Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 25, 2008

2008.05.25 “No Greater Love” Memorial Day Weekend

Central United Methodist Church

“No Greater Love”

David L. Haley

Memorial Day Weekend

May 25th, 2008

     “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15: 13, The New Revised Standard Version

Tomorrow, in cemeteries across the country, Americans will pause to remember those who have died in our country’s wars.  Almost inevitably, as a part of the ceremony, someone will quote these words of Jesus:  “Greater love has no one than this, than that they lay down their life for their friends.” (John 15: 13)

Next Saturday, a priest will stand at the grave of one of the most recent soldiers killed in Iraq, 21 year old Pvt. Branden P. Haunert, of Blue Ash, Ohio, killed last Sunday, May 18th. The priest will do his best to offer words of comfort and hope to family and friends, sitting weeping on the front row. Quite likely, they will quote these words:  “Greater love has no one than this, than that they lay down their life for their friends.”

Periodically, the Medal of Honor is given to the latest recipient to receive our nation’s highest honor. The most recent was on April 8th, when Navy Seal Michael Monsoor was given the medal, posthumously, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”  As the citation reads:

“On 29 September 29, 2006, in Ramadi, Iraq, an insurgent threw a hand grenade from an unseen location, which bounced off Petty Officer Monsoor’s chest and landed in front of him. Although only he could have escaped the blast, Petty Officer Monsoor chose instead to protect his teammates.  Instantly and without regard for his own safety, he threw himself onto the grenade to absorb the force of the explosion with his body, saving the lives of his two teammates. By his undaunted courage, fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of certain death, Petty Officer Monsoor gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

        “Greater love has no one than this, than that they lay down their life for their friends.”

These words come from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus is teaching his disciples not only about the kind of love he had for them, but the kind of love they ought to have for each other.  A love so great that we are willing to pay love’s ultimate price, the giving of our own lives for another or for a cause greater than ourselves.  That’s what the word sacrifice means: “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”

It was, of course, what Jesus did. A young man in his prime, around 30 years of age at the time of his death, his passion for God and God’s kingdom was so great that he was willing to give his life for it, which he did, nailed to a Roman cross. Our very religion was founded by Jesus giving his life that others might live.  No wonder, then, from that time until this, these words of his have been spoken as a tribute to anyone who gives their life in such a way.

As I have grown older, I have thought about this a lot, about what it means to sacrifice, and in doing so I have grown in appreciation for those who have sacrificed, that we might have the life we have.  I’m a guy who weeps now during the singing of the National Anthem, a bugle playing taps, or the sound of bagpipes.

It began with respect for my father, a WWII vet, and the mighty deeds the men and women of his generation accomplished.  For example, a year ago January, after hearing about it for so long, I finally made it to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. For most of my time there, I was too choked up to talk.  That sand, that beach, those cliffs, just to see it was to appreciate what those men accomplished and what they sacrificed to do so.

It grew during my 17 years as a firefighter, as I got to be one of those who headed toward danger and disaster rather than away from it, and therefore grew in friendship and respect for all who do that job. On September 11, 2001, as we stood in the firehouse watching the burning World Trade Center towers, we knew that the members of the FDNY were heading up those stairwells, because that’s what they do. When those towers collapsed, it was physically sickening.  343 – that how many firefighters alone died that day.

In 1992, I officiated at the funeral of a 21 year old police officer, killed in the line of duty.  Not only will I never forget the young man, I will also never forget the 1,000 car procession, the 3,000 officers at the ceremony, or the sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” at the cemetery, as strong men wept.

Now that I have a son in the Marines, I think about this even more.  Are there people and causes for which it is worth giving our lives, or the lives of our children?  Yes, there are.

Is there any of us here who have not thought about under what circumstances and for whom we would be willing to give our lives?  Yes, we have.  In fact, many of us feel like that in a more perfect world, they would let us old men fight our countries battles, rather than our sons and daughters.  (It’s a sad irony, isn’t it, that when you finally acquire the age and wisdom to appreciate it, they won’t let you do it anymore.)

Of course, we almost never get to give our lives intentionally, spontaneously, immediately, for another.  Almost never — if ever — do we ever say, “Here, take my life instead, or in place of, someone else.”

In fact, a good case can be made that we most often and most nobly give our lives for others not by dying, but by living:

–          a parent who loves their kids, night and day

–  a coworker willing to step in to help another through a

difficult situation

–          a spouse who takes care of an ailing companion

–          a son or daughter who watches over a physically or mentally failing parent

–          dedicated professionals, such as teachers, pastors, nurses, physicians or politicians, for example, who give themselves for their students, parishioners, patients, or constituents.

–          those who work in physically dangerous situations, who

put themselves in danger to help others, such as firefighters or police officers, and other emergency responders.

What determines whether a life is laid down in love is not so much whether we live or die, but why we do it and for whom.  And that’s why this verse is quoted so often, in remembrance and gratitude for anyone who puts their life on the line for another, for their families, their friends, their country.

Having said all this, I sometimes wonder if we have forgotten the meaning of sacrifice.  Don’t preach on sacrifice, they say in some churches, you’ll turn people off.  When those TV preachers come on preaching the Gospel of Self-Esteem and Prosperity, the easy road where no sacrifice is required, I have to leave the room. Whatever happened to Jesus’ warning that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it?” (Matthew 7:14)

As a nation, even though though our country is still at war in its longest (outside of Vietnam) and most expensive war, you would hardly know it, listening to radio and TV, listening to people talk.

Writing in The New York Times last Wednesday, writer Timothy Egan described how, as he was landing in Seattle after a long flight from Texas, he was preparing to exit when the pilot informed the passengers that there were five soldiers on board, ending a three-day odyssey home from Iraq. Could they let them pass? What followed, Egan said, was prolonged applause by all, and a startling reminder to some — oh, are we still at war?

He went on to say,

“Yet, for its prolonged clutch on our treasury and blood, no war as been so out-of-sight, so stage-managed to be painless and invisible. We’re supposed to shop, to spend our stimulus checks, to carry on as if nothing has happened — or is happening. Every now and then we get to rise at a stadium or pause on an airplane. Some sacrifice.”  (Timothy Egan, “The Invisible War”, The New York Times, Wednesday, May 21st, 2008)

        As we obsess with Britney and American Idol and Hillary and Barack and the high price of gas, young men and women, America’s sons and daughters, are still dying, 4,080 so far.  30,000 have been wounded, many so seriously they will need care for the rest of their lives. Others suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and struggle with sleeplessness, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. 

Surely the least we can do on this Memorial Day weekend is to remember the sacrifice of those who have given all.  Surely the least we can do — through our votes, our letters and calls and emails to our representatives in Congress, and through time given to our vets by volunteering in veterans hospitals and veterans organizations — surely the least we can do is to commit ourselves to do whatever it takes to care for those who have survived.  Surely the least we can do is to recommit ourselves to end the scourge of war. Surely, as the followers of the One who told us, “Greater love has no one than this, than that they lay down their life for their friends,” we can do no less.

Abraham Lincoln said it most eloquently, on March 4th, 1865, at the end of his Second Inaugural Address:

“With malice toward none, with charity for 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 his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Our parsonage in West Chicago backed up to Oakwood Cemetery, where each year’s Memorial Day service took place. Each year we would walk around the fence, where we would greet people we knew, neighbors, parishioners, veterans, and officials. Each year the High School band would play, with a few of them inevitably passing out and being escorted to the shade of a tree.  The town’s gray-haired veterans — from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam — would present the Colors and offer a 21 gun salute, and children would cry and cover their ears. 

In my early years, I never got invited to pray at those services, but after they discovered me, they asked me almost every year.  Last year, I knew it would be my last, so I wore my Class A Chaplain’s uniform. I offered my prayers in memory of my grandfather, Clint H. Skaggs, who served in WWI; my father, Ben K. Haley, who served in the Army Air Corp in WWII; and my son, Chris Buckles Haley, Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps.  And this is the prayer I offered, still good for this Memorial Day Weekend.

Let us pray:

Eternal God, as we gather in this sacred place – friends and neighbors, citizens and patriots all – we struggle to articulate feelings into words and words into prayers.

We gather with gratitude for all those who have served and sacrificed, veterans of World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

We gather in grief for the 1,100 WWII vets we lose each day, fathers and grandfathers.  We especially grieve for the 1,000 more dead, killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly young men and women, whose fresh graves have been opened since we gathered last.  We pray for their parents, their widows and orphans. 

We do repent, O God, of our war-mongering, the scourge of war, and the injustice that while some sacrifice so little, others sacrifice all, for peace and for freedom, for our country and for us.

Gather us up in gratitude, in grief, and repentance, O God, and, by what we do here, show us the way ahead.  Amen.

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