25th Sunday After Pentecost
By Melody Kroeger
It was ninety-six years Wednesday since the end of the First World War, at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For ninety-six years, since 1919, people have stood silently – at that time, or on the nearest Sunday – to remember the dead of the War that was to end all wars, of the world war that followed it, and the wars that have followed those.
We should not forget that the gospel of Mark is a war-time gospel, written in or around 70 C.E. when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and the city sacked. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.
It is entirely appropriate that we read these words with the same breath with which we acknowledge Veterans Day.
I know many of you played a role in WWI as veterans, sisters, brothers, wives and sweethearts of veterans. My father was a veteran. My father-in-law too.
Joe Kroeger, born to a hard scrabble family in Missouri, joined the Navy in spring 1940, largely to escape the shattering poverty and paralyzing hopelessness that was the Great Depression. From a farm in Missouri, Joe was sent to basic training in Illinois and then on to the USS Ramapo – a fleet oiler – the ship you see here in this old black and white photograph.
On the evening of Saturday December 6th, the Ramapo steamed into Pearl Harbor and moored its starboard side at dock 2 – just on the other side of the harbor from battleship row. As the sailors bunked down that warm night on those itchy wool blankets, they represented a cross section of America – young men from cities and towns – boys looking for adventure, escape, opportunity.
At 7:55 the heavens above Oahu tore open and the skies caught fire. Joe climbed up on deck and manned one of the aft machine guns as nation rose up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; the earth shook. Over the next 4 years ordinary people did extraordinary deeds. Rich kids, poor kids. The quarterback on the championship high school football team. The president of his class. The lead in the high school play. The wizard in chemistry class. The bright young girl with a promising career in nursing.
In K Company, stationed on the Western Front, boys who could neither read nor write served alongside privates from Yale and Harvard. Their sergeant, Franklin Brewer was from an old Main Line family from Philadelphia and had a Harvard degree. At 37 years old, Sergeant Brewer was known to his men as Father Brewer or sometimes Mother Brewer. And here he was, a sergeant in a rifle company on the front line, because he wanted it that way. He wrote his family back home “The noise, the shock, the sensation of total helplessness, the sudden loss of every familiar assumption…Our new-boy illusions of the past two days dissolved in a moment.”
The most decorated unit in US military history, the 442nd Infantry Regiment was composed of Japanese-American enlisted men, fighting fiercely in Italy while their families back in the states were in an internment camp. The 442nd suffered 800 causalities and lost 400 men rescuing 211 men of the Lost Texas Battalion in the mountains of Italy. In all, 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. Armed Forces in WWII.
After World War II, like all the wars before and after, veterans came home and settled on in a quiet life of service — as a doctor or a police officer, an engineer or an entrepreneur, as a mom or a dad — and in the process, changed countless lives.
They didn’t talk much about their service but instead focused their energies on the stuff of everyday life. They bought homes and cars, raised families, built businesses from the ground up. Many put away their medals, stayed silent about their service, and moved on. Some, carrying shrapnel in their body and scars on their heart, found that they couldn’t.
What do we owe our veterans – especially those who serve when nation rises up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom? People are quick to thank veterans, but our gratitude often seems shallow and inauthentic. A flag, a salute, a brief ceremony then off to our daily lives. I think we all agree we owe our veterans medical care, support systems, the jobs and opportunities they need to get back into the normal tempo of life again.
But our gratitude has to be more whole and effective than that. We owe our veterans a much more profound gift – the gift of living in peace.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for peace is shalom. For Hebrew speakers, shalom has a much richer and fuller significance than our English word “peace.” Shalom is inseparable from righteousness and justice – it means personal wholeness, harmony, political justice, and prosperity for all creation. Peace is also essential to Christianity. There can be no doubt about it. Consider, for example, these passages from our Christian texts:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14,)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (John 14:27)
The Apostle Paul writes: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17)
And finally :
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9)
So peace is essential to Christianity, and Christians must surely seek to be peacemakers. Right?
It’s not that simple . . .
Without a doubt evil does exist in the world and we cannot stand idle in the face of threats.
But, we all have this tendency toward this “us” versus “them”. Without exception, all humans are universally given to thinking highly of ourselves, and are capable of extreme cruelty towards people that we as “the other”. It is difficult to recognize the Imago Dei – the image of God – in our enemy. Human sin runs through all of us. Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart.”
And yet, it is peace – righteousness and justice- that we owe the men who crawled upon the beaches of Omaha; personal wholeness and prosperity we owe the rifle companies that fought, bled, and died in Italy and Germany and France. Peace that we owe the men and women serving in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. We, as individuals, are not charged with nor capable of negotiating peace treaties or ceasefires that would end the disaster that is Syria or Iraq or ISIS.
But shalom starts with simple gestures and we can start with family – estranged brothers or sisters, parents or children. Friends with whom we nurse our resentments, neighbors we love to despise. We can – and must – reach out to extend the gift of peace to those we draw near.
We know it will be hard. But surely our veterans’ sacrifice for peace is worthy of our struggle to keep it. We are not mere prisoners of fate. Individually our actions matter, and collectively we can birth something new. For then we shall be called Blessed and Children of God.
If you are a veteran of any conflict anywhere in the world, please stand up. If you are married – or were married to a veteran, please stand up. If your father or mother were veterans of any conflict, please stand up. If you have ever loved a veteran, please stand up. (Play Taps)