Memorial Day

May 27, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


In our reading from John’s Gospel today, we hear the words of Jesus to his friends before he knows that he will leave them.  He acknowledges that parting will cause great pain and sorrow, but he encourages them to look ahead to the days when they will know joy once again as they remember their time with him and come to know the deep sense of peace and the promise of hope that he sought to share with them in their time together.  Over this weekend, we are reminded that this is a time to remember those we have lost, those who have served our country over time and those in our own personal lives whom we miss.    Let us pray, O God, help us to be present this day to your word and to be inspired to be prayerful, knowing You are the source and light of our lives.  Amen.

As I was thinking about the importance of remembrance this week with Memorial Day tomorrow, I was reminded of the lovely song by John Denver called Poems, Prayers and Promises that Michelle will sing today.  In the song, he is looking back at his life and appreciating the times he has spent with friends and those he loves and thinking about what he has most valued over the course of his life.  He speaks of his appreciation of nature, saying “I’ve seen a lot of sunshine and slept out in the rain, spent a night or two on my own.”  But what he has really enjoyed is spending time by the fire with a group of friends and family and talking about all the important things in life, reflecting back with appreciation the times they have shared.  Sometimes, in the hectic pace of our days, we don’t always allow the time to remember in the fullest ways the people we have lost in our lives.  Some have been near and dear to us and we can remember what made them special.

So often, we think about this holiday as a time to mark the beginning of summer,  with  warmer months ahead, a time to look forward to a long weekend with a Monday off from work, but it is also a very important day to remember those who have died in service to our nation and to pray for those now serving and for their families and friends, to pray too for peace in all the worn- torn areas of our broken world.

As you may recall, Memorial Day was first known as “Decoration Day,”  and began as a day to honor the Union dead after the Civil War. Following the first World War, it became a day for remembering all those who had died in our nation’s wars. And from there it has broadened further, so that now Memorial Day is also a time for remembering all who have died.  Many people have seen it as a time to visit the graves of our Service members and to visit the graves of their own family who have died.  We place flowers and flags to mark our respect for the lives they lived and the lives they gave in service to our country.  It’s important to remember what has come before, to remind ourselves of the precious lives of those too young who have gone to their deaths, and to take seriously the great sacrifices that so many have made.

As I was thinking of the many, many names of those who died in wartime over the years, and the numbers who have died since their time in Service, I thought about my own great, great, great grandfather who, as a 16 year old, joined the Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War.  I know some of you also have ancestors who served, and of course, I am mindful that had he not returned from that war, I would not be here today.  That war saw untold numbers of young men who lost their lives so we can well understand how important it was to remember their service with a day of remembrance.  I came upon the following stories as I was reading about Memorial Day and I wanted to share them with you.  These are two separate stories, but bear with me, because they are connected…

“Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder. Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was his lawyer for a good reason.
Eddie was very good!

In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time. To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was the money big, but Eddie got special dividends. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block. Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him.

Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son that he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had the best of everything: clothes, cars and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object. And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t pass on to his son: a good name and a good example.

One day, Eddie reached a difficult decision. Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done. He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al “Scarface” Capone, clean up his tarnished name and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against the Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great. So, he testified. Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire in a lonely Chicago Street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he would ever pay.

And now, our second story which takes us more directly to Memorial Day.  World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific. One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank. He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet. As he was returning to the mother ship he saw something that turned his blood cold. A squadron of Japanese aircraft were speeding their way toward the American fleet.

The American fighters were gone on a sortie, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet. Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 caliber’s blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent. Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible and rendering them unfit to fly.   Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier. Upon arrival he reported in and shared the events surrounding his return.

The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch’s daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had in fact destroyed five enemy aircraft.    This took place on February 20, 1942, and for that action Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of W.W.II, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His home town would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.  So the next time you find yourself at O’Hare International, give some thought to visiting Butch’s memorial displaying his statue and his Medal of Honor. It’s located between Terminals 1 and 2.  You might wonder what these two stories have in common?  Butch O’Hare, hero fighter pilot, was Easy Eddie’s son.”  (Greg Madden)

And so we mark Memorial Day by pausing in our lives to remember, to think about the many lives that have been lost over the years, and to continue to honor who they were and who we are, what we believe in, and how we may best share that vision with our world.  Some of my own ancestors are buried in a cemetery in Gray, Maine and I have visited there with my mother.  Near their graves is a grave of an unknown Confederate soldier, apparently never identified and never returned to his family.  Over the many years, local people have tended that grave out of respect for him and for his family, especially his mother who would never know where her son finally rests.  Even today, you will find it carefully tended.  They do this because of who they are and their kinship with distant families from faraway and from another time, a very sad and difficult period in our nation’s history where so many lives were lost.  They tend his grave because of their vision of a nation united as brothers and sisters, one to the other, despite differences of faith, geography, or belief.   I believe that there are many graves of unknown soldiers in the north and the south that have been cared for by those who live nearby.  It’s a tribute to their service and their sacrifice and to their families.

As we enjoy this long Memorial Day weekend, for those who have off tomorrow, let us remember to pause, to take time to pray, and to ask God to continue to guide us in love.  I’d now like to invite Don Chretien to come forward and share his own personal story of service and remembrance.