May 28th-Memorial Day-Carleen Gerber
For What Would You Lay Down Your Life?
Tomorrow the town’s annual Memorial Day parade will pass by the face of our Meetinghouse. Our town’s leaders will be waving at the crowds, probably from the seat of a red convertible. There will be packs of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, sports teams of all manner, regional fire departments, and the marching bands of both the Middle School and High School. There will be refurbished military vehicles, and, in all likelihood, a fife and drum corps. All this in honor of those who have died in our nation’s wars.
It is estimated that nearly a million of our country’s men and women have died in war – not counting those who died in the Civil War. Records for the Civil War dead are unreliable. But calibrated on the population of the country at the time, the Civil War is thought to be the bloodiest and most devastating war in all our history. There were single days when as many as 26,000 men died. And it was a particularly painful and bitter war. The Mason-Dixon line often divided families, pitting brother against brother. The deep divisions that drove that war still rock our nation’s foundations to this day. Just this past week, a young black ROTC student from the University of Maryland, who was within days of graduating and heading off to serve his country, was viciously slain by a man claiming to be a proud member of an alt-right supremacy group.
When I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I stumble at the words, “One nation, under God, indivisible.” Indivisable????? “One nation, under God, divided we stand.”
The celebration of Memorial Day began in the very first few years
following the Civil War, when women of the South started the tradition of
laying flowers upon the graves of those who had died. Insuring, in the
words of Ecclsiasticus, that “Their bodies are buried in peace, and their
names live on for ever.” The tribute, and the flowers, and the mourning,
are, for me, what Memorial Day is really all about.
I come to the task of preaching on Memorial Day Sunday with a heavy heart,
for war troubles my soul. And there are times like this one – when the threat of
war hangs like a black and terrifying cloud over some distant horizon.
I confess that I have never had to watch a husband or a father or a brother go off to war. But I have had to watch a son-in-law return from 15 months of service in Baghdad during the Iraq War. I’ve had to watch him shoulder the burdens of all that he was asked to endure in a war the nation has subsequently admitted we fought without justification. The number of the wounded from that war? – that war without justification- staggering. The rate of suicide amongst its veterans? – catastrophic. The legacy of that war is very painful, indeed.
Is there such a thing as a Just War ? Maybe…. Maybe. A very good argument can be made in its support. But the older I get, the more I realize that human life – all human life- is precious and precarious and fleeting. And death, any death, falls heavy upon my soul.
Toward the end of the gospel of John, knowing he will soon die, Jesus says to his disciples:
“This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love that this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he went willingly into Jerusalem, knowing full-well the sacrifice that he would make. The mission that lay ahead of him – to confront the principalities and powers with a gospel of love – was worth laying down his life for.
For what would you lay down your life?
It is an all-together appropriate question for us to ponder on this eve of Memorial Day. And I’d like to begin our soul-searching with another question: What is it about this country we love – this America we celebrate and honor tomorrow – that is worthy of the sacrifice of nearly a million lives? Hold onto that question.
Not long ago, David Brooks, in an editorial in the New York Times, said we are a country whose very birth is steeped in the Exodus narrative. We were founded by a people who sought freedom from oppressive systems, and who journeyed forth in hopes of creating a better world. “This,” says Brooks, “is our “overarching narrative.”” Our forefathers left the Old World determined to create a social politic that was true to the Christian values they held dear. The “promised land,” the land of Canaan, Biblically speaking, was never, and never should be, about real estate. From the earliest pages of the Bible, from the earliest pages of the Torah, “the promised land” has always been about an ideal. It’s been about creating a place of brotherhood and grace and equality and compassion. It’s been about an engagement in faith and hope and honor and truth. And while I admit that the Promised Land has never been fully actualized in this America we love, this was the quest that gave meaning and purpose to the founding of this nation.
“The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a…people with a sacred mission gave their task dignity and consequence.” (David Brooks, NYT, April 2017)
The words that follow, spoken by John Winthrop, leader of the Puritans, became their guiding treatise;
“We shall be as a city set upon a hill….for this end we must be knit together in this work as one. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection… we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities….we must make other’s conditions our own….we must labour and suffer together… the eyes of all people are upon us…” (from the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Robinson)
Some historians have argued the Puritans were arrogant. Some argue that a search for prosperity in the face of England’s Industrial Revolution was a significant factor in their pursuit of a new world. And most of us would have to admit that the Puritan enterprise was NOT without its failures and shortcomings. And while all of this may hold some truth, I would simply like to propose that the Exodus narrative is one that resonates with my heart and soul and mind – flawed as it may be when fleshed out. To build a nation true to the highest ideals of Christian charity, to borrow from the words of John Winthrop, would be a mission for which I would be willing to lay down my life.
In the years since the arrival of the Puritans upon our shores, waves of immigrants have seen themselves as performing an exodus narrative of their own. They have left one place and come to our shores to build a better future. They have seen themselves as part of a great spiritual drama- not just a financial one. They have helped to build this nation. They have served in our military, some of them laying down their lives. It always stuns me on trips into Native American communities that we hear Native Americans express great pride in having served this nation in the military- these a people who have often been betrayed by governmental policies. But the great and noble founding mythology of our nation – the pursuit of ideals of brotherhood and equality and honor and truth – those are goals for which they are willing to sacrifice their very lives.
I will take for my own the optimism, the courage, the determination and the hope that the Exodus story weaves into my national imagination. I want to believe that we Americans are always working toward becoming an ever more perfect union. As the poet Langston Hughes said:
“America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath: America will be!”
America is a goal. America is a vision of a place where compassion overcomes greed, where lust for power or wealth is overcome by strength forged in brotherhood and equality. That is the essential message of the gospel itself. The quest for that America, the America our forefathers sought to create, is the basis for the “sacred mission” which, I fervently hope, we still pursue to this day.
You might have read a speech given earlier this week by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, on the occasion of the removal of the last of the city’s several Confederate monuments. “We are hereby showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves – making straight what has long been crooked, and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and, yes, with violence.” (New York Times: May 23, 2017)
The America that will be and can be and should be is the America that Mitch Landrieu and Langston Hughes lauded: the America that nearly a million men and women have died for; may they rest in peace and may we never forget or take for granted their sacrifice.
America, as a body-politic, is in a very difficult place right now. Our divisions are deep, and there is a tragic lack of cooperation and trust on both sides of the aisle in the halls of Congress. If I were a soldier being sent off to Afghanistan, and there are soldiers now being requested for that purpose, I think I would feel a profound sense of confusion about what I am to fight for, and who I am to fight for. I would wonder what I’d find at home when my tour of duty ends. For what would you be willing to lay down your life? Probably not for disarray, and division and partisanship.
Surely what we really need right now is the dialogue by which reasonable people agree, and disagree, and compromise and forge a way forward. Whether politicians in Washington D.C. call themselves Republicans or Democrats or Independents, they owe it to the nearly one million men and women who have given their lives to this great country to sit down around a common table and listen to one another. And they owe it to those who have sacrificed life itself to stay there, at that common table, until they’ve hammered out the important decisions by which this nation continues to become an ever “more perfect union.”
“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection…we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities … we must make other’s conditions our own….. we must labor and suffer together.” Our leaders in Congress TODAY stand on the shoulders of the giants who crafted those words – who gave their lives in pursuit of a sacred mission.
There is enough capital and wealth in this country to move toward a “more perfect union,” in accordance with Winthrop’s vision. Let me confess something you might be surprised to learn: in college I almost became an economics major. When I see the wonderful sculpture of the little girl on Wall Street facing down the Bronze Bull, I smile and say to myself “I coulda been a contender.”
I’ve read Thomas Piketty, and Robert Reich and I’ve even slogged my way through the writings of a few economists who disagree with them. But not one economist that I have been able to find has convinced me that the nation lacks the resources to do the right thing. We do not lack the resources to face the threats of a changing climate. We do not lack the resources to provide a good basic education for all our citizens – or good, basic health care. We do not lack the resources to repair our failing infrastructure, and honor our national parks, while still giving aid to other nations, and supporting NATO, and concurrently maintaining an adequate military of our own. How do we access the wealth the country needs? How do we design programs that are efficient and successful? Those are really the challenges before our Congress. It’s not a question of whether or not we can do the right thing: it’s a question of whether or not we will do the right thing!
In a conversation with my son-in-law who served in Iraq, he told me one thing – one positive thing about his time there – that has really stayed with me. He said he has sincerely missed the spirit of camaraderie that he felt with the other members of his National Guard troop when they were engaged in what they thought was a mission. For a few summers when he first returned home, he volunteered to travel as a member of the Connecticut Department of Environment and Energy, to fight fires in the West. Working together, taking risks together, trusting one another in the trenches where cooperation is critical – saving lives – that brought the best of all he had experienced in military service to bear on a mission of which he felt very proud. That brotherhood of firefighters was united in a kind of noble, sacred mission.
Just this past week, we were once again witness to a tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England. Once again we grieved. Once again we wrestled with the painful questions of who and why and how. But through the din and cacophony of all the voices that spoke, what captured my attention most was the incredible, incredible display of unity and support and compassion that the people of Manchester rallied to display for one another. They brought to fruition these word: “We must make other’s conditions our own…we must labor and suffer together…” Indeed, the eyes of all people were upon them. And the unity and power of brotherly affection they demonstrated was an inspiring testimony to the optimism, the courage, the determination and the hope that I find in the Exodus narrative – the narrative that fuels my national imagination.
I want to live in the kind of country that binds people together – that makes another’s conditions my own – where people entertain their neighbors with brotherly affection – where people give of their superfluities for the sake of other’s necessities – where people labor and suffer together – so that when the eyes of the whole world are upon us we can say we are proud to be Americans.
I am going to close with a few lines from an inaugural address, and ask you to guess who might have said them!
“How can we love our country and not love our countrymen? And loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick and (help them to be) self-sufficient so that they will be equal in fact and not just in theory.” (Ronald Reagan)
The prophet Jeremiah claims these as the words of the Lord: Take your stand and watch at the crossroads; enquire about the ancient paths; ask which is the way that leads to what is good. Take that way and you will find rest for your souls.: (Jeremiah 6:16)
God Bless America. And may she find rest for her soul. Amen.
Carleen R. Gerber
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme