Memorial Day Sermon-May 30, 2021
Our reading today from the prophet Isaiah speaks of Yahweh’s demand that peace, justice, and truth reign in the world. In Mark’s Gospel, as Jesus listens to the conflicts between his followers, he reminds them to ‘be at peace with one another.” I selected these readings today, because we need to be reminded often that God’s ways are not always our ways and that God calls us to a way of living that is often very difficult to achieve. We know the way of peace in our lives is not without challenges; we know the path to peace between nations is still so hard to achieve and so we gather this day with a prayer that the peace that is beyond all human understanding may one day be possible in our families, in our nation, and across our world. Let us pray,
Tomorrow, we observe Memorial Day across these United States as we honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. You may recall that the day was originally known as Decoration Day, and it began in the years following the Civil War when people, and especially mothers of the fallen, would go to the cemeteries to leave flowers and decorate the graves as a way to honor those who had died. Too, there were stories of the mothers of the Union army tending the graves of unknown Confederate soldiers and the mothers of the Confederacy doing the same across the south. Suffering the loss of a child in war is one of those life events that serves to connect people across many divides. It was not until 1971, that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday.
Most students of history recall the tragedy of the Civil War which claimed more lives than any conflict in US history by the time it ended in 1865. After the loss of so much human life, and tragically among our own citizens, some of the country’s first national cemeteries were established. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers. In the years since that war, we know that American men and women have died in large numbers during the other wars of the 20th century and in the early decades of this century.
Many of you have served in the military and many more have loved ones who have served or are serving. Most who have served during war time would say that war is indeed a terrible thing and some of the most outspoken opponents of war have been among veterans who have seen the horrors of what can happen to their fellow soldiers and sadly to so many innocent ones who are caught in the middle. It’s no surprise then that the One who created each of us as beloved children would not want us to take up arms against each other. And yet, throughout all of time, war has been a constant, hasn’t it? Things get very complicated during wars and sadly, sometimes truth and justice get lost in the struggle.
I have been slowly reading a book entitled, A Pilgrimmage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith. The author, Timothy Egan, is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the New York Times. In the book, he follows an ancient pilgrimage route of a thousand miles from Canterbury to Rome, weaving history and culture into an exploration of why Christianity is struggling in the world it created. He is accompanied by fellow pilgrims as he reflects upon some of the major figures of the faith from Joan of Arc to Henry VIII to Martin Luther. I had never heard of this pilgrimage; it is a different walk than the El Camino de Santiago across southern France and northern Spain. Along the way, Egan reflects on the history of the towns he visits and imagines the lives of those who lived there over time.
Of course, one of the central concerns that he reflects upon is the tragic history of wars throughout Europe over the centuries and particularly the ways in which ‘so called’ Christian leaders from royalty to clergy, continued to embroil their people in endless wars against one another. We know too of the horrors of the Crusades which sought to stop the spread of Islam, retake control of the Holy Land in the eastern Mediterranean, to conquer what they considered pagan areas, and to recapture formerly Christian territories. The excesses of the Crusades which lasted for centuries were horrific.
It is important to know that even in those times, a peace movement also developed, especially in France, under the leadership of certain bishops but with considerable popular support. Religious leaders proclaimed the Peace of God and the Truce of God, designed to halt or at least limit warfare and assaults during certain days of the week and times of the year and to protect the lives of clergy, travelers, women, and others unable to defend themselves against such violence. (Thomas Madden, Prof of History, Saint Louis University)
In the mid-1600’s, meetings were held in two neutral German cities to attempt to carve out peace between several of the European nations called the Peace of Westphalia. Two peace treaties were signed in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War and brought peace to the Holy Roman Empire, closing a terrible period of European history that killed approximately eight million people.
A friend of mine years ago used to wear a tshirt that said, “A Modest Proposal: Let all the Christians of the world agree not to kill one another.” I recall feeling quite uncomfortable with that statement, because of course, wouldn’t we want all the peoples of the world to agree not to kill one another, but in some ways it reflected the spirit of Westphalia, as well as many others throughout history who as Christians, embraced the Gospel message of Peace, and sought to actually translate their deep commitment to peace into action against all reason, against all odds. And we know there have been great peacemakers from all religious traditions, because the suffering that comes from war, the loss of lives, the devastation of homes and families, of land and so much else is a tragedy to be avoided whenever possible.
When we remember those who have died this Memorial Day, it is impossible to lift up the names of all who should be honored; however I would like to share one story as a reminder of the cost of war and the heroism of one soldier. Last fall, I was very moved by the story of Sergeant Allwyn Cashe, who, after many years, was finally cleared to receive the Medal of Honor. In October 2005, at the age of 35, he was deployed to Samarra, Iraq, with the 3rd Infantry Division when the armored vehicle he was in rolled over an improvised explosive device. He was slightly injured by the explosion and quickly realized the vehicle’s fuel cell had erupted and the vehicle had burst into flames.
Sgt. Cashe made numerous trips into the vehicle to recover his fellow soldiers and suffered extensive burns in the process. He died about three weeks later at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which is known for its burn unit. He had been originally approved for the Silver Star as his commanding officer did not understand the full extent of his brave actions. Over the years, his story came to the attention of those in Congress as well as those higher up in the military and he was finally approved to receive the well-deserved Medal of Honor last November.
We should pause for a moment to reflect upon how very fortunate, how very privileged we are as a people, because most of us have never experienced war and certainly never experienced war in our own land. Yet, this very day, people are picking up the pieces of the rocket launches and bombings in Gaza and Israel, and so many others around the world live in refugee camps after fleeing the wars in Syria, in parts of Africa, and other places. The lives of these refugees will never be the same. I recall the story of a classmate of mine years ago when I was in graduate school who is part of the Passamaquoddy people. She shared that it was the women in her tribe who traditionally had the power to decide whether they would go to war, because they were the ones who suffered so much.
There is no way to truly measure the loss or to calculate the grief of the mothers and fathers, the children, the friends, and fellow soldiers, who miss those they have lost. We know, however, that the One who created us still longs for a time when we will make war no more, a time when truth and justice will reign and all may live in peace. This is both a personal challenge to us as a people to live in peace with one another; it is also a larger challenge to us as a community of faith to work on behalf of truth, to seek justice, and to ensure that peace has a home in our world. Amen.