REFLECTIONS ON MEMORIAL DAY

At harvesttime, three of the thirty chiefs went down and joined David at the fortress of Adullam, while a force of Philistines were camped in the Rephaim Valley.  At that time, David was in the fortress, and a Philistine fort was in Bethlehem.  David had a craving and said, “If only someone would give me a drink of water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem.”  So the three warriors broke through the Philistine camp and drew water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem and brought it back to David.  But he refused to drink it and poured it out to the Lord.

 “The Lord forbid that I should do that,” he said.  “Isn’t this the blood of men who risked their lives?”  So he refused to drink it.  II Samuel 23:13-17 (ceb).

Monday is Memorial Day.  Approaching that day brings me to consider certain aspects relevant to an observation of such a memorial.  I first began to get my thoughts together for a sermon for England’s Remembrance Day several years ago at Skipsea Methodist Church in East Yorkshire.  Shortly before that particular Sunday, I had read of a Veterans’ Day service at the huge Prestonwood Baptist Church in the Dallas area where paratroopers were lowered down from the (seemingly) very high ceilings of the huge church as the choir and orchestra led the singing of patriotic hymns.  To me, such a spectacle does some serious issue-clouding.   I also remember during the Desert Storm war sitting propped up on pillows in my bed watching on television the air strikes over Iraq while an excited voice-over told us of the very advanced weapons systems being used and what destruction such weapons could inflict.

Both scenarios make me very uncomfortable.  So, what do I do with Memorial Day?  One thing, remember the words of Civil War General Sherman on the subject of war:  “War is at best barbarism.  Its  glory is all moonshine.  It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.  War is hell.”
Another thing I recall is a World War II Bill Mauldin cartoon:  Willie and Joe, in Italy behind the battle line, dirty and exhausted, see a clean-shaven, well groomed young trooper striding by obviously with a chip on his shoulder.  “That cain’t be no combat man–he’s lookin’ for a fight!”  No combat veteran goes looking for more fighting…..

I think it is very important to make a distinction between remembering the men and women who have given their lives in defense of country and home, as well as the survivors of battle, and war itself as a political decision.

The Rev. Donald Sensing has written about war:  “There’s something about it that we need to be aware of.  There are many admirable features found among men and women in wartime, as writers from the Roman era on to our own have observed…there is a spirit of sacrifice for a greater good.  Charity and self-giving.  Soldiers come to know some of the finest sentiments that human beings can know…there is fear and anger, resignation, hope and despair.”  He says that the chief emotion at work on the battlefield is an unlikely one:  love.  ” Soldiers do not fight for queen or country, or for mom, apple pie and the girl next door…they fight for their buddies.”

It is said that William Manchester went AWOL from a field hospital on Okinawa when he learned his unit was scheduled to make an amphibious assault behind Japanese lines…and though terribly wounded…he couldn’t bear the thought of his buddies in mortal danger without being there to help.

David, in the passage from Scripture quoted above, in a moment of longing said, “Oh that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!”  Three of his veteran campaigners go through great risks in enemy territory to bring back water from the Bethlehem well for David.  But David cannot drink it:  instead he pours it out as a thank offering to their bravery.
Somehow, the depth issues of life…love, sacrifice, giving one’s utmost…these qualities become obscured from our awareness in our comfortable, middle-class lives.  Instead of being challenged on Sunday mornings in church, so often worship becomes a feel-good community event or a staging area for Sunday lunch with friends.

We tend to forget that we are free because of the risks of mighty men and women who have bought the cup of freedom, sometimes at the cost of their lives.  Another thing which becomes obscured in the midst of life’s busyness and trivialities is that, underneath, we are all brothers and sisters.  About fifteen years ago, in the midst of a tour of a WWII battleship, a pastor from Maine observed an elderly Japanese man bringing a wreath, and reverently and in obvious sadness tossing it over the side of the ship while the tour lecturer continued on.  But the pastor was not the only one observing the Japanese man.  He saw one of the American vets step forward, salute and hold the salute until the Japanese gentleman turned and saw him.  He returned the salute — they faced each other with tears and then each returned to their separate ways…a moment of grace and recognition.

Hallowed are the sacrifices made, and today we specially recognize and remember those sacrifices.  However, Rev. Peter Storey (a South African professor and who was a chaplain to Nelson Mandela as well as a peace activist) has pointed out, “Ultimately, Christians have a higher loyalty than that of flag or nation.   We belong to a wider commonwealth.  When Christ was nailed to the cross, he nailed us to our neighbors, breaking down the divisions between us.  All Christians, whether pacifists or proponents of “just war,” are bound to acknowledge that for those who follow Jesus, all wars are civil wars.  All wars, everywhere, are a form of fratricide.”  And I would add all people, whether Christian or not, are brothers and sisters.

From  the prophet Micah:  “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will no longer take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.  All people will be at peace, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.”

May that soon come to fruition.

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