Memorial Day Sermon (2024)

Memorial Day/Prayer for Peace
Texts: John 15:9-14;
Micah 4:1-5; Eph 2:13-18

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 21:05): https://fb.watch/skpu3xMBgV/

HONORING OUR SOLDIERS BY WORKING FOR PEACE

On this weekend in which we remember and honor our soldiers and their families, I’d like to begin with several stories about veterans. I encountered the first story a couple days ago from an unexpected source; the other two stories come from my many years of pastoral care. That first story comes from watching the Tigers baseball game, and two of the announcers, who are former Tiger players, told about a trip to the V.A. hospital that they made a with several current Tiger players. One visit with a veteran which really stuck with them was a man with a service dog. It seemed logical to ask if he had the service dog to help him with an injury that he might have suffered in the war. The vet answered that no, it was not for a physical injury. This service dog was specially trained to help him with the invisible injury of PTSD, because he had survived so many intense firefights in battle. The dog can tell when he is having a hard time and will immediately come to him for hugs or a lick on the face. The dog’s caring keeps him grounded in love, even as he continues to suffer the trauma of war.

The other two stories I’d like to share with you are from my experience of giving pastoral care over the years, occasionally involving veterans. Karl was a shut-in in his eighties who lived with his eldest son. On one communion visit he shared with me the story of surviving the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. Some of the ailments that rendered him a shut-in were related to grave injury he received in that battle. He and three fellow soldiers were operating a Sherman tank when it was destroyed by German artillery. He was the only survivor, and even he barely made it out alive. It took months for him to recover from his injuries, and then he was sent home. He shared how painful it was to be the only survivor but also how important some of the nurses and doctors had been to his recovery — he had even kept in touch with some of them over the years. As I left, his son, who had been listening in the adjacent room, thanked me at the door for my visit. It had been important not only to his father, to unburden and also cherish some of those memories, but it had also been important for him, listening in. Because his father had nver been able to share any of that with his family.

A second story is from one of my visits with Norm, also a veteran of WWII, but of the Pacific theater. He had been an infantryman who carried out the many storming of beaches to slowly take back the many islands seized by the Japanese. He had survived what was basically numerous mini D-days: marine landings on beaches under heavy enemy fire. One communion visit with him in the hospital he shared with me how his oldest son had recently tried to honor his service by watching the movie Saving Private Ryan, whose first scene is a horrific depiction of storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He began to weep with me as he shared how he could hardly last a minute before he had to apologetically ask his son to turn it off. He was grateful to his son for the effort of honoring his service, but it was still too traumatic for him to share the experience with him in that way, even after more than fifty years had passed. Instead, his son came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of just how horrible it had been for his father.

These last two stories both happened as I brought Holy Communion to veterans, who had survived many horrors in their roles as soldiers, willing to lay down their lives for their families and neighbors, for their fellow citizens and, especially in the chaos of battle, for their fellow soldiers. We honor their sacrifice during this service of Holy Communion, in which we remember and celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus made for the world, his body broken and his blood outpoured for you and me.

And I believe that we honor our soldiers by also marking the way in which their sacrifice is different from our Lord’s. In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that his sole commandment to love is best expressed by a willingness to lay down one’s life. This certainly affirms the soldier’s sacrifice as such. Yet there is also a difference from the sacrifice of Jesus, because he also taught us this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). In that same sermon, Jesus also taught us to turn the other cheek, to absorb violence rather than return it. Or, as St. Paul puts it in our Second Reading today, Jesus died on the cross to bring to an end all of our Us-vs-Them stuff, creating one new humanity in place of our divisions between friend and enemy. We can come to love our enemies because Jesus died to ultimately erase that difference.

I believe we honor our soldiers — who do chiefly go to fight our enemies and not necessarily to lay down their lives if it can be helped — but I believe we honor them by marking this difference between their sacrifice and Jesus’s when we realize the difference in context which we’ve been talking about for several months. The context of politics. In the context of our typical human politics, which are centered on and upheld by the power of military force, the soldier’s sacrifice of fighting and possibly dying is truly the “ultimate sacrifice.” Which we will hear over and over again today and tomorrow from our politicians. This is understandable and appropriate for the perspective of our typical human politics. But what we’ve been talking about for several months is the Good News that Jesus came into this world with an alternative politics from God based on the power of love, which is the power which creates life itself. When the politics of God from Jesus squared off with the human politics of empire in the first century, a new kind of sacrifice came into being precisely because the politics of God are not from this world. His self-sacrifice on the cross brings with it an alternative politics based on love that are the only true path to peace.

So how does this honor our soldiers? By marking this difference, I’m honestly not intending to diminish the soldier’s sacrifice. We affirm that, from within the context of the typical human politics, the sacrifice of the soldier who gives up his life in battle is truly the ultimate sacrifice. But we also honor that sacrifice, I believe, by celebrating the new politics from God based on nonviolent love with its potential to begin the process of beating swords into plowshares and learning war no more. In other words, if we take the new politics from God seriously, we should be on the slow path to reducing the need for soldiers to lay down their lives in battle. We honor our soldiers by seeking to make their sacrifices unnecessary. We honor the soldier’s sacrifice if and when we work for the peace made possible by Christ’s sacrifice.

That “if” is a big if, of course. It depends on increasing numbers of us, of people, to follow in the way of Jesus’s new politics in order for the need for soldiers to finally decrease. This hasn’t happened much yet, largely because the Church opted to ally itself with empire centuries ago. But, as I’ve also shared in recent months, I believe that our American experiment does show promise in placing us on the right path. Democracy brings a way of effectively changing our leaders without having to resort to violent revolutions or coups. We simply go to vote. We can ‘fight’ and argue with one another until the next election, but we haven’t had to take up arms against one another (except for the Civil War). Which is why this next election is so important. Can we continue our 248-year history of electing our leaders without political violence?

But keeping our democracy, which we’ve had to fight to protect from time to time, is still just the first step toward God’s way of justice and peace in Jesus Christ. This is the path which must be the constant focus of our lives together. God’s way of justice and peace has certainly become the focus of faith which I try to pass on to you from week to week. There’s so much more to explore. For today, let’s continue this service of Holy Communion in honor and remembrance of our soldiers fallen in war — doing so with the faith and conviction that God’s way to peace in Jesus Christ can increasingly make their sacrifice unnecessary. We pray that Jesus’ sacrifice will mean no new names added to the list of Gold Star families we remember today. We pray that Jesus’ body broken and blood outpoured will someday mean no more Karls and Norms returning home bearing unspeakable trauma. And may God make us instruments of Christ’s peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, May 26, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 21:05): https://fb.watch/skpu3xMBgV/

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