"No Greater Love"
I am a child of the Vietnam War, born just at the close of the Second World War. That war and its predecessor are known to me mostly through the stories of those who have been there and have been willing to share them with me. I was too young to know what was happening in the Korean Conflict. By the time of the Gulf Conflict, I was already grown with children of my own. The Vietnam War was the war of my generation; it was the context against which I had to develop my values, my life - and that is certainly true for all of us here. We have had our share of wars; and much of what we know of life, of our values, have been shaped by them.
What I remember most is those who returned home from that war, and what became of them. Sometimes our veterans have been treated as heroes, which they are - but not all of them have been treated so. To this day there has been little talk - real talk - about Vietnam, about those who gave their lives there. It may be another generation before that happens - I don't know. I do know that, without an openness to talk about it - frank talk, honest talk - there can be no real healing.
Today we are honoring those who served, especially those who died in service of their country and of their fellowman. As we do, we remember Jesus' words, "There is no greater love than this, that a person lay down his life for another." As Christians, we hold that to be the very heart of our faith: that Christ died for us, and that he has called us to walk in his footsteps, to be willing to lay down our lives for one another, even for the very least among us. Those that we honor today have done that. Many did it out of faith, out of that conviction that, in being willing to lay down their life for the cause of freedom, they were following the path of Christ.
What happened to many our service personnel in the aftermath of Vietnam and since then, however, is not honorable. Those who served, who risked their lives for us, have not always been treated honorably. It is easy to wrap ourselves in the flag of patriotism, to wave our flags and talk about national greatness. But it is apparently harder to remember those who serve us, day by day, risking their lives for us. We can find the political will to spend large amounts of money on high-cost high-tech defense programs. But we can't find the moral courage to support the men and women who protect us - to make sure that they are taken care of and treated with respect, treated as the heroes that they are.
Jesus' call is not simply a call to those who serve in the armed forces, to be willing to lay down their lives for us - in fact, I doubt that he had them particularly in mind when he issued his call. Rather, he had us in mind.
Today is Memorial Day, a time for memory, a time for remembrance. As Christians, we know about remembrance. When Jesus shared the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, "remember me." We believe that, as we eat and drink, that remembrance makes him present to us. That is the task of Memorial Day: to make the lives and sacrifices of these heroes present to us, so that we may honor them.
How do we honor them? I would like to suggest a couple of things this morning.
First of all, let me suggest that the foxhole is not a place for moral deliberation. Those who serve must believe in the rightness of their cause. They must believe that they are not giving their lives simply for the political or economic advantage of others. They must have no doubt about that when they lay their life on the line. It is up to us to make certain that happens. It is up to us to make sure that our leaders do not hide other motives behind our flag when they sound the alarm, and send our troops into battle. We must be the ones to engage in moral debate. We must hold the leadership of our country accountable, we must be the ones who set the standards, who hold up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and ask whether it is in protection of these values that we are asking these men and women to lay down their lives, or is it for lesser purposes. When we do that, we honor those who fought against the evils of slavery, of fascism and communism. When we do that, we honor the values for which those who served, both lived and died.
Second, we honor them by caring for the offspring of those who have given their lives. Those who serve now may not have been involved in the kind of conflict that many of you have been. Thankfully, we have had no Great Wars in my lifetime. But those who serve now also stand willing to give themselves, just as many of you also answered the call. In a world of competing interests and limited funding, it is easy to forget them, to put our time, energy and money into fancy new gadgets, into things that inspire awe and wonder among us. We are often like the man who entered a car race: he went out and spent a huge amount of money to get the fanciest car he could find, with all the bells and whistles. Then, instead of getting the best driver he could find, and the best pit crew, he decided to cut some corners. He found a guy at the bar who said he could drive a car, and a couple of mechanics at the local garage who liked the idea of being the pit crew. Of course the driver he hired had never even seen a car like this. And the pit crew had never worked on a car like this. So on the first turn, a wheel, not fastened properly, came off; and the driver, not knowing how to respond, crashed the fancy race car, destroyed the car, and was killed himself. We honor those who have given their lives, by taking care of those who follow in their steps - honoring them and taking care of them.
Finally, we honor those who have served by resolving to walk in their steps. Jesus' call to remember him was not simply a concern that the disciples might forget who he was; rather it was a call to remember by following in his steps. We honor those who have given their lives in service to their fellowman, by resolving to give our lives also in service to others. These whom we honor have set the standard for us. They have shown us the way. Their lives, their dedication, their love is the yardstick we must measure ourselves by. In the face of fear, they remained steadfast. In the heat of battle, they did not shy away. When called to give their best, they gave even life itself. They did not hesitate. They did not wait until the moment was more advantageous to them. But, heading the clarion call to action, they responded.
Today they call us. From places like Bunker Hill and Spotsylvania, they call us. From Lundy's Lane and Raisin River, they call us. From Gettysburg and Antietam, Fredricksburg and Appomatox they call us. From Flanders Field, Ypres, Tannenberg, Marne and Galliopoli they call to us. From Pear Harbor, the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal and Midway, from Ardennes, Normandy, and Cassino they sound their call; from Pakch'on, Chanjin, and Yudan-ni, and also from Quang Tri, Long-Tan, Ho-Bo Woods, Bien Hoa, and the South China Sea; and even from Kuwait, Iraq, and Kosovo they call to us: "Come; come and follow." Follow in the steps of the honored. Follow in the steps of those who have served faithfully. Come and follow in the steps of those who have given their all for you, for the cause of freedom. You too - come. Come and follow in the footsteps of Him who gave his all. "No greater love is there than this, than to give your life for your brother." "Come. Come and follow."