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14th Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL) Aug. 29 & 30

Fourteenth Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL)

James 1:17-27

August 29-30, 2015

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

            Our second lesson this weekend is from the letter of James.  Martin Luther was not a fan.  He called James “the epistle of straw,” in other words, the lame one.  Why??  Well, it’s James who wrote: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  (James 2:17)  Luther was afraid that people would hear that and revert to works righteousness, exhausting themselves in an attempt to win their way into heaven by doing good deeds.  Luther was afraid that believers would forget that Jesus has already done everything necessary to save us and that we could never in a million years be “good enough” to earn what God gives as pure gift.  Remember Luther’s battle cry?  We are justified (made right with God) by grace through faith apart from the works of the law.

            And yet – we do good stuff.  Why?  If we don’t have to wheedle God into loving us, if we don’t have to collect enough brownie points to merit heaven, why do we go out of our way to do kind and compassionate things?

·         It makes us feel good to see the church shopping carts overflowing and to know parents can feed their children when we donate to the food pantry?

·         We’re grateful for the roof over our family’s head and that we’re not reduced to sleeping in a car, so we’re glad to pitch in and help with Family Promise?

·         We see a need, like a senior’s snowy steps and unplowed driveway , and it’s only natural to grab a shovel and get to work?

·         We realize that many of the blessings God sends to us are meant to pass through us to others?

·         Generosity is how we express our gratitude to God?

There was a woman, Augusta Chiwy, who died this past Sunday and who did extraordinarily generous and brave things during World War II.  67 years later, when she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service “for selfless service and bravery” she said:

“What I did was very normal.  I would have done it for anyone.”

Why?

“We are all children of God.”

            Augusta Chiwy, also known as the Angel of the Bastogne, was born in 1921 in what is now Burundi to a white Belgian veterinarian and a black woman from Congo.  She moved to Belgium as a child, and when World War II broke out changed her career plans from teaching to nursing. 

Augusta was visiting her father in Bastogne when the Nazis began their last major offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge, on December 16 of 1944.  It was a bloodbath.  Before it was over there would be 80,000 American and 100,000 German casualties.  Hitler’s goal was to reach and capture the port of Antwerp and thus cut off the Allied advance.  Bastogne was a market town located at an important crossroads on the way.  Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne were occupying the town; it was quickly surrounded.  The Siege of Bastogne ensued.

One night there was a knock on the door of Augusta’s father’s home.  Standing there was a young Army doctor from Vermont, John (“Jack”) Prior.  He explained that his ambulance driver had been killed and he needed help caring for the wounded.  Augusta and her friend Renee volunteered.  Over the next month or so Augusta saved several hundred lives at two makeshift aid stations.  She didn’t just wait for the wounded to arrive.  She darted out to the front lines to retrieve some of them.  Dr. Prior said the fact that she was short (5 feet tall!) must have helped her dodge enemy fire.  She said that her black face made a perfect target on the  white backdrop of snow and that the enemy marksmen must have been pretty poor!

Speaking of her black face: there was a U.S. army regulation in place at the time that prohibited black nurses from treating white soldiers.  The story goes that a white soldier suffering from frostbite asked Dr. Prior to stop Augusta from treating him.  Prior’s response: “Fine.  Die, then.” 1

On Christmas Eve Dr. Prior and Augusta had stepped out of the aid station when a deafening explosion occurred nearby.  Augusta was blown through a wall but survived.  Her friend Renee and 30 American wounded perished.  It has been reported that Dr. Prior wrapped Renee’s body in the white silk parachute she was saving as the material for her wedding dress.  The siege of Bastogne was formally over 2 days later when the 4th Armored Division broke through the enemy lines….

After the war Jack Prior returned home to the U.S. and became a pathologist.  After his death in 2007 family members explained that he made that choice because he couldn’t bear to hear any more patients crying out in pain.  Augusta Chiwy married, had 2 children, and spent most of her nursing career caring for spinal cord injury patients.  Neither she nor Dr. Prior really spoke of the war with others, but they stayed in touch with each other, exchanging letters and chocolate at Christmastime, the anniversary of their immersion in the Siege of Bastogne.

For years there were shared memories among veterans of a black Florence- Nightingale-type person who had moved with compassion and efficiency through the aid stations.  I don’t know whether it’s because she was Belgian or because she was black or because she didn’t speak of the war after it ended, but Augusta’s loving bravery as a 23 year old was not acknowledged until she was 90 and the U.S. Army traveled to Belgium to honor her; at that time the king of Belgium knighted her as well.  The fleeting mention of a black nurse named Anna in the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose ignited the curiosity of Scottish military historian Martin King.2  He tracked Ms. Chiwy to a retirement home near Brussels, helped her overcome a condition called selective mutism which prevented her from speaking about her experiences at Bastogne, and wrote a book about her called The Forgotten Nurse, unfortunately published just in French and Dutch (2010).   In 2014 his TV documentary aired: “Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.”

In this weekend’s epistle James says:

But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves… being not hearers who forget but doers who act. (James 1:22)

The Message’s paraphrase of that is:

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the word go in one ear and out the other.  Act on what you hear!

            The word we hear is this:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…. (James 1:27)

Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight….  (The Message)

            Orphans and widows, the homeless and loveless, the hungry and wounded, the friendless, the hopeless, the lonely, the addicted, the unemployed, the mentally ill.  We do “good stuff” not to earn God’s love, but in response to it, in gladness, in gratitude.   And why do we care about others?  Why do we share our stuff and answer the knock on our door and maybe even risk our own safety?  The answer, in Augusta’s words:

“We are all children of God.”

Amen

1Emily Langer, “Augusta Chiwy, ‘forgotten African nurse of Battle of the Bulge, dies at 94,” The Washington Post (online), August 27, 2015.

2Martin King co-wrote with Michael Collins Voices of the Bulge: Untold Stories from Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham