It has always struck me that in every town and village I served as a member of the clergy, there are monuments and memorials to the soldiers who died in the service of our country. They are as remote and far away as you can get from the places of battle. In our busy lives we often drive right past them without realizing that they are there.
The lists on these monuments are long. I look at the lists and wonder how there could be any young men left from such small towns after our many wars. Then I realize that it is not very accurate to say that we are fighting over seas to prevent having to fight the enemy here in our own land. Because, no matter how far away we are from the horrible battles of war in other lands, we are really much closer and much more vulnerable than we realize to the suffering and death of the patriots who serve and to the inconsolable grief of loved ones they leave back home. We all feel the loss of loved ones no matter how far away or how close the battle seems to be from us.
Sadly, yes it is true there are times when we must fight. Even St. Peter says so: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. “*
And so these sacred monuments were set aside for you to step aside. Step aside to offer some a bit of time in your life to remember these patriots. Give them the time in this peaceful place that they will never be able to have again. Yet, every soldier I know, who was able to return from these battles, would say you have to do more than just set aside time to remember. For they would not want their fellow soldiers to have died in vain.
One hundred years ago this year President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech telling the American people that we would fight the “war to end all wars.” That was in 1917 as we entered World War 1. The war ended when our enemy surrendered and we thought that we won the war to end all wars. But since then the U.S. State department has calculated that the 20th century has seen 33.5 million military war dead and 54 million civilian war dead. That report was issued 24 years ago, before the Gulf War, Desert Storm, and even now in the war against terror.
So can surrendering or winning make much of a difference when we are still fighting that war to end all wars? Our brothers and sisters, our mothers, fathers, children, husbands and wives are losing their loved ones in all the world. Those of us who are alive today must do more than just remember. We must do more in gratitude to those who died for us.
I believe that every single day that we are alive we must live into the freedoms, faith and peaceful way of life that they died for and that they would want us to live for. Dear friends in Christ we are in a battle right here in our everyday lives against the “roaring lions and the devil who prowls around, looking for someone to devour:” looking for someone to devour with hatred, with uncontrolled anger, with arguments, and with arrogance; someone to devour with feelings of superiority and prejudice. I truly believe that the war to end all wars is won, not on the battle field, but rather in our everyday life. It is won every time we lay down our own personal weapons of hatred, anger and retribution, even in what seems like little things compared to a whole big war.
Every time we hold back from lashing back, from saying a nasty comment, from repeating a piece of hurtful gossip or blame; every time we look on a child of poverty or illness with acts of compassion, every time we listen to the hurt of someone we think is our enemy, and in every act of forgiveness and mercy, especially in our own everyday lives, this is when the battle for peace is won.
These efforts may seem small. But just try to do them and you will know the great effort that it takes. This life of forgiveness, this life of self control, this American life of liberty in law is very difficult. You may want to give up and just lash back. Instead just stop and step back to remember: these patriots died on the battlefield of war so that you can learn to live in peace. And also remember this: those who died for you are now praying for you from heaven.
Jesus is praying for you too. We just read his prayer in our Gospel lesson on Memorial Day Sunday: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, … Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”*
God is with you when you try, and keep trying. For all your efforts serve to prevent the larger battles of war. All these efforts of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and peace increase the potential for peace in our families, in church, at work, in our community, our country and the whole world. Remember they died in war so that we can learn to live in peace.
At times like these we often sing the hymn “America the Beautiful.” The lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates, and the music was composed in 1895 by the church organist Samuel A. Ward at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. So this is a New Jersey Episcopal hymn that American patriots have been singing all over the world for over 100 years. But we do not often sing these words in the later verses: “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life! America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!”
Let these words inspire us today as we begin anew to live up to the hope and dreams that these war dead held for you and me. As we live into their hope for today, let us also remember that we all live in the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit of God.