May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I must say, for just a moment there as I approached the pulpit, I had a moment of trepidation: listening to the Gospel by Mark I thought, “Am I a scribe in a long robe?”
The author Laurence Binyon, reflecting upon this nation’s experience in World War I and those who served and died there, wrote: “They shall not grow old as we who are left, grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them.”
Each year at this time, we gather to remember. Yesterday, the nation gathered, symbolically at Arlington National Cemetery, led by President Clinton, to observe Veteran’s Day. Today, we meet here, in this place of national prayer, for a service of worship and thanksgiving, to salute our veterans and renew our vow of commitment to humankind’s ongoing struggle to substitute peace for war.
In doing so, we remember many things. We remember that our veterans have sacrificed immeasurably for their country. We remember that so also have their families. We remember that among us they pray most ardently for peace, for as General Douglas MacArthur has reminded us, “It is the soldier who bears the wounds of war.” And we remember that most of all, they live with celestial music in their hearts because they have known with the greatest certainty of the reality and the nearness of God.
Over the last several years our nation has marked the significant anniversaries of all of the nation’s wars of the twentieth century. A few short years ago the nation observed the fiftieth anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. Two years ago, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1998, we marked the eightieth anniversary of the conclusion of World War I. Last year, in 1999, we commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the conclusion of one of this nation’s two most traumatic and divisive wars–the Vietnam War; the other, of course, being the Civil War of an earlier century. And this spring, my wife and I were privileged to lead a delegation of the United States to Seoul, Korea, where that nation and this, commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s forgotten war–the Korean War–and celebrated the improved prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Whenever we gather on this or other occasions such as those we mark, perhaps within ourselves, the role of occasions on which this nation has called for her veterans to render historic service: the offensive in the Argonne Forest, Corregidor, the Bataan Peninsula, Anzio, Normandy, Iwo Jima, the Inchon Landing, the Chosan Reservoir, the Pusan Peninsula, the Tet Offensive, Hai Song, the Mekong Delta, Just Cause, Somalia, Desert Storm, and all the deployments during and since, including Yugoslavia. And we remark, as well, upon the enormous commitment of this nation’s most valuable treasure–116, 000 Americans killed in World War I; 400,000 dead in World War II; 54,000 lost in Korea; 58,000 American soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel, Marines, Coast Guard personnel, dead in the jungles or in the air or in the waters just off Vietnam.
What has been the outcome of so much dedication? What has been the return on this investment of so much American blood? Three things immediately come to mind.
First, of course, the nation stands secure. For over two and a quarter centuries, this nation has stood secure on this North American continent in relative peace in the knowledge that our men and women in uniform have made it so. As a second matter, our veterans have changed and saved the world. And it is no small thing nor is it exaggeration. Think only of the devastation of Europe in World War II and the devastation that it portended for the world. Think only of the Holocaust and the grievous wound it threatened to the soul of humankind. Truly, President Clinton some three years ago was justified in his statement to America’s veterans, “When darkness threatened, you held the torch of freedom, a light.” But there is a third way, which America and America’s people have reaped the benefits of the sacrifice and courage of her veterans and men and women in uniform and their families. They have given us the lessons of their lives.
The Gospel according to St. Mark to which I referred earlier, tells the story of Jesus in the Temple, teaching his apostles about the value of gifts and how to value them. God values, he said, not the gift from abundance–well actually, he does value that as well–but he values even more the gift from want. Or more precisely, the gift from all of her living, according to St. Mark.
A few years ago in another place on the Cathedral Close I recounted the experience in my first year in office of the tragic accident that occurred in training at Pope Air Force Base, the Air Force Base that is immediately contiguous to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Two aircraft entered the landing pattern, and as will happen when they enter together, they struck–not directly, but a glancing blow. The larger of the two was able to right itself and veer off and land safely later. The smaller fighter craft had damage to its control surfaces. It was out of control. It sped on its way toward the ground. The pilot and co-pilot ejected safely. The plane landed itself, hurdled down the runway, burst into a fireball and struck a gathering of soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division at the end of the runway, who were preparing to board another craft for a parachute training jump. In an instant, what had been a coherent unit of America’s youngest and finest and bravest, optimistic, looking toward their futures, became a flaming, burning scene of mass destruction. The following day I visited the Army hospital there at Fort Bragg. More than 130 were burned; eventually 27 would die. I visited each of the soldiers who lay there. There were anguished families there. There were injured, bandaged soldiers there. There was even death there. But there was courage and faith, a plenty.
I was particularly struck by two soldiers heavily bandaged, laying in beds adjacent to one another in the same room, who had been severely burned about their arms and hands. They were a husband and wife. They had burned their hands severely and their arms as they sought to beat out the flames on one another. The total commitment of oneself without regard to one’s convenience, one’s comfort, or even one’s safety, is the hallmark of our service of our veterans, of our men and women in uniform and of their families. The military calls it selfless service. Our Lord, in the Gospel of St. Mark, called it giving of all her living.
That is the lesson, or a lesson, of our veterans to us in living.
Just as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., three-time wounded veteran of the Union Army, puts it in a different way in words to his fellow veterans of the regiment. He said at one point, “We were lucky to learn early a lesson about life. We learned that duty is more important than collecting for ourselves all the loaves and fishes we can. We learned that honor is more important than a whole scanny. To know that puts a kind of fire in a person’s heart,” Justice Holmes goes on. No more is that true than in battle. Those who died there, died as a soldier hundreds of years ago said, ‘With a bird singing in their breast.’ Those of us who survived heard that music also. And down through the hard work of later years we remembered that once we had listened to strains from a higher world.”
Know this then, that as we observe this weekend of remembrance for our veterans, those who did not return to be veterans, for those who serve today in uniform, and for their families. Know that our veterans have served this nation with courage and fidelity. But know also that they have served in faith. The faith that life, God’s precious gift to us all, and the chance to live it in peace, is worth fighting for. The faith that a nation whose bedrock principles are justice, equality, liberty and fairness, is a nation worth preserving. And the faith–the abiding faith–that in their gift of all their living, they have raised themselves and the nation they so dearly loved closer to God. Amen.