“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” So begins the title story in Tim O’Brien’s book about American soldiers in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. The title story begins with a matter-of-fact list of what might be found on a soldier’s person during the Vietnam War—but over the course of The Things They Carried the list expands and grows to include all sorts of meanings: their own hopes and fears, the history and ideals of the nation they represent, the unresolved conflicts of people back home. As we move more deeply into the narrative, the soldiers are seen to carry not only their own burdens. They carry along with them the burdens of an entire people as well.
Today, November 11, is Veterans Day. Though it’s not a church holiday, Veterans Day is an important occasion in our national life. And even though veterans and the wars they fought were not part of the recent electoral discussion, I’ve been thinking a lot about veterans this fall. Late last month, the great George McGovern, presidential candidate and decorated World War ii bomber pilot, died, and many obituaries reprinted his most memorable quote, said at the height of the Vietnam War: “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus also appears fed up with those who place burdens on others they’re not willing to take up themselves. He is “fed up to the ears” with religious functionaries dreaming up obligations for others. The scribes—religious bureaucrats of Jesus’ day—live off the sacrifices of others. In that sense they are like the old folks who send young soldiers into battles they’re not willing to fight themselves. In the present day, we have just concluded a presidential campaign in which the ongoing war in Afghanistan was rarely if ever mentioned. Our twenty-first century wars have been largely hidden from people like me. The wars we fight today are wars that we, and those with our privileges, have dreamt up for others to die in.
We are gathered on Veterans Day not only to acknowledge our veterans but to express our gratitude for what they have given us. But how best do we do that? One way to express our thanks for those who have served in our recent and ongoing wars is to try to understand the reality of what they face on a daily basis. I have recently finished reading a powerful new novel about the war in Iraq: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran. A great novel on its own terms, it’s also an important way for people like me to understand a combat experience that carries challenges most of us never think of. All war is hard, the novel makes clear, but contemporary soldiers are being asked to do things we haven’t asked them to do before: as both nation-builders and fighters, they have to drink tea with people they may also need to shoot. The resulting internal conflict can be soul-destroying.
As Christians, as people of faith, how do we make sense of the burdens borne by the modern soldier? When we think about the things they carry, about the burdens we place on the men and women who go to war on our behalf, we should think as well about someone else who carried a burden for us, about another young man who walked up a hill carrying not a rifle but a cross. I am not trying to turn soldiers and veterans into Christ figures. I realize that they’re real, complicated people like you and me. But I am suggesting that they are important to us because, as they symbolize both our aspirations and our pains, they remind us of someone else.
As Christians, we know something about sacramental sacrifice. As Christians we know what it is to project our dreams and our enmities onto another. As Christians, we know on Good Friday what going to the cross cost Jesus, and as his followers we know after Easter what it means to live life in gratitude for the sacrifice made by another. As Christians we find life’s purpose as thanksgiving for the gift of Jesus’ life on the cross. And as Americans, we can never be too far away from the knowledge that we can live our lives in peace because soldiers—from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, to the Somme and D-Day, to Pork Chop Hill and the Tet Offensive to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan—have been willing to take up a burden on our behalf.
Today’s Gospel takes place as Jesus teaches in the temple, and in it Jesus follows his attack on the scribes by pointing to a widow—the poorest of the poor in his day—as she quietly makes an offering of two copper coins, “all she had to live on.” The widow’s quiet, sacrificial offering shames the pretensions of those who make a show of their flamboyant benevolence. At the center of Jesus’ teaching there is always a dual call to outward compassion and inward humility. He calls us, by example, to be both generous and humble, to be less like the scribes and more like the widow, because that’s the way God is. In loving us in Christ, God offers us “all she had to live on.”
As we gather around Jesus’ table on this Veterans Day, invited by God to know ourselves as people loved because of who we authentically are, let us do so giving thanks for the men and women who have served our country not only by carrying our burdens and living into new and challenging ways of fighting our wars. Let us give thanks that in their lives and service we glimpse an image of what it means to offer everything you have to live on so that someone else might thrive. We cannot all replicate that offering. But we can all acknowledge it and respond by helping our soldiers and veterans shoulder the things they carry. Amen.