence Service as a translator and one of the coordinators of the post-war re-building efforts, Mak returned to America. His wife, who was one of the very few lucky Japanese-Americans that were never interned because they had grown up in Chicago, convinced Mak that it would be safer to start a new life in her hometown. Prejudice against Asian Americans was thought to be less virulent away from the West Coast. Eager to buy a new home for his family, Mak faced the bitter reality of a country that had not been able to rise above old prejudices. He was not allowed to move into any of the white neighborhoods of Chicago. Mak chuckled, took a sip of his tea and said to me, “Reverend, I fought battles that changed the course of human history, but I came home to find that humans don’t change very easily.”
I drove back to the parsonage on that Memorial Day ruminating on Mak’s life story. His words kept pulling my thoughts toward the words Martin Luther King Jr. said a few days before his own tragic assassination, “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to fly the air like birds and we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish and yet we haven’t learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters.”
We need more than science, technology, political revolutions, democracy, socialism, capitalism, nationalism, royal weddings, war and heroism to change the human heart at its core. This is why Jesus let Nicodemus in on what is possibly one of the most counterintuitive and countercultural of his teachings, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is not the kind of language we hear everyday and it is not surprising that Nicodemus could not make sense of what Jesus was saying. “How can these things be?” The man who came to Jesus under the cover of night asked perplexed.
I don’t think Nicodemus was expecting Jesus to get so personal in their first meeting. He was definitely intrigued by the young man from Nazareth otherwise he would not have taken the risk to arrange a meeting with Jesus, but Nicodemus wasn’t quite ready yet to jump head first into Jesus’ unorthodox and life-transforming spirituality. He had hoped that Jesus would give him a simple theological formulation or a unified philosophical explanation for his teachings and way of life, but Jesus changed the subject and started talking about a new kind of spiritual rebirth. To make things even more complicated for Nicodemus, in the original Greek, the word translated “from above” has multiple meanings. It can also be translated as “again” or “anew.” It is unlikely that Jesus and Nicodemus had a conversation in Greek since they were both first-century Jews and most likely spoke Aramaic. But I have a hunch that John chose this particular Greek word to describe what Jesus said to Nicodemus in that nocturnal rendezvous to emphasize that the Way of Christ demands a very personal and drastic change of heart. To follow Christ, John says, you have to learn to let go of the literal and embrace the poetic. You have to stop thinking only about what is possible and begin to imagine a new humanity. You have to be willing to make a radical break with the life of the flesh, the life rooted in and informed by the values of this world and be willing to have a change of heart. You have to be born again. To be born anew. You have to become like a child and see human life for the first time through the lenses of the Gospel of Christ. As the late Marcus Borg once put it, “[To] be born again involves death and resurrection. It means… dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity… an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.”
“How can these things be?” Nicodemus’ question is the same you and I ask ourselves when we try to figure out how this new identity, this new spirituality, this new freedom to imagine the world anew can be of any relevance to our lives in this world of nuclear weapons, terrorism, gun violence, opioid crisis, climate change, refugees and global challenges that are too big for any one of us to grapple with or even grasp. The reality of the world in which we live is the very opposite to the Way of Christ. Last week, I was thinking about how most of the people in the pews of our church were born around the time of the Second World War, went to High School while the Korean War raged on, attended college and got married during the Vietnam War, raised children during the U.S.-Cuba missile crisis, had grandchildren during the Persian Gulf War, retired when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and watched from the comfort of our homes the Invasion of Iraq. Our lives have been immersed in this global reality where wars have been fought to change the course of human history, but human hearts have rarely been changed by the brutality and carnage of our wars. Humanity seems to be helplessly trapped in this historic vortex of suspicion of the other, violence, concentration camps, gas chambers, barbed wire fences, killings, bombings, and walls. The idea that the world could be any different from what it has been during our lifetime is almost too preposterous to be taken seriously. To say that Jesus’ countercultural teachings could change human hearts sounds a bit like the true story about the Native Brazilians who were taken to France by force in the sixteenth century. The famous French philosopher Michel de Montaigne met the three feathered and painted Natives and asked them through a translator what was their impression of French civilization. The Native Brazilians said that they were astonished at the inequality in European society; how some lived in castles while others starved at their doors. They did not understand why the poor, being so many, did not rise up against the injustice foisted on them by the rich. They were puzzled that the Europeans, having all their guns and sailing ships, technology and wealth could not understand how much better it would be to live in the radical equality of the peoples of the Rain Forest. Montaigne was surprised and impressed by the Native’s insightful and honest critique of French society, but later on he said, “How could anyone have taken them seriously when they didn’t even wear breeches?”
Would you take me seriously if I told you that unless we are born again, born anew human hearts will never be changed and the world will remain on the same path that it is today? Do you think that our faith in the teachings of Jesus Christ can make people like you and me believe that it is possible for human beings to walk the earth together as friends without racial discrimination or prejudice, terror or violence, refugee camps or war?
I find it inspiring that Jesus never gave up on the hope that human beings can be born into a new identity, that human hearts can be changed and the world can be saved, which is the Gospel way of saying that human history can be more life-affirming than it has been. And I believe that it was Jesus’ profound awareness of God’s love for humanity that sustained his hope and his faith. Reflecting on this passage from John’s Gospel that Linda LaPrad read today, Thomas Long, professor emeritus of preaching at Chandler School of Theology, said, “Jesus came to [Nicodemus] and to all humanity. Jesus came in the flesh, sent by God – not to condemn and certainly not to engage in polite theological discourse, but to save. John says Jesus came because God loves the world, and not the lovable surface world of delightful music, literature, and art, the world of carefree laughter tinkling on the verandas of the privileged, but Nicodemus’ world. Though respectable on the surface, it’s still the underbelly world of night, the God-hating world of violence, torture, rebellion and sin. Mysteriously, God loves this world.”
Men and women will only walk side by side on earth as equals, as friends, as neighbors when more people of faith have the courage to stop condemning the world to a slow environmental, social, economic and political death and start imagining the whole world completely recreated by God’s love. As Walter Brueggemann said so wisely, “The world will not be saved by people who stay as they are, where they are. It will be saved and healed and blessed and transformed by people who [are born again and anew which is our] evangelical imperative from God... Thus the question left to haunt us: what do we have to leave in order to [be born again]? Well, try these: our security patterns… our entitlements… our presuppositions that self-serve… our being so much at home [in this world of wars] that our faith turns to complacency.”
It takes rare courage and strong faith to start imagining the earth, our world, and all humanity as God’s beloved creation. It is tough to hope for something we cannot yet see, touch, smell or taste, but that we know is possible if people finally accept that the world cannot change unless we have the backbone to get personal and invite each other to be born anew. This is the counterintuitive, countercultural and heart-changing mission we have as followers of Christ, namely, to keep hoping for the day when human beings will learn to love the earth, to love one another and to imagine the world as a place of peace and freedom, justice and solidarity, friendship and life. This is how the world will be saved: by men and women who are brave enough to let their hearts be changed so they will learn war no more, instead they will turn their weapons and guns into tools that protect, sustain and nourish life.
God sent Jesus not to condemn but to save this amazing planet we call home. This spiritual awareness and religious knowledge are the life force of our calling to keep hoping and believing that humanity can be changed and our world saved. But the salvation of our world will not happen overnight as you well know it. We have to be persistent and patient as we keep repeating, preaching, and living out one of Jesus’ most outrageous ideas; the idea that if we are born from above, born again, born anew then our hearts will be changed and, inspired by God’s love, we will make our world more life-sustaining and life-affirming. And to carry on our mission persistently and patiently, we have to take to heart poetic words like the ones of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who said:
“We must sit on the rim
of the well of darkness
and fish for fallen light
On this Memorial Day, I hope you will pause to remember and give thanks for those who fought and died under the American flag. The men and women who laid down their lives for the nation certainly deserve our respect for the sacrifice they made. But I invite you to remember that wars may change human history, but very seldom they change the human heart at its core. Only God’s love can make humankind see the whole world anew and believe that we can walk side by side in peace. As Christians who are born from the water and the Spirit, this is our purpose in life, that is, to remind the world that this culture of war and aggressive militarism that we have turned into a way of life cannot save us. As we remember the lives lost to the madness of war, may we also recommit ourselves to the heart-changing teachings of Christ. Let us not tire of sitting on the rim of the well of the world and patiently fish for opportunities to change human hearts and save the world.
May you all have a blessed Memorial Day. Amen.
 By Susumo Satow. “Fighting for Democracy,” PBS [http://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_war_democracy_japanese_american.htm]
 John 15:13.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. – We’ve learned to fly the air like birds… YouTube video, published 21 October 2012 by JohnMcClane23. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTC3cieV_NA]
 Marcus J. Borg. “The Heart of Christianity,” p. 107.
 Michael Ignatieff. “The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World,” p. 6.
 By Thomas G. Long. “May 27, Trinity Sunday (John 3:1-17),” Living By the Word, The Christian Century, 26 April 2018. [https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/may-27-trinity-sunday-john-31-17]
 Walter Brueggemann. “A Gospel of Hope,” p. 128.
 Translated by William O’Daly. “The Sea and The Bells,” by Pablo Neruda, p. 95.
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.