November 9, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
War is artillery
where forward observers on high hills look for targets they can destroy with
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
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
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!