“After Armistice”

November 9, 2014


Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 25:31-46


This coming Tuesday is Veterans’ Day.

This is not, of course, a special day in the church year, like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost. But there are times when it is appropriate for us to mark days of national significance in our worship, for all time, all days, belong to God. Over the years, I have preached about Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Election Day. I’ve even preached about Halloween!

And yet, I have never before addressed Veterans Day in a sermon.

But this year both history and present circumstances call our attention to this observance so that we might create a different future.

Our history is one of war.

This past August we marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I—the “Great War” they called it at the time, when a second and even greater one could not have been imagined. It was also called the war to end all war, but, of course, it didn’t turn out that way.

Now, I’m old enough to have had a grandfather who served in WWI. Until her death in the late 1970s my grandmother always referred to November 11 as “Armistice Day.” It would always be for her and for her generation the day that marked the end of the First World War. Eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 was the beginning of an armistice—a temporary cessation of the fighting between the Allies and Germany. The Treaty of Versailles—which in many ways set in motion the events that led to the second war—wasn’t signed until the following year.

It was the Armistice that stuck in popular imagination. In 1919 Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation declaring November 11 as Armistice Day—a day to remember those who died and a day to be marked, the proclamation said, because of “the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the council of nations.”

There was, I think, a note of realism contained in the observance of Armistice Day. The name tells us that we were not beating our swords into plowshares. We were not announcing that we would study war no more. We marked an armistice—a temporary halt in hostilities. That was the best that we could do then—and after over a decade of ceaseless war and conflict in the Middle East, armistice seems to many the best we can hope for even now.

When Congress codified Wilson’s proclamation and made it a federal holiday in 1926, they invited “the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all people.” Those words sound quaint after all the years and all the wars that have followed. Still, we hear in them a dim note of hope that some kind of friendship between people and nations might still be possible even in our time.

But, as I said, it was an armistice that we marked. And other wars meant other deaths and other veterans. So in 1954—60 years ago—the law was changed, striking “Armistice” and replacing it with “Veterans.” The day was no longer a time to remember the dead, but to remember—in some way—the living who had served in the military.

Our history is one of war.

Our history of calls us to remember the Armistice.

Which brings us to the present.

This Tuesday we mark—as we have for six decades, regardless of my grandmother—Veterans Day. We remember all who chose to serve and all who were chosen to serve in the armed forces of our nation.

It is appropriate in our nation to give thanks for the service of men and women throughout our country and even in our own congregation.

But as we do so, a Christian concern for both justice and compassion requires that we also recognize the deplorable condition of so many veterans today. They are saluted at half-time and ignored the rest of the time.

When Army Ranger and veteran of two deployments in Afghanistan, Rory Fanning, read about this coming Tuesday’s “Concert for Valor” featuring Bruce Springsteen and other rock luminaries, he wondered: “Will the Concert for Valor raise anyone’s awareness when it comes to the fact that, to this day, veterans lack proper medical attention, particularly for mental health issues, or that there is a veteran suicide every 80 minutes in this country?” He said that he hoped they’d find time in between drum solos, but he’s not counting on it.

Veterans Day should call to our attention the one million veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq who continue to carry with them the heavy burdens of war in wounds, disease, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, breathing disorders, and other long term health problems.

They have been called “the other 1%”—a small and isolated segment of our population. Yet there they are: homeless and broken and very present and visible here in Iowa City, living on the streets, begging as we pass by. There is no “temporary cessation” to the problems they deal with each day.

Shelter House is doing some good and important work with veterans in our city and I am thankful for that. For veterans experiencing homelessness, long term transitional shelter for up to two years is available. The Transitional Living Program offers a full range of support the offers the opportunity to progress toward securing employment, housing and financial stability. Our giving to Shelter House helps these programs at least in a small way. But so much more is needed.

And so, this year, in these present days, surrounded by broken veterans, it is our task, our solemn obligation, to remember.

To “re-member” is to bring back together that which has been dismembered—to put the pieces together again.

To “re-member” is also to re-unite one who has been separated—to bring them back into community. Remembrance is a form of resurrection. In remembering, we put broken pieces together once more.

It is a sacred thing to remember veterans—not because all veterans are necessarily heroes, not because all wars have been good causes—but because in remembering these lives, we participate with God in the healing of the world.

So what's the purpose of this resurrection remembering?

As one person put it: “Remembering the soldiers of any war—friends and enemies alike—calling out their names, singing their songs, or just thinking about the fact that they fought—does make it difficult to send people into battle again.”

Rory Fanning, the Army veteran I mentioned earlier, makes this connection in the strongest way possible. He says: “There is no question that we should honor people who fight for justice and liberty. Many veterans enlisted in the military thinking that they were indeed serving a noble cause, and it’s no lie to say that they fought with valor for their brothers and sisters to their left and right. Unfortunately, good intentions at this stage are no substitute for good politics. The war on terror is going into its 14th year…It’s years past the time when anyone…should be able to pretend that our 18-year-olds are going off to kill and die for good reason.” He asks “How about a couple of concerts to make that point?”

We look at the hospitals and the streets of our nation and of our own city and hear the parable of Jesus with a new urgency.

The questions come: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

We listen, too, as other questions are asked: “Lord, when was is that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

The question is always: “When did we…”

This final judgment is about all of us together. We get a sense that it is not just you or me who is being judged—it is all of us together. It is as though the Congregational Church—and every church—stands together before the living God, hoping to hear: “Just as you—all of you—did it to one of the least of these…you—all of you—did it to me.”

The life of faith is an active life. In this congregation we understand that the life of faith requires that, in the words of our mission statement, “we work and pray for peace, justice, and fullness of life for all people.”

In our present situation,  with so many broken veterans as our neighbors, what is God calling us to do?

We are not content to face the world passively. We understand, as one person put it, “that the joy of discipleship cannot be had without the cost of standing with the suffering, of sitting with the dying, of loving the unlovable, of feeding the sheep.”

This, then, is why we mark Veterans Day in a Christian service of worship. As a congregation we should speak honestly so that in our worship and our actions we further the ways of peace.

Remembering our veterans leads us not to a brassy patriotism, but to a deeper commitment to justice and compassion.

So Veterans Day ultimately calls us to look at the future that we are creating.

Last Tuesday I was in my study when a member stopped by. He came to drop off his pledge card—and that’s a great idea for anyone who hasn’t already done so. As we talked he asked me what I was working on and it was a sermon—actually for next Sunday. Knowing about his own military service, I added that today I would be preaching about Veteran’s Day.

This member is a Vietnam era veteran. He smiled and said, “I have good news for Veteran’s Day!” He told me that he and some fellow veterans always take heart in thinking about the Armistice. It was then, he said, that peace, however tenuous, however temporary, broke out. And so that day speaks to him of the hope that what happened once can happen again, that what happened temporarily can become permanent.

It occurred to me that if we can catch a glimpse of such a future, our past might be redeemed and our present lives might be transformed.

When we remember the Armistice, when we remember our Veterans, we are called to create a future not of armistice but of peace. We are called to create a future in which we can honor those who are veterans in the original meaning of that word—those who are old and experienced.

The experience of veterans was made real for me by an older member of the first congregation I served. He was a Major in World War II and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He gave me the privilege of letting me read his wartime diary. On the first page he wrote in capital letters: “WAR IS DEVASTATING.” You’d think that would have made the point. But in case it didn’t, he continued, perhaps for the sake of noncombatants like me and many of us here today.

War is infantry troops crawling around seeking to kill each other with rifles, hand grenades, and mortars.

War is artillery where forward observers on high hills look for targets they can destroy with cannon shells.

War is bombing with airplanes where bombs destroy cities and anti-aircraft guns destroy airplanes and their pilots.

On Tuesday, then, let us remember those who have lived through such experiences—our veterans.

Let us honor them by caring for the broken, seeking the well-being of those who served.

And let us thank them by committing ourselves to work toward that time when by our strong actions at work with the even stronger grace of God:

            Swords are transformed into plowshares

            Spears are transformed into pruning hooks

The past calls to us

            the present summons us

                        the future looks to us

to fulfill the promise of the Armistice, taking the opportunity to show our sympathy with peace and justice in the council of nations.

May we accept the gracious invitation of the prophet: Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!