The Last Full Measure . . .
A sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset MA on May 29, 2011
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today I want to talk about death and dying, about heroes and the rest of us — about the real importance of life and why we remember on Memorial Day.
But to get there, I need to step back a little and put “me” in context. As a child I lived in southeastern Pennsylvania and every day on the school bus we passed a historical marker that proclaimed that the Battle of the Brandywine had been fought there on September 11, 1777. I lived on that battlefield. Our house had been there; my father’s boss’s home was General Howe’s headquarters. The battle was fought in two locations along the Brandywine — first near the Quaker meeting I attended, and second on the grounds of my elementary school in Chadds Ford.
The pews of our Quaker meeting had strange dark stains on the wood and we all believed they were from blood shed when the meeting house served as a hospital for soldiers – British and American – who were wounded in the battle. We thought the blood of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been wounded and treated there marked the wood. And we knew that not every soldier treated there made it home. There was a mass grave behind the Meeting House for those who died that day.
And when I went to school, we all looked forward to recess because it wasn’t that uncommon for us to find bullets in our playground during elementary school recess, or maybe a uniform button. Our school overlooked the banks of the Brandywine, just above the ford. That battle — and it’s cost — were part of our day to day life.
My first lesson was that war kills.
No school child in southeastern Pennsylvania goes without trips to Valley Forge, and even Gettysburg. And it’s not possible to visit Valley Forge — to stand in one of those miserable little huts — and not realize how bitterly cold and unpleasant service there must have been. We heard about he Battle of Trenton, and then drove through Trenton. The history of war in our country was not academic to us; the ground on which war was waged was familiar territory.
Later I served as a recruiter for the US Marines in the commonwealth of Virginia; as I traveled over the state, I kept bumping into the Civil War…. the road sign that said “Welcome to Appomattox” startled me one day; the next I might pass a church in the Shenandoah Valley that still had bullets in its walls.
Now, Virginia is one of our most beautiful states (and I don’t say that just because I was named for the state). Driving its roads was a privilege and pleasure, so you can understand that I was shocked one day to come across a bare and barren section — it looked like the least profitable and most unthrifty land I’d ever seen, just scraggly bushes and thin trees. As I drove down the road I saw a historical marker – “This is the site of the Battle of the Wilderness”. And a wilderness is what it was. Almost 30,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, died there in three days of fighting in May of 1864. I was told that even today, wanderers on the battlefield come across the skeletal remains of soldiers. The land has never fully recovered. [http://www.civilwar.org/photos/galleries/wilderness/wilderness-battlefield.html]
You can see the same kind of deadness in the land at forts along the trench lines in France, still recovering almost 100 years after the end of World War I.
War kills more than just the people who fight in it.
Now the Civil War was part and parcel of my family’s store of stories, mostly because my grandparents, who were born in the 1880s, knew people who’d fought in the war. Some of those folks lived long lives. When I was no more than 8 or 9, I met my aunt Florence Paine; she must have been over 90 then. But what impressed me was that she was the widow of a Civil War soldier. Later, when I heard the rest of the story, I was even more impressed. Aunt Florence’s husband was just over 20 when he went to war; captured, he was imprisoned in a vile place in Richmond, Virginia. At war’s end he was released and went home to Connecticut, seemingly unaffected. But in 1910 or thereabouts, newly married to Florence, his doctor delivered bad news. His blood pressure and heart were now so bad, he could not ever leave his house again. He was to be in bed confinement for the rest of his life. John left a note; he could not face another confinement and so he walked out one more time into the fields and shot himself.
I learned that war kills, but not every victim dies on the battlefield.
I spent seven and ½ years in the US Marine Corps, working most of the time with men who’d fought in places like Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, men who’d make the hard march back from the Chosin Reservoir. They never talked about their wars, never boasted about their Navy Crosses or Bronze Stars. The only medals they ever talked about were what the Korean War vets called their “Chinese Marksmanship Medals” — their Purple Hearts. Every once in a while some civilian would ask about what they’d done, or call them “killers” as if they were complimenting them, and my colleagues would treat them with the condescension such insensitivity deserves.
Many came home from those wars relatively unscathed, like Don Gray, whom I buried yesterday. But everyone offered their lives, just as those who died did. They knew no more what that might mean, what the pain and horror of war was, what it did to them to kill someone, but they went and served, and died, all too often.
My friends and fellow Marines would have cringed in embarrassment to be called heroes, for they thought they had done nothing more than their duty. Over the years, I’ve absorbed their attitude. It’s not that there aren’t genuine heroes around. There are. But serving your country isn’t a privilege of the heroic; rather it is the responsibility of the everyday citizen. Heroes exist to inspire us — in an odd way, if we say that simple service makes one a hero, we flatten out the truly heroic — and lose the inspiration they can offer us. The real bravery is that, heroes or not, men and women sign up and go off to serve, to run the risk of death.
Memorial Day is a time set aside to honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion. (Abraham Lincoln) We are here in church to honor them in our faithful living — not with flags or pledges of allegiance as will be done by our Town ceremonies. Those ceremonies are important, but they are not our part of the observance. Rather it is for us to remember that every life is important, that the best Christian response to the horror of war is the building of peace.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” and the author of First Peter points out that if you suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed. I take it from those two lessons that our actions may be right — or not — and that love is essential to faithful living. So we are all witnesses to the importance of peace.
We fight when we must; we honor those who die in our protection and we struggle to remove the causes of conflict, knowing full well that it is not always going to be possible. And yet we try. because war kills people. War kills the land. War destroys civilizations.
No soldiers dies to make more war. Every Marine dies to bring peace. Let us therefore honor their sacrifice by continuing their struggle. Let us re-dedicate our lives to the spread of peace everywhere.
As Abraham Lincoln said:
…with malice toward none,
with charity towards all;
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right
let us strive on to finish the work we are in
to bind up the nation’s wounds
to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasing peace among ourselves
and with all nations.
[Second Inaugural Address 3/4/1865]
© 2011, Virginia H. Child