September 17, 2023 may well be the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, but for faithful troops stationed on Mt. Horeb, it is Rally Day this year. Rally Day might invoke “same ol’, same ol’” thoughts regarding the start of the academic year as well as annual congregational educational endeavors. It’s easy to just check it off: “been there, done that…” Although the day is usually filled with some excitement and hope of mustering enthusiasm for getting Sunday School and Confirmation up and running, the less than impressive participation by all the faithful in “life-long learning” in many congregations across the country remains a sorry witness. It also reveals that we don’t really have a clue what “rallying the troops” means.
The word “rally” itself is derived from the French term rallier, meaning to gather in urgent fashion troops who are trained, ready and able to do battle against the enemy. To rally is not primarily a public spectacle or entertainment to draw massive crowds, such as the loyal hordes who gather for games at the Clemson Memorial Stadium, the USC Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, or The Citadel’s Johnson-Hagood Stadium in the Holy City. Fans come to watch, tailgate as part of the festivities, and “…root, root, root for the Home Team.” Folks can even get into really big trouble if they trespass onto the field of battle, the sacrosanct domain of the teams, coaching staff, and referees. Rallies, on the other hand, are first and foremost the occasion for soldiers, sportspersons, and committed folks to “test their mettle” for battle, human capabilities and endurance, or worthy causes, political and social. The primary point of a rally is about putting ones physical training, talents, and learning to the test. Whether there is a winner or loser to announce is somewhat beside the point.
Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth I spoke on August 9, 1588 at a defining moment in English history when she purportedly arrived in battle dress on the Tilbury Plain to rally her troops and subjects facing invasion by the Spanish Armada: “…I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.” Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in British history, pledged in a 1947 radio broadcast: “…I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” Together their rallying words speak of utter dedication as well sincere pledges to work together with their subjects for the welfare and betterment of people.
The Bible itself contains a number of rallying cries. The first reading for Ash Wednesday each year calls God’s faithful but errant people to gather: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations [Joel 2:15-17]. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words, the so-called Great Commission given directly before his ascension, is itself a rallying call to action: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age [Matthew 28:18-20].
Elizabeth I, II, and Jesus are addressing folks in whom they have faith. For Elizabeth I the survival of England is at stake, her troops poised to defend “Queen and Country.” Elizabeth II addresses a nation sorely tested by recent global conflict. Jesus entrusts the Gospel ministry to disciples and followers, folks who have been put through a grueling bootcamp, the Holy Spirit continuing even to this day to pour out countless gifts for service on them. This is the Spirit, the Advocate, who Jesus promises will guide and protect the faithful “to the end of the age…” The myriad crowds who assembled to hear those most eloquent monarchs and the disciples directed to a mountain near Bethany all were capable people whose mettle was ready to be tried by invaders, who survived the hardships of a world war, or who, by God’s grace, were already equipped to bring the Good News to “all nations.” God’s faithful children to this day stand in direct line with those first disciples, and that includes us, too.
While the appointed readings for Sunday are not intentionally written with Rally Day in mind, they nevertheless serve well. The Matthew 18:21-35 parable tells of a gracious ruler’s mercy and forgiveness for a miscreant servant who incurred massive debt. The parable’s “stinger” is that the one forgiven turns right around and hounds another servant for a paltry sum. Jesus’ summary of the parable echoes his words when teaching folks how to pray: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… [Matthew 6:12]. Let anyone with ears listen! What the servant up to his ears in debt fails to learn is the lesson that is heard, demonstrated, and commended by “the master.” Such lessons need to be heeded and put into practice by the servants. The question that confronts us all is this: Do we just casually listen to Jesus’ “wonderful words of life,” or actually put them into practice?
Rally Day is calling together those ABLE and WILLING to be Jesus’ disciples in Church and beyond 101 East Boundary Street. God’s rallying call is not age dependent. Followers of Jesus, no matter their age, can discover myriad ways to serve faithfully. These are folks who learn that Christian education does not stop with Confirmation (…which ISN’T a course from which to graduate. Instead, it is the embarking on life as responsible people, maturing in faith, able to consider what is best in a given situation while acting with integrity). For those who have ears, it is a daily paying attention to our callings in life itself while learning to put into practice, for example, St. Paul’s very important list of Christian characteristics in Romans 12:9-21. ALL of us, God willing, grow, mature, suffer hardships and great joys, learning ever anew what those “wonderful words of life” mean. Meaning, outlook, and understanding change and evolve over time and through experience. Well trained soldiers don’t just study battleplans in a textbook but regularly drill in order to be ready for engagement whenever and wherever it occurs. The same is true for God’s people of faith who discover that every blessed day is potentially Rally Day, which is why we will pray next Sunday: “…Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” Amen.