As we gather to commemorate Veterans’ Day, it is right and good to raise our voices in thanksgiving for the heroic service of our fellow Americans in the armed forces whose selfless dedication has secured freedom for the world.
As we honor the living veterans and commend to the grace of God all those who gave themselves without counting the cost, in order to gain liberty for all, I ask you to join me at: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year of 1918. Eighty years ago it was the armistice to end the great conflict—the war that “was the war to end all wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy.”
This was a war that was somehow to alter the tragic propensity for violence that seems so deeply rooted in humanity. This war would be the means of our deliverance from future wars.
That war, like the ancient tower of Babel, held great promise. Yet, like that ancient tower, it contained within itself the seed of its own destruction, pride and the arrogant belief that humanity can insure its own destiny of peace and justice simply by its own will.
And so on the eightieth anniversary of the ending of that war, rather than celebrating and giving thanks for eighty years of peace, we are gathered to honor the few remaining veterans not only of that war but also of the subsequent wars which humanity has inflicted upon itself during the remainder of this most violent century.
One of the great blessings of my ministry as bishop for the armed forces and health care facilities for the Veteran’s Administration is the opportunity to know and be among the millions of men and women who serve and have served our nation throughout this century. For the more that 200 priests in our church that are in this active ministry for these veterans, I give thanks, for through that ministry that have convicted me to share these thoughts today.
There are a very few veterans among us who served their nation prior to World War I. There are a few veterans among us from WWI. There are veterans among us of the most violent event in all of human history, the second world war, World War II. There are many veterans among us of the two so-called “conflicts of containment”—Korea and Vietnam—fought within the context of that other great curse of our century—communism. There are among us young veterans of places like Lebanon, Panama, Granada, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.
Veterans all. These men and woman who bear living testimony to: the futility, the violence, and the destruction of war. These are men and women who are rightfully proud of their service to their country. But these are also men and women who know from personal experience what it is like to watch friends die or suffer wounds in combat.
Many often bear within their own bodies the scars of war. Many more may be afflicted with memories and dream’s of war’s endless horrors. Many may suffer the psychic, emotional and spiritual scars of war.
In the movie Saving Private Ryan there are at least two very poignant scenes. You remember the story: a squad of rangers is sent behind enemy lines to save a man whose three brothers have been killed in battle. Higher headquarters wants him shipped home to spare his mother the agony of having all her sons killed in combat. Some of the scenes are violent—for war is violent.
So eight rangers risk their lives for one man. And when one of the rangers is mortally wounded, he asks Pvt. Ryan to bend over so he can whisper to him: “earn this.” Freedom and life are indeed costly. And then as a 70 year old private ryan looks over the cemetery of veteran dead he indeed understands that: “In a battlefield cemetery each marble cross marks an individual crucifixion. Someone—someone very young—has died for somebody else’s sins.”
The cost of freedom is dear for the cost of war is high. And so today, on this poignant anniversary, we honor and salute those who have borne the burdens and paid the price.
As precious as our freedom is and as costly as it is for those who have insured it for us, still we seek refuge in a true Savior and we pray in the words of our psalm for today: “Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge.”
Today must be more than a day of remembrance and honor, it must be a day when we call to mind that God alone is our deliverer. God alone is able to heal the pride and sin which inevitably lead to such projects as the building of an ancient tower or atomic weapons or and the horror of modern war.
You and I affirm in our baptism and the baptismal life that we live, that this God came among us in the person of Jesus, so that we might be reconciled to one another and be reconciled to God. Reconciliation, peace, justice and ultimate freedom come from God alone.
The final and ultimate mission of the combat veteran, and the mission entrusted to us in our baptism, is to be instruments and agents of God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation.
As we enjoy the gift of freedom the greatest honor we can pay all veterans, living and dead, is living saint Francis’ prayer:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that
we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are
born to life eternal.