Memorial Day: A Day of Tender Memory and Meaning

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A sermon based on Revelation 21:1-7 -- Responsive Reading #136 in the Pilgrim Hymnal byRev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707 Tomorrow is Memorial Day: a national holiday in which schools are closed, banks are closed, in order that we can take the time to hold in tender love the memory of those who have gone before us: soldiers and sailors, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force members, who have served stateside & overseas -- losing their lives in Iraq & Afghanistan, in Somalia & Serbia, in Kosovo and Korea, in Vietnam & Panama & Grenada -- those who lost their lives in battles in Europe and in the Pacific, in both of the World Wars of the last Century; together with those veterans who served and who came home, but have since passed on due to their wounds, or to advancing age -- for their service & their sacrifice, we are grateful. Dear God, bless them. Our Lay Reader this morning, retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tom Grubaugh, in his years of active service, presented the American flag to the surviving spouse or children of military veterans who passed away at funerals all across Northern Michigan. It is a dignified and slow-moving ceremony of precise actions, as we saw here in this sanctuary a few months ago when Steve Tretinick was so honored. On those occasions, Tom heard the eulogies and histories of those veterans’ lives. Tom told me that to wear the same uniform -- in service to the same values, as those saints of old -- was indeed an honor.

All of us, whether civilian or military veteran, owe a debt of gratitude to those who have served to maintain our liberty and standard of life. We are here today to say that we remember them, and we appreciate even now the sacrifices they made on our behalf! We commend them again and anew to the eternal care of God.

The “Memorial Day” holiday originated 150 years ago, during the Civil War, when regions (both in the North and in the South) mourned their losses and celebrated their particular military heroes. In 1911, President Woodrow Wilson consolidated (and nationalized) those regional remembrances to a single day: May 30. That was shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, which gave rise to the songs that I shared with the children. Our “boys” (the “Yanks”) were sent “over there” to fight. And many of their “buddies” did not come home. There was recently a mini-series on TV about “The Great War” (World War I), which was said (at the time) to be “The War to End All Wars.” With the new technology of rapid-fire machine guns and mustard gas, trench-warfare left an appalling number of casualties in its wake. The Allies lost 6 million military men “over there” while the Axis Central Powers lost about 4 million in battle and an additional 2 million who died from disease. That’s nearly 12 million named soldiers who are buried in huge cemeteries with white crosses stretching over many acres. When we add to that number 7 million civilians, who had either been caught in the crossfire or who died from disease and famine, the total war dead almost matches the number of people who were wounded in that “Great War”: which amounted to another 20 million casualties!

The flu epidemic of 1918 certainly exacerbated the death toll, especially among Allies who were being held as Prisoners of War, but for the first time in the history of wars, more soldiers died in the heat of battle than died of war-related disease. In fact, due to the new forms of lethal technology (modern weaponry), there were twice as many! The appalling death toll among both the Axis Powers and the Allies, provoked revulsion against war as a means to settle national differences. This War, having been so horrible, would end war! A new “League of Nations” would be convened, so that diplomatic solutions could replace warfare in the future. Within 25 years, however, a Second World War erupted in Europe -- which also included Imperial Japan in the Pacific -- spread to Burma, China, & India; there were Nazis in North Africa…

Altogether in that Second World War, over 60 million people died in battle, which was about 3% of the world’s population in 1940. 20 million more died of war-related disease and famine. (!) Of the two nations who started WWII, Japan lost three-&-a-half million military and 8 million civilians in the war, with another 8.5 million casualties due to famine & disease: for a total 20 million people from that little island nation.

Germany’s dead and missing military was five and a half million… which was about as many people as the Nazis intentionally murdered in the Jewish Holocaust! Poland lost 6 million people. The Soviets had nearly 9 million soldiers killed over the course of that war, but 27 million Russians died in their homeland. China suffered 20 million war dead.

In contrast to those huge numbers, America lost only 407,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines killed in battle and about 12,000 civilians due to military action in World War Two. Those 418,500 war-related deaths of Americans were tragic losses to their families, yes; and we grieve each and every life lost in war -- that’s what Memorial Day is set aside to do! (It’s what we’re doing here in church this morning!) But in a total United States population in 1940 of 131,000,000 people, WWII cost us less than 1/3 of 1% of our population. By contrast, Russia lost one quarter of