Fessenden House • September 7 2000 • Tobias Haller BSGAll of us have heard, I’m sure, of spontaneous acts of self-sacrifice that happen from time to time. A heroic soldier saves his platoon by throwing himself on a grenade. A brave fire-fighter enters a burning building a second time to rescue a child. An old man gives his life-preserver to a young woman as the ocean liner sinks. And who can forget the image from a few years ago as a man helped victims from the frigid water at the end of an airport runway, hoisting person after person to safety as he slowly froze, and eventually sank beneath the icy waters.
Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
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I’d like to share one more example with you, which I’d not heard of it until I came across it recently. Back when scientists were working on atom bombs at Los Alamos, early models were tested manually. That is, sub-critical masses of plutonium were pushed together and, when the chain reaction began, they were separated with a highly specialized tool — a screwdriver! Unfortunately, on one of the test days, just as the chain reaction was beginning, the screwdriver which should have separated the two chunks of plutonium slipped. The air began to turn blue with the unearthly glow of radioactivity. One of the young scientists, instead of cowering back in horror, reached out, and grabbing the two halves of the critical mass with his bare hands, slowly pried them apart. Naturally, or perhaps I should say “unnaturally,” he absorbed a lethal dose of radiation, and died nine days later as a result, but the others in the room survived. The young man’s name was Louis.
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When I read this story it struck me that it may have been the inspiration behind the scene in the Star Trek movie, where Spock enters a room full of radiation and, at the cost of his own life, closes a leaking warp drive with his bare hands. As he dies, he reminds Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
This phrase is itself powerfully reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching concerning the greatest love, and of his action in laying down his life for his friends. But what I want to say tonight is that there is a distinct difference between these other self-sacrificial incidents and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; there is a crucial distinction between these spontaneous acts of heroism and the dedicated lives of the sisters and brothers — including another Louis — who along with Constance, Frances, Thecla, Ruth and Charles, and many others, laid down their lives in Memphis during that raging epidemic of Yellow Fever.
And the difference I point out — with absolutely no wish to minimize the heroism or the self-sacrifice of any of those other brave soldiers, firefighters, or physicists — is this: their acts of bravery were spontaneous. Given more time to think it through they might have acted differently than they did. That they acted on an impulse may be a sign of their particular virtuousness, or perhaps a witness to the general capacity for self-sacrifice that all people have deep in their hearts, and which they will act upon — sometimes — if their equally powerful urge to self-preservation doesn’t have the time to interpose its contrary force.
But about Jesus Christ, and about the Martyrs of Memphis whom we commemorate tonight, there can be no such question. Their heroism was not the gutsy bravado of spontaneous action, but the patient application of dutiful service. Jesus Christ and the Martyrs of Memphis did not throw themselves on a grenade; they did not run headlong into a burning building; they did not jump forward to pry apart a critical mass.
No, Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem knowing that the cross lay ahead of him, that death awaited him; that this was to be the hour in which the Father would be glorified, and this was how God chose to be glorified. And the sisters and brothers who walked the way of the cross down to Memphis, though they might not have known for certain that death awaited them, surely knew the risk, as ninety percent of the population fell ill, and over 5,000 died. The brave souls who served in Memphis didn’t know what caused the Yellow Fever that took so many lives — it would be years before Walter Reed made the connection — but they knew that people were failing and perishing, and they set their course to stand by and serve the sick, and to die with the dying — deliberately and devotedly.
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Jesus said, whoever serves me must follow me — and sometimes that following will be the headlong leaping to cover a grenade with ones’ own body, or to enter an inferno and throw someone else to safety even as one perishes; sometimes that followingwill be a sudden bare-handed wrenching apart of the lethal mass that threatens life and limb — but more often, that following will be the slow and deliberate way of service to others, the way that with hands busy putting others first, sets the self down unselfconsciously on the shelf, sometimes misplacing it, and sometimes losing it. The way that follows Jesus is the way of the cross. Whoever serves him must follow him, and like it or not, that is the way he went, and that is what he carried.
Whether on the road to Jerusalem or the road to Memphis, Jesus goes before us, bearing his cross, and where he is, there will his servant be.+
The icon of the Martyrs of Memphis is by the hand of your servant in 1999. The scroll in the hand of He Who Is speaks of "the greater love" of laying down one's life.
To see a larger image of the icon, click on it.
Fessenden House is a ministry that began as outreach to people with AIDS and later evolved into a ministry for men in recovery from substance addiction. Please visit their website and support this effort.