Memorial Day: A Day of Tender Memory and Meaning
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 their entire population. One out of every four people in Russia died in World War Two! I would think those kinds of casualties, suffered everywhere around the globe, would be enough for our leaders to say: “Let’s not reach for “war” as a solution to our political problems. It’s just too costly in human sacrifice.” Right?
After two such horrendous wars in the first half of the 20th Century --either one of which could have been (should have been) the war to end all wars -- it looked like the tide would finally turn! A United Nations approach to problem-solving, where issues could be discussed & resolved in diplomatic and economic relations -- with a firm commitment to peace- making and the assurance of human rights in all countries -- would make “war” unnecessary. The threat of war could be seen as a brutal hold-over from barbaric times, impossible to justify for any reason any longer in a world of ever-escalating lethal technology and nuclear weapons. Right?
Well, the Korean Conflict -- that began in August 1945 and ended with the armistice in July 1953 (from which American soldiers to this day still patrol the Korean Demilitarized Zone along the 38th Parallel) -- cost us 33,686 battle deaths and another 2,830 non-battle deaths (situations that surrounded the M.A.S.H. units in the old TV comedy). Yes, America lost about 36,000 military men and women in the Korean War. South Korea lost 137,900 military and 373,600 civilian deaths in that war… That’s a half-a-million of their citizens dead! North Korea suffered 290,000 casualties, and 90,000 more who were captured as POW’s. North Korea’s ally in that war (the People’s Republic of) China lost 114,000 soldiers in battle and another 34,000 non-battle deaths, as well as 340,000 wounded in the Korean War. The total casualties on all sides in that eight-year conflict came to one-&-a-quarter million full battle deaths. Among them were our 36,000 Americans. So, why are we publicly “rattling sabers” again with North Korea? Has that part of the world not suffered enough war already? Are human beings in uniform that expendable? Must we instigate “war”?
Gordon Nethercut served in Korea as a Chaplain’s Assistant – a role that Patty & I also filled in the U.S. Army back in the late 1970’s, serving in Georgia under President Jimmy Carter and in Germany under Ronald Reagan. Fortunately, Patty & I did not see any actual warfare in our four years of service. If there are other veterans present this morning, I invite you to stand and receive our applause as a token of thanks for your service.
It wouldn’t be a complete Memorial Day if I failed to mention Vietnam, would it? From 1961 until 1975, when we withdrew our forces, 58,209 Americans were killed in Southeast Asia. Their names are inscribed on a long, black stone wall in Washington DC. The total death toll on both sides in the Vietnam/Cambodia Conflict was 1,353,000… 58,000 of them were Americans whom we remember on this Memorial Day. We thank them (posthumously) for their sacrifice. And we hope, once more, that lessons learned from that bloody Conflict would finally bring such military interventions to an end -- that the world would wake up to its own brutal folly and stop making war! It is a failure of diplomacy, not a glory.
During the Reagan years, America invaded Grenada and sent troops to Lebanon. Under the elder Bush, we had the first Gulf War. In the Clinton years, we sent soldiers, sailors, and Marines to Serbia & Kosovo and to Somalia. After 9/11 2001, the second George Bush sent American soldiers to fight in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, wars which were carried forward by the Obama Administration. In time, these deadly conflicts widened to include Libya and Syria and other Islamic State strongholds throughout the Middle East. The American military is still engaged in those conflicts, and casualties still mount. Some veterans come home with grievous physical, mental, and emotional wounds, and too many come home to be buried. For the past 106 years, this weekend has been set aside from “business as usual” to recognize -- across all branches of the military -- one common theme: recognizing the sacrifice of American lives in pursuit of liberty, democracy, human rights, and self-determination. We take this holiday to say “Thank you” to our service personnel… who have given not only their time & talents, but their very lives in service to America’s global goals.
Secondly, we are taking time this morning to ask God’s blessing on their spouses & children … whose hearts are burdened by grief due to the loss of their loved one, and whose lives have been made much harder by those deaths. May they find comfort in their memories, compassionate care in our community’s response to their needs, and strengthened relationships among their other family members and friends who can help them re-create bonds of belonging & support. Gracious God, bless them.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assured the crowd: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Our Christian faith gives us more than “comfort” -- it gives us hope of “immortality” secured through Christ’s resurrection & ascension, such that we believe Jesus is now seated at God’s right hand, as our advocate & intercessor, our eternal savior & Lord. We do not wring our hands as though we were people without hope. For in the midst of our sorrows, we can reassure one another that a better day is coming, and we are not going through it alone.
We are able to encourage one another that the terrible sting of tragedy will one day be swallowed up in a much greater victory party. As we read responsively from the Revelation to Saint John: “The one who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be their God and they shall be my child.” (Rev. 21:7) All our beloved are in God right now. My Dad (Les Lance) went there back in 1981, 36 years ago! My Mom, Dodi, joined him there just last week. For them, it was only in the twinkling of an eye. They are together again now, for all eternity. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Death has been swallowed up in victory! Grave, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? … Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 15:54-57) Amen?
Let’s remember that the victory over death is already ours -- even in these perishable, mortal bodies! In this morning’s reading from the Book of the Revelation, there is a wonderful poetic image of heaven, portrayed as a new city (a new Jerusalem, to be precise, sent by God to replace the old Jerusalem city that the Romans had destroyed in the year 70). John writes: “Behold, the dwelling of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
And then there is this remarkable, tender phrase: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain shall be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The one seated on the throne said: “See, I am making all things new. … I am the Alpha & the Omega, the beginning and the end. … He who conquers shall have this heritage! I will be their God and they shall be my child.”
I find comfort in the words of St. John in today’s reading: “God Himself will dwell with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” How tender is that image! In your experience, who stoops down to wipe the eyes of one who is crying? A parent. A lover. A confidante.
To wipe the eyes of another is an intimate and tender gesture. It expresses love … trust, kindness. To wipe every tear from one’s eye is a gentle gift, a service rarely seen on earth. But such is our God… our image of heaven! Those who mourn will be comforted.
Tomorrow, if you have the day off of school or off of work -- or if you see in the newspaper a “Memorial Day special” sales event -- pause for a moment, and say a prayer of thanks for the past 241 years of American independence, and beyond that -- remember the “unsung” heroes, the ordinary American military members serving in some of the most remote locations on earth. Too many of them have sacrificed their lives in wars old and new -- in places far flung, like Iwo Jima, and as close at hand as Fort Hood. It is our prayer that all our military personnel will come home safely, out of harm’s way! And that war will no longer be seen as a means to find “meaning” in life, but will be effectively eliminated from our national arsenal. No more war!
But until that day, we take this Memorial Day Sunday to send a special prayer to the men and women who even now are missing priceless moments in the lives of their families in order that we ordinary Americans can enjoy blessed freedom and peace at home. May God bless them.
And may God bless you all. Amen.