Veterans’ Day Sermon 2005

The Twenty Fourth Sunday After Trinity
(Veterans’ Day weekend)
November 13, 2005
Verse 2 of I John 3:1-8

From things I have told you in the past, most of you know my father had only one arm! I remember as a little boy asking my father why he had only one arm. I asked if he had been born without the arm, or if he had lost it in war. ‘Not in war,’ he said, but rather when he was 18, in a freak accident in a cotton gin on their family farm, back in Alabama. It had been mangled and had to be amputated. He added that he had wanted to serve in the First World War but that the loss of his arm, at age 18, had prevented him from joining his two older brothers who went overseas. Had he been able to join up and serve, what is to say whether he would have returned home in safety and in one piece? And had he served, would he have come home to a hero’s welcome?
Not everyone is given the hero’s welcome, but customarily only those who have earned it!
As David returned home from slaying the Philistine, Goliath, as he and King Saul returned ‘the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” ’
Many of our military troops returning home at the end of the Vietnam War were not afforded the hero’s welcome. There was no singing and dancing, no songs of joy or instruments of music. There were no ticker-tape parades to honor them for their sacrifice. As a result of political upheaval and seemingly endless protests over the war, when these veterans returned home from that international conflict, they did so quietly, almost as in disgrace. What was truly shameful was the way they were received, almost as if they were labeled as ‘villains’, rather than being honored as Veterans. The vast majority had done their duty courageously and had served their country honorably. Returning home, they deserved better than they received!
Last week the text of the sermon explored the Beatitude: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart.’ This morning, to honor all our Veterans, I would like to preach from yet another of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the Peace Makers: for they shall be called the children of God. To many it seems the title of ‘peace-maker’ has been appropriated by political activists to mean exclusively those who are either of pacifist persuasion, conscientious objectors, or those actively opposed to war who engage themselves in anti-war demonstrations.
I would suggest that the title, ‘Peace-makers,’ may more appropriately be ascribed to those who have sacrificed their lives, and if need be, have laid down their lives, in the cause of freeing people from bondage and preserving human freedom and liberty for all. I speak of those who have served in battle as well as those who have served in peacetime, and all Veterans who additionally had the good fortune to return home in safety.
God is love. God is perfect justice and perfect righteousness. And God is not a warmonger. Yet I think we need to remember that when God gave the Promised Land to the Hebrews, the land was not obtained nor secured through a purchase or an exchange! The Hebrews were ordered to drive out the inhabitants with the sword and to take full possession of the land. And it would take up far too much time to list the dozens of other battles the Hebrews were commanded to wage, not simply to ward off their enemies, but oftentimes to inflict God’s punishment on certain of the nations, such as the Amalekites, who had thwarted His purpose.
I am not a jingoist! And I am not going to speak ‘in favor’ of war. War is intrinsically evil. However, war may upon occasion be a necessary course of action for the preservation of good. And it is not anti-Christian or unchristian for a Christian to participate in a just war.
Correspondingly, the Scriptures do not prohibit service in the military forces nor preclude engaging in the active military defense of one’s country. John Baptist was certainly not afraid to speak out against sin, evil, corruption and abuse in all its diabolical forms. He was harshly critical in his condemnation of the religious leaders of the Jewish nation. But he was far less harsh with the tax collectors. When certain of them came to him to be baptized of him, they said to him in terms of repentance, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than is appointed you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ John did not say to them: Give up serving in the army. Rather, he admonished them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ In other words, do not abuse your power and be content to serve in your rank honorably!
We read of a Roman soldier who knew how to conduct himself with decorum and honor. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him. He was a man whose life’s career had been in the service of the Imperial Army of Rome. By his own admission he was a commander with many soldiers serving under him. He besought Jesus saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.’ You know the story. Jesus immediately says he will go to the centurion’s home. The centurion says he is unworthy to have the Lord come to his home, but if Jesus will but speak the word, his servant will be healed. Jesus does not say to him, ‘On one condition. First you must leave military service.’ Jesus says nothing at all about the man’s vocation; but he says mountains about the centurion’s faith! Jesus turned to his disciples and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ And to the centurion he said, ‘Go; be it done for you as you have believed.’ And his servant was healed at that very hour. This remarkable centurion was obviously a veteran of many campaigns, who had served with honor and with military distinction. And he was a man of profound faith!
Divine insight (if not even faith) was granted to another seasoned centurion! For three hours there was darkness over the whole land, and when on the Cross Jesus had breathed his last and given up the ghost, there followed a mighty earthquake. A centurion, who stood facing him, seeing he had thus breathed (and the things that happened) said, ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God!’ These words from a field soldier. This soldier made nearly the exact proclamation as Simon Peter had made when he answered Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’
Serving in the military was not a forbidden vocation or a disgraceful position in the mind of those who followed Christ. It was in fact, honorable! St. Paul even used the allegory of a soldier’s protective wear to instruct the brethren as to how to arm themselves to do active battle with the Devil and all the forces of evil. ‘Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girded with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having your feet shod with the gospel of peace; beside all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the devil. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Sprit, which is the word of God.’ This would be an erroneous and misguiding image to use to illustrate a state of preparedness, if there was something intrinsically evil about service in the military forces. St. Paul was never shy about telling the faithful who they ought to imitate and who or what they ought not to imitate! It was okay to imitate being a ‘soldier’ for Christ!
We know too that once suspicion toward Christians had ceased in the ancient Roman Empire, Christians were permitted to serve not only in the army and navy, but were allowed even to become members of the Praetorian Guard – personal guards to the Imperial palace and the person of the Emperor himself! And Christians, serving in uniform, have served other great heads of state as well. In the fourteenth century it was mercenary soldiers of the Swiss Army who came to Rome to protect the person of the Pope – and members of the Swiss Guard have continued in that capacity and remained on the Supreme Pontiff’s payroll ever since.
To serve in the military forces of one’s country is not inconsistent with the Christian Gospel. Christian laity by the millions and clergy by the thousands have served their country, in uniform, with honor and distinction. These peace ‘keepers’ were blessed to be numbered among God’s ‘peace-makers.’ And hundreds of thousands have laid down their lives for their country. Genuine pacifists and conscientious objectors too have served their country in the military, without bearing arms, with honor and distinction as chaplains, doctors, nurses, medics and ambulance drivers – ministering selflessly to the wounded and to the dying. And many of these courageous souls too have given their lives on the battlefield along with their fellows. Jesus said, ‘Greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends.’
And we are eternally grateful for ALL those who laid down their lives, while in uniform, for their country and their fellow man. For obvious reasons, we are not able to thank them in person – they are gone from us. But to ALL who have served with courage and honor and have returned home as Veterans of service to our country we owe and must express our most sincere thanks. And to those Veterans who are members of this congregation, especially those who are here with us this morning, we express our heartfelt thanks. For you, with all of your brothers and sisters who wear, or have ever worn the uniform, in the words of the Beatitudes, are indeed our ‘peace-makers.’ May God bless you now and always for your willingness to risk your lives and distance yourselves temporarily from loved ones and family, to do your duty to God and to country. To ALL who have served, May He bless you richly both now and always! ‘Beloved, now are you sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what you shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’