It was Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865. Robert E. Lee was riding his horse Traveler just down the rode from a small house in Appomattox, Virginia. He was returning to his tent after a brief surrender ceremony with Ulysses S. Grant. Two rows of exhausted soldiers lined his way—tattered, hungry men who had camped overnight in clusters along the trail. They knew the time for surrender had come after what had been for some of them four years of serving and suffering since the first battle at Bull Run.
As General Lee appeared, troops rushed to greet him and formed two walls of ragged men lining the whole distance. When Lee entered the avenue of soldiers, loud cheers erupted. The general had not anticipated this kind of tribute in the face of defeat, and his brave composure seemed to loosen and tears ran down his cheeks. And then seeing the emotions of their leader, the soldiers’ shouts slowly turned to weeping and sobs. All along the way, that was how things went—first the cheers, then the weeping. And at the very end, a tough old sergeant reached out his hand to touch the general’s empty sword scabbard, said through his own tears, “I love you just as well as ever, General Lee.”
Today we celebrate the 232nd anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps. We come here to honor its legacy of service to our country, and to pray for it as it continues to carry out its essential work. I understand that the theme of this celebration is “servant leadership,” and so it seemed right to begin with a picture of a great military servant leader—a committed Christian, a brave and courageous soldier, a leader whose example inspired seemingly everyone who knew him, and a man utterly dedicated to the welfare and well-being of his troops. At its heart servant leadership is a quality of character, of soul. It is a matter of integrity and authenticity, of commitment both to a mission and to caring for everyone “on the team” regardless of rank.
As one corporate leader has put it, “Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.” And when a leader is willing to bear pain, to connect with the troops or the employees at a fundamentally human level, a bond is forged that makes the whole team stronger. From everything I have seen, servant leadership is a rare quality, and from everything I have seen, the Marines seem to understand it.
Some might say that the church is an unlikely place to honor the mission of warriors such as the Marines, this highly trained, dedicated corps of elite fighters. After all, Christians gather in this Cathedral week by week to worship the Prince of Peace. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” Jesus said. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” Not exactly the words of a fighter.
But, of course, there is more to it than that. As one of the leaders of the Anglican Church once put it, “We [Christians] are given only one mandate. We are to be peacemakers.” But then he goes on to talk about how complex that calling is:
The Bible insists that we live in a world in rebellion against its own best interests, a world that has rejected the order given it by its creator. Christianity does not lack realism about the intransigence of conflict. The scriptures speak of our responsibility for seeking justice and the well-being of creation.
Someone has to protect the vulnerable, to resist evil, to create a safe space where all the goods of society can flourish. I’ve heard of a soldier once saying to a minister, “If you were doing your job better, we wouldn’t have to be doing ours.” We human beings are made for lives of peace, but find ourselves living in a dangerous and often destructive world, and so we depend on the strength of the military to resist evil and create the conditions where justice and peace can thrive.
A mentor of mine some years ago at Virginia Seminary used to talk about two important groups of Christians that the world continues to need today. One is the “prophets of peace,” who continue to call the world to the way of non-violence as the only way to heal a terrifying and violent world. The other is the “responsible soldier,” who is doing God’s work by defending civilized society and those who are vulnerable. Our world needs both prophets of peace and responsible soldiers. As my teacher put it, “the prophet is needed to keep the soldier honest, and the soldier is needed to keep the prophet alive.”
Even in these times when there are serious divisions about the Iraq War, the role of the responsible soldier, or responsible Marine, is as crucial as ever. To you Marines and your fellow men and women in arms are entrusted the security of our country and its way of life, and the work of making the world safer for everyone.
I have known a few Marines in my time, and I’ve always sensed there’s something different about them—a calm sense of clarity, of confidence, a sense of both humility and pride in their mission and their ability to carry it out. And when I’ve had a chance to listen to Marines talk about what that means to them, it has sounded to me like something very close to a spiritual vocation.
In fact, I’ve learned that Marines understand their life as a calling. It’s not a job, not a paycheck. It’s who you are. I had a chance to glimpse at a few pages of The Marine Field Manual and saw this: “Being a Marine comes from the eagle, globe, and anchor that is tattooed on the soul of every one… who wears the Marine Corps uniform.” Tattooed on the soul… Apparently something mysterious happens at boot camp, and in something called “The Crucible,” that changes you. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” I hear Marines say. You don’t stop being a Marine just because you stop wearing the uniform.
And I’ve heard some of the mottos. The formal one—Semper Fidelis, Semper Fi—sounds somehow sacred when I hear a Marine say it. And then there’s a strange greeting Marine’s apparently give each other that goes something like “OOO-RAH.” I don’t know what to make of that.
I remember last year seeing part of the speech given by Jim Lehrer from the PBS News Hour at the dedication of the Marine Museum. He had reported to Quantico fifty-one years before, but still was clear as ever what it meant to be a Marine:
It’s about… knowing that you are only as strong and as safe as the person on your right and on your left; that a well-trained and motivated human being can accomplish almost anything, that being pushed to do your very best is a godsend; that an order is an order… that responsibility goes down the chain of command, as well as up….
In fact, Marine Corps life seems to me to be pervaded with a sense of servant leadership—that being a Marine means focusing not on yourself but on the mission to be accomplished and the needs of those around you.
In the gospel lesson this evening we hear Jesus talk about the heart of all of our callings—as Christians, as human beings, as Marines: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slaves.”
I hear that approach to living in everything I’ve encountered about the Marines. You are a servant people, a servant team. “Officers hold back,” is one of your mottos, I hear. Those in the higher ranks are there to support those in the lower ranks. Servant leadership we call that.
Let me tell you a couple of stories of Marine servant leadership I have heard. A Wall Street Journal reporter embedded in a unit in Baghdad was talking to a Marine who had been manning an isolated post in the city for three weeks, with 1 MRE of rations a day, no showers, not a moment of rest. The reporter said to him, “It must be terrible out here all by yourself. You must be in terrible shape. And the Marine replied, “No, sir, you’re wrong. I’m not all by myself. We have each other.” That’s servant leadership—caring for everyone on your team.
I heard of Marines who were supporting a Forward Resuscitation Surgical Suite out in the desert a long plane flight from Dakar in Senegal. And there a team of doctors, dentists, and vets treated 4,000 locals in three days. When First Lady Laura Bush flew into Dakar, an airport worker said to her, “You have soldiers treating people out in villages. You have a kind nation.” Servanthood, we call that.
And finally, I have heard of the amazing Marine spirit. Friends of mine were visiting wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Center on Christmas Eve last year when they came across a Second Lieutenant, a Naval Academy graduate, who had lost both his legs. He had every reason in the world to be in despair. But instead they saw a man with energy in his voice and hope in his heart. He said he wants to go Georgetown Law School, and he’s committed to a life in public service. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” I guess.
On your birthday I want to celebrate the servant ministry of being a Marine—a demanding, costly, life-giving, vitally important calling. Being a Marine, like being a Christian, calls you to give your life to a cause greater than yourself, to sacrifice personal comfort and ease to help build a better world for everyone. It asks of you everything you’ve got.
You have a special mission—to defend, preserve, and protect your fellow human beings and our sacred freedoms. You put your lives at risk for the sake of this country’s freedom. The Christian’s mission is the ordering and caring for God’s world, and of healing and reconciliation where it is broken. And since so many of you are both Marines and Christians, strangely enough, your job is both to defend and to build, to fight and to reconcile. That is a servant calling.
For Robert E. Lee and for countless Marines through the years your uniformed service has been your offering to God. Let us pray for a time when this nation will no longer need to send Marines into combat, for a time when wars will cease, and conflicts will end. But I’m afraid that won’t be soon. And so in this fallen and dangerous world, I thank God for the Marines’ courage and devotion, their selflessness and spirit of sacrifice, their love of their country, and their spirit of servant leadership. Happy birthday, and heartfelt thanks to you all.