In December of 1862, the Confederate and Union armies lined up against each other in a town called Fredericksburg. For four days they fought, and right in the midst of that battle was a Confederate soldier by the name of Sgt. Richard Kirkland. Sgt. Kirkland was raised in the low country of South Carolina, the son of a farmer, not unlike most of the boys who served. When he enlisted in the Confederate army, he enlisted as a private under Captain J. D. Kennedy’s Company E of the Second South Carolina volunteers, but during the days of Fredricksburg he was serving under General J. B. Kershaw, who, after the war, would take it upon himself to tell this young man’s story.
During the battle of Fredericksburg, the Union was taking terrible losses. In the field that stretched out between the army’s lines lay hundreds of Union soldiers who were wounded. As shots continued to ring out across the field, no one was able to go and give them aid, and for a day and a night the wounded and the dying lay there, begging for help, pleading for just a drink of water. Yet no one ventured into the line of fire to help them. Until Sgt. Kirkland came bounding up the steps to find Gen. Kershaw, asking permission to go into the field and bring water to those soldiers.
According to Kershaw, Sgt. Kirkland said, “General! I can’t stand this. All night and all day I have heard those poor men crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water.” With profound anxiety, the General watched as Kirkland stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy.
The General later put down in writing what he witnessed that day. “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”
By this time, Kirkland’s purpose was well understood on both sides and as a result he was in no danger. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “Water, water; for God’s sake, Water! More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering…”
Although it applies on a much broader level as well, mercy is a precious and unusual commodity in the midst of wartime. The kind of mercy displayed by Sgt. Kirkland to the Union soldiers is something we rarely witness in our world…much less in the middle of a violent conflict.
While we’re on the subject, however, today’s Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke offers another glimpse of mercy. The central character in this morning’s narrative was part of the Roman occupying force in Israel. He was the conqueror in a conquered land among a conquered people. As such, the centurion had little to worry about in his life except for maintaining order.
Keeping the people of Israel in line was a pretty straightforward task. Until the day when one of the centurion’s servants took ill. And the customary battle lines blurred, at least momentarily.
If these were normal circumstances, the centurion would have ordered a few of his soldiers to go and fetch Jesus on behalf of his dying servant. Jesus had no special privilege and no particular power. As far as the centurion was concerned, Jesus was an itinerant preacher and a normal citizen, albeit one with gifts for healing. On the other hand, mercy never fits neatly into proscribed power structures. And the centurion appeared to know that.
When the centurion asked the Jewish leaders in town to approach Jesus with a request, those Jewish leaders spoke of the centurion in glowing terms. “He is worthy,” they claimed, “for he loved our people and he built a synagogue for us.” As a man of faith, a philanthropist, and a person of character and integrity, it didn’t seem to surprise the Jewish leaders at all that the centurion would advocate for his servant.
Before the first set of leaders ever made it to Jesus, however, another envoy of friends intercepted Jesus when he was on his way over the centurion’s residence. And they passed along to Jesus words directly from the centurion’s mouth. “Jesus don’t bother, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed.”
There is one word in this story upon which the entire Scripture lesson hinges. And the word is “worthy.” According to the Jewish leaders, the centurion was worthy of Jesus’ attention because of his upstanding prior record. Yet the centurion himself claimed to be unworthy even to have Jesus under his roof…
How do we reconcile the image of the worthy centurion whose character is unblemished in the eyes of the Jewish leaders with the image of the unworthy centurion who can’t see beyond his own shortcomings? The answer, I think, has to do with how we measure worthiness. If we measure worthiness by wordly standards like military power and material wealth and political clout, the centurion fits the bill. On the other hand, whether a person is worthy of mercy cannot be measured by worldly standards…
Over the course of our lifetimes, you and I tend to do a really good job drawing all sorts of battle lines for ourselves. We draw battle lines to determine who we are and who our friends are. Then we draw more battle lines to define the ones we consider enemies.
It’s not just personal. We draw battle lines on a much larger scale as well. Battle lines between Democrats and Republicans. Battle lines between liberals and conservatives. Battle lines between people who are gay and people who are straight. Battle lines between rich and poor, native and immigrant, Christian and non-Christian…just to name a few.
In the heat of battle, all we see on the other side are the opposition. But the truth is that between the battle lines we draw as human beings, there are all kinds of people in the field in the middle. Desperate people caught up in the fighting and crying out for mercy.
Out there in the battlefield is a single parent who works more than fifty hours a week to try and make ends meet because the other parent keeps finding ways to avoid paying child support. Out there in the battlefield is someone who wrestles quietly with depression or perseveres silently as a victim of domestic violence because they don’t want to face the stigmatization and the all too common impulse in our society to blame the one who is suffering. Out there in the battlefield is the young adult who contemplates taking their own life because they struggle every day with their own gender identity. Out there in the battlefield is the Native American who turns to alcohol because they have no hope for employment and no discernible path to self-sufficiency.
While the war rages on between people on both sides and either end, do we ever stop long enough to hear the cries of mercy from those who wind up as collateral damage in the crossfire? “Water, water; for God’s sake, water! More piteous still the mute appeal of some who can only feebly lift a hand to say, here too, is life and suffering…”
Going back to the Bible story, was the centurion actually worthy of the help he sought from Jesus? In order to answer that question, we have to start by asking another question. Is any among us worthy of the help Jesus offers?
Still, given the fact that the centurion was technically on the other side. Given the fact that he was in charge of keeping the Jewish people in line. Given the fact that many people likely considered him the enemy. Given all those facts, Jesus could have deemed the centurion unworthy and refused his request.
Thank God Jesus did otherwise and showed the centurion mercy. Whether the centurion was worthy or unworthy never crossed Jesus’ mind. Mainly because in the eyes of Jesus Christ, all deserve mercy…
Jesus Christ crosses the human battlefield every single day. Listening carefully to the cries of those in desperate need whom we don’t often hear as well as we might. And like Sgt. Kirkland in the battle of Fredricksburg, offering water and grace and mercy to the ones who are victims.
For you and for me, it may seem hard to imagine climbing over the wall and risking our lives to help those who are caught in between the battle lines. But way back in 1862, after two long hours out in the field, Sgt. Kirkland looked up from task and there was quiet. No bullets flying, no cannons being shot off, no grenades being lobbed in his direction. For just a short while on that December day in 1862, the war stopped and mercy prevailed.
Sometimes you and I are so busy taking positions on opposite sides that we forget to slow down and listen. And sometimes the church is equally guilty. We choose sides and draw up enemy lines and forget about the ones wounded in the crossfire.
Perhaps we need to spend less time on the sidelines calling out our enemies. And more time in the field with the nameless, faceless casualties. Hoping and praying and working compassionately so that the wars in our world will stop for a short while. Or God willing, a long, long while.
Yes God calls us to go into the field in spite of the risk. So that more and more of God’s people will come to know the meaning of Christ’s mercy. A mercy that Jesus offers to all whether we are worthy of it or not. Amen.