SERMON preached on the Second Sunday after Pentecost (5C)
6 June, 2010 – Ted Berktold
When I was a young child, my awareness of wartime casualties centered on an annual Memorial Day visit to the grave of my uncle Joe, who was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Mom would cut a bouquet of flowers, pack a substantial picnic, and the whole family would drive off for the day listening to the car radio and my mother’s re-telling the tragedy of his death on the beach at Anzio in far-away Italy before I was born. He was a name to me – that’s about all. I remember a photograph of him – a handsome young man in his soldier’s uniform. Watching Ken Burn’s epic series “War” a few years ago gave me a new perspective on Anzio, in the prayer of a soldier there. “God help us,” he said. “And you come yourself. Don’t be sending Jesus. This ain’t no place for children.” When we would arrive at the cemetery with its row upon row of white markers, I would realize that many other people must have died as well, but the numbers never meant very much to me. The day was largely an outing, an unusual kind of outing, but there was nothing sad or gloomy about it. Even my mother used to enjoy it, although she would always end the day saying: “I suppose the time will come when no one will do this.” She was right – we don’t do it any more. My father is dead, Mom’s in a nursing home, my brothers and sisters are grown up and moved away like me and have other things to do on Memorial Day, so no one goes to that cemetery any more.
Memorial Day is more than an outing. When I visited the D-Day beaches several years ago, I found it more than a tourist destination in the Normandy countryside. Instinctively, I became more and more somber as I drew near the beaches. When I reflect on the amount of life lost in the wars of the last century alone, I shudder. Millions have been killed, including hundreds of thousands of Americans. Millions of British and French and Germans – tens of millions of Russians and Japanese soldiers and civilians – more than I ever imagined looking at those rows of white markers honoring America’s dead at Fort Snelling. How many have been scarred or disabled, some for life? How difficult it is to pray out name and rank, week after week, remembering the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan in our own day.
There is a truth, found in Memorial Day, which goes deeper than statistics, a truth we know, but do not always stop to remember. It is this; someone has paid for everything we have. Think about this parish. Although some of you are founding members, this parish was here for many of today’s members when you arrived. Someone else started it. Life is never a free ride. There is a cost involved in anything that amounts to something. No baby is born; no child is raised to maturity without cost to its parents. No job continues through dozens of years without sacrifice. No marriage vows are kept though a lifetime without cost to both people. No nation has ever existed that has cost its people nothing. Think of our own nation, its original inhabitants from whom so much was taken, and its European settlers who established our government and made our laws. Present-day Americans have what we have because others were willing to pay the price for it. Some people paid the full price of their lives to preserve it.
One of the gravest dangers facing the world today is that we think, or at least we are sometimes encouraged to think, that we can have what we want for nothing. If we want happiness, someone else will give it to us. If we want peace, someone, somewhere, will give it to us. That isn’t true, of course. The good things in life are bought with a price. The price of our salvation was paid by the blood of Jesus on the cross. In the first centuries after Jesus, spreading that news cost people their lives. Salvation is offered freely to anyone who will receive it, but it came at a great price.
Memorial Day and D-Day raise a question in me. Why do people fight? Why have so many people been killed? What was the potential of the young theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, executed in a Nazi prison just before the fall of Berlin in 1945, or my own uncle Joe, or the young men and women we name in our prayers each week? How many others were lost who had within them the possibilities of great and creative things that never came to pass? And why do people in families fight? Why are management and labor always at war? Why young and old? Why do Christians fight so much? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but this much I can say: People fight because they are aggressive by nature, some much more so than others. We must be aggressive up to a certain point. When we see something we want, we go after it. The complication is that two people often see the same thing. You see it happen among children. Two children want the same toy, so they fight over it. Two business firms want the same contract and fight to get it, because they feel that their future depends on closing that deal.
Competition adds fuel to the aggressive instinct. On a still greater scale, two countries want the same land, the same natural resources, the same oil fields or water, or the same prestige; and they fight for it. They fight, and history makes it clear that one fight leads to another. The war to end all wars was not the last fight. The treaties that followed, according to some historians, made World War II inevitable. To make things more vicious, when one person does something wrong, innocent people suffer the consequences. Life would be much simpler if that were not true. I don’t know why God allows that to be. I don’t think God planned it so. All I know is that evil is contagious.
The question all this raises on such a weekend is: Must this go on forever? Are we doomed to live in a world like this for the rest of our lives, and are our children to face a world like this? Aggressive people, aggressive nations. One fight leading to another. The innocent suffering as well as the guilty. This much we can say – the cost of life will continue. Aggressive instincts will not disappear from human nature. Conflict of interests will always be a factor in situations and relationships. But fighting need not continue. Peace is possible. We can learn to disagree with opponents and help them learn to disagree with us without destroying one another. We can learn to handle hostility, and keep it under control in our relationships.
The authors of several gospels saw the truth more clearly than we often do. They used a language we don’t easily understand; it is the language of the spirit of God. They said, “You can’t serve two masters.” They didn’t have to fight people because they didn’t have to fight God. Through their relationship with Jesus they were able to tell us that God’s love dwells among us, and because of that, peace is possible. Peace on earth, good will among people – that is God’s will.
For those who have seen war and felt the power of death, D-Day and Memorial Day are more than an outing. For those of us who have felt God’s saving grace, this sacrament is more than a picnic. It is a sacrificial prayer we make in the name of Jesus who died that we might live; who gave his body and his blood as a sign of God’s endless love for us. In doing so, he gave us the peace that passes understanding.
Let us pray:
Let your love be here
Fill us with your peace
Let your joy be here
Fill us with your grace
Let your light be here
Fill us with your power
Let us know that you are here
Fill us with your presence
Today and every day.