9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything
that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
Years ago, I used to have this dream. I was fighting in the jungles of Viet Nam. I was frightened. I couldn’t see anything but trees and leaves and vines. I could hear gunfire. The only thing I had to hide behind, in the middle of the jungle, was an ironing board.
I think that dream is pretty easy to interpret. I didn’t get one of those infamous numbers in 1971 for one reason: I was a woman. Being users of ironing boards, aprons, stoves and sewing machines, my gender was protected from the military draft.
I have always been thankful that I was never called into combat. It may seem like a trivial comment on a trivial dream. It’s not that women can’t serve in the military; my own mother is a veteran of World War II. She served in the Navy and was stationed at Great Lakes. We are all proud of her and we will make sure Taps is played at her funeral.
I have read countless books about war; before we had kids, we belonged to the Military Book Club. We took our kids on vacations to visit battlefields. I’m pretty sure we’ve watched every war movie ever made.
I don’t know that this says anything good about me. It can mean that I have romanticized and glorified war through it’s depictions in fiction. It could mean that I see only the happy endings and don’t give much thought to the reality of war.
But that dream about hiding behind an ironing board in the jungles of Viet Nam haunts me. It’s not that I never knew anyone who served in or near combat. Uncles, classmates, friends new and old come to mind. I can think of friends and classmates and relatives who were made widows by war. I think of mothers whose sons and daughters come home from war as strangers. I think of children who can’t understand how to get along with their fathers.
Every generation hopes for an end to war, but every generation also finds a reason to wage war. Not all of us can go to war; not all of us have the skill or the courage or the passion to defend our country.
But we aren’t happy about it. We feel guilty because we were allowed to sit comfortably at home while a chosen few put their lives on the line for us. Or is it just me?
The thing is, we have to do something. We can’t ignore the lives that have been given, willingly, charitably, lovingly so that we can keep what we have.
Decoration Day gives us the opportunity to say thank you, to confess that we are grateful that someone else was willing to die so that we could continue to have picnics and vacations and family reunions.
That’s the irony of Memorial Day. Memorial Day has become the unofficial opening day of summer. Memorial Day is used as a hook to get us to buy hot dogs, lawnmowers, boats, sunscreen, mattresses and t-shirts. Memorial Day puts us in the mood for road trips, camping, family picnics, and sunny days. Because Memorial Day falls at the same time as the end of the school year, the party atmosphere starts with open house invitations from high school seniors and ends when the last piece of stale graduation cake is fed to the birds.
But in the middle of these festivities, many of us take the time to acknowledge who is really the sponsor of all these activities. Every soldier who died as a result of service, every soldier who lived with “soldier’s heart, ” “shell shock,” “war neurosis,” or PTSD is a reminder to be grateful.
So, why am I reviewing this information in a sermon? If this is a national, state holiday, why are we observing it in a church?
I, personally, am a stickler for separation between church and state. I like the Liturgical Calendar. I like to celebrate obscure church holidays like Ascension Day, which was last Thursday. I don’t like to use my allotted time on Sunday to celebrate Hallmark Holidays or National Holidays. But I live in an age when, if it weren’t for the church, the national scene would be very different. I look as far back as Jesus Christ. Many of his followers wanted him to follow the political, military route and overthrow the Roman government. Short run, that would have been a good idea for a few people. In the long run, it would have been just another in a series of conquer now, be conquered later, over and over.
I know plenty about war and nothing about war. I have my own political opinions about war, which can be summed up in one sentence: war is stupid. Everyone time I see live footage, every time I see news that shows mistreatment of our veterans, I ask myself why humans can’t find a better way to resolve conflicts. I know the answer to that, of course. We haven’t found a better way to protect ourselves, our way of life, our interests at home and abroad. So we are forced to sacrifice our sons and daughters, our grandchildren.
What does Scripture say about war? Well, the Old Testament is full of war. Deuteronomy 20 gives advice on how to wage war; much of the advice is practical, including who should stay home, and to not cut down the fruit trees. But there is also the part that makes me cringe a little:
Before you attack a town that is far from your land, offer peace to the people who live there. If they surrender and open their town gates, they will become your slaves. But if they reject your offer of peace and try to fight, surround their town and attack. Then, after the Lord helps you capture it, kill all the men. Take the women and children as slaves and keep the livestock and everything else of value.
Whenever you capture towns in the land the Lord your God is giving you, be sure to kill all the people and animals.
Well, I guess that’s good advice if you don’t want any interference from your new neighbors. And it sounds like the kind of warfare we hear about on the evening news, doesn’t it? Rwanda, Bosnia, and Syria come to mind.
However, we Christians like to claim that Jesus taught us a new way to act toward one another.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Laying down one’s life for another. That’s why war works, isn’t it? A soldier has to be willing to die. Is that true? I don’t know. Is a soldier filled with so much trust, so much optimism, that death is not a possibility? From anecdotal evidence, I know that soldiers have a relationship with each other, a dedication to each other that is unmatched in any other life situation.
Jesus was not talking about war, of course. He was talking about Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. But I’ve taken that verse out of context and put it into the context of soldiers laying down their lives for a cause, for a nation, for a passion. I think it is fitting.
God helps us survive war because God is always present in war. He is present with those who are in the line of fire, with those who are staffing the bases abroad and at home, with those who are waiting for a letter or an hour of Skyping or an email.
The book of Psalms is full of petitions asking for protection from the enemy.
Psalm 59 Save me, God! Protect me from enemy attacks! 2 Keep me safe from brutal people who want to kill me.
Psalm 124 The Lord was on our side! Let everyone in Israel say: 2 “The Lord was on our side! Otherwise, the enemy attack 3 would have killed us all, because it was furious.
This brings up another awkward point about God and war. God is on everybody’s side. Fr. Robert Miller wrote a book, Both Prayed to the Same God: Religion and Faith in the American Civil War. How do we know whose side God will choose? God doesn’t choose.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
No matter where you lie in the spectrum of war, love wins, doesn’t it? Love for your fellow soldier, whether in a trench or a foxhole, in an armored vehicle or a helicopter. Love for your family, stationed near or far. Love for your country. Love for enemies as leaders seek peace.
Love for those who lie in graves that were filled too soon.
In the meantime, if we truly hate war, if we truly mourn those who sacrificed their lives in combat, then we will follow the commands that Jesus gave us. We won’t change the national policies of a nation. We won’t miraculously bring about world peace. But we will show others that a little peace, right now, right here, is possible if we love God and love our neighbor.