There’s an old hymn; it was already old when we sung it at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church during my childhood, “Precious Memories.”
How they linger
How they ever flood my soul
In the stillness of the midnight
Precious sacred scenes unfold.
On this Memorial Day weekend, precious memories are focused. They are focused on women and men whom we remember as vivacious, lively, filled with promise, and courageous before they lost their lives to war. In the Thought Challenge that John read to us a few minutes ago, “war” and “hell” are synonymous, and so it is. These family members, friends, and colleagues lost their lives to war, to the hell humans created for themselves, and we remember them and their sacrifice. Union General William T. Sherman said, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
When the war in Iraq started, people in polite society weren’t supposed to call it a war, but it was a brutal bloody war just the same. Much of the media and marketing gurus were making even more money creating bumper stickers and such suggesting that refusing to support the war was the same thing as failing to support our troops. That was a big bunch of malarkey. I consistently supported our troops and just as consistently hated that war.
It is not necessary to approve of war to be able to appreciate the sacrifice of those who lost their lives hoping against hope that should they pay the ultimate sacrifice for their willingness to be placed in harm’s way and to be willing to die, if that happened to be the cost, their sacrifice would mean something. What they couldn’t bear was the thought that their deaths would have no meaning, no purpose. Those of us who bask in the freedom for which many of the war dead died have the responsibility to be certain that those courageous women and men did not die in vain.
I want to pair two quotes from the Prophet Muhammad that are not paired in the Qur'an. The first: “Four things support the world: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the good, and the valor of the brave.” The second: “He is not strong and powerful who throweth people down; but he is strong who witholdeth himself from anger.”
I cherish freedom, don’t you? And it is certainly true that freedom can be lost if not cared for and protected; more about that in a moment.
Thomas Jefferson writing in A Summary View of the Rights of British America two years before American independence from Britain was sealed: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.” I first knew these words because I was in Men’s Chorus at Carson-Newman College, and we sang one year Randall Thompson’s rousing A Testament of Freedom, a composition that Thompson wrote originally for all male voices, though a version with sopranos and altos written in eventually came along. I did not understand their significance, and I can’t recall if I realized they were penned by Jefferson. I absolutely do remember, though, the chills I got when we sang them: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.”
Thomas Jefferson writing to John Adams from Monticello on September 12, 1821:
I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance... And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them...The flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.
We must say that not every war fought in our country’s history was about the protection of freedom, though those who have engaged our nation in war have almost always claimed that the war, whichever war it was, was being waged to protect American freedoms. That wasn’t always true, not always the case. Some who lost their lives in wars that were not truly about protecting freedom knew exactly what was going on, but they had agreed to follow orders; and that is what they did. They knew, however, that those who were calling for war and speaking in favor of the war but who would never for a second be in any kind of danger were lying about the true cause of the war in which they found themselves fighting. “Freedom” is an excellent deflector, and if the public can be convinced that its freedoms are being threatened they will agree to most anything--from allowing corrupt governments to send their children off to war to economically crippling generations to come because of war debts so staggering that only superbly trained mathematicians and economists can even begin to understand the true impact of the numbers.
The best thing we can do to honor those who gave their lives for this country is to make sure that there are no more war deaths; indeed, that there is no more war. Only naive folks say such things, right? Not at all. Many who lived through the hell of war say it, and no one can consider them naive.
Those who say, “There will always be war,” will offer something, even it is only an attitude or frame of mind, to make certain their prophecy comes true. John Adams, and we desperately need a John Adams for this generation, said viscerally, “What horrid creatures we humans are, that we cannot be virtuous without murdering one another.”
A few months before I was born, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly General Eisenhower, was making a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and he stunned them with his assessment of war:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
My late father, a veteran, had profound respect for General Omar Bradley. This insight from General Bradley stirs me:
The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.
Someone has adapted this, “There will always be war” maxim to say, “There will always be war as long as it is profitable.” That should bring tears to our eyes if it is true, and it surely seems to be.
The Vice President in a previous presidential administration owned major shares of stock in the company that was being paid to do a number of tasks for the US military in Iraq and for the US government more broadly. One of the sweetest things Halliburton did for our military was to prepare much of its prepackaged food. When the sand began to settle, however, and the facts, some of them, came to light, Halliburton, facing serious lawsuits, agreed to reimburse the Department of Defense nearly 30 million dollars because it had grossly overcharged the military of its own country for essential food supplies for those far from home, serving their country in very dangerous conditions.
For that company, that amount of money was a drop in the bucket, and how citizens in a democracy can sit back and allow its own Vice President to grow wealthier by making sure the company he used to run got major contracts and staggering amounts of money on the backs of the military women and men who had to eat the overpriced food to survive is beyond me. This is only one example of Halliburton abuse. These are the kinds of abuses of freedom that make those who died to protect freedom roll over in their graves, which we should be decorating with fresh flowers today.
Charles Sumner said, and we should listen very openly:
Give me the money that has been spent in war and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens will be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to peace.
The ancient Hebrews, so the story goes, wanted to be like other nations in terms of organization and governance. They had done well enough with each of the twelve tribes having its own leadership and joining together when the nation needed to be unified, but many of them continually pled with God, asking God to give them their own king. The sacred storytellers recalled that God heard these prayers and indicated a willingness to act on these prayer requests as long as the people asking for a king understood what was at stake for any nation or would-be-nation who submitted to the rule of a single monarch.
God warned the king-seeking Hebrews that there was more than a little bit of a chance that if they got their king, there would be trouble. In all likelihood, those freedom-loving people would lose much of their freedom, but they couldn’t see it in much the same way that modern US Americans aren’t seeing that the loss of separation between church/synagogue/mosque and state could only mean a substantial loss of a freedom many of us hold dear; a freedom that, if given away by intention or carelessness, would impact the fullness of other freedoms held dear by many of our fellow citizens.
As far as I know, we aren’t told why any where, God reluctantly gave in to the prayer demands of the Hebrews and chose a young Israelite, Saul, to be the first king of Israel. No one initially knew of this appointment, not even Saul himself.
There were several players in this drama, each with a God-given role, but none of them knew they were a part of bringing God’s plan to fruition; they thought they were going about the normal course of their lives. For example, Saul’s family owned donkeys, and some of the donkeys got lost, separated from the others. Saul’s father sent Saul out to find the lost donkeys. What could be more normal or average or logical than that? This was probably something Saul had done a number of times since you know, if you’ve ever lived with a jack ass, that they get lost a lot!
In the mean time, God had made known to the prophet Samuel that he would be God’s instrument in letting the king to be know that he was God’s choice for that job, but in keeping with the pattern Samuel had no idea who the new king would be. God would fix things so that Samuel would know the right person when he saw him. Sure enough, while Saul was looking for the lost donkeys, Samuel saw him, and God caused a little gong to go off in Samuel’s head. That was the sign. The young man who was running around as if in search of something was to be Israel’s first king; he, as I’ve said, had no clue. Living out on a donkey farm, he probably hadn’t heard that God was going to allow Israel to have a king.
Evidently, Karl Rove is America’s Samuel, at least he thinks he is, and he names, the right-wingers say, with God’s direction who will be the next president of the United States. Even though he got it wrong last time, he, like Harold Camping and Judgement Day predictions, keeps right on going. We don’t know who told Donald Trump that he would be the next president of our country, but, to his credit, it wasn’t Karl Rove. Thank goodness, Trump already pulled out; Rove called him a joke of a candidate.
Before Saul is fully confirmed by all the twelve tribes of Israel, some of his fellow Israelites were defeated in a battle with the Ammonites; actually, it was a surrender or die kind of deal, and there were two parts to the terms of surrender: 1) the surrendering Israelites would become slaves to the Ammonites; and 2) as a mark of slavery, each Israelite slave would have one eye poked out. If a master had the benefit of two eyes, then a slave should have only one eye. There is a parallel here with what the Spanish friars did to the Acoma Pueblo Indigenous Americans. They captured them, forced them into servitude, and to make sure the men in the tribe didn’t run, these “missionaries” cut off one foot of each Acoma male.
The captured Israelites got word by messenger to other Israelites, and they pled for intervention. Several of the tribes of Israel sent soldiers to be a part of an army formed for the express purpose of delivering their sister- and brother-Israelites from the Ammonites. Saul was appointed leader of these troops and commander in the battle that would ensue. Surprising everyone including himself, Saul had tremendous military skill, and he led his army to victory over the Ammonites, seeing the Israeli captives released--with two eyes and two feet.
Word spread of Saul’s astounding military capabilities, and the tribes of Israel came together as a nation, as a single entity, and acclaimed Saul their king. Saul, God’s choice as the story was told generation after generation, became the first king of the nation of Israel.
He had it rough from day one. In one particularly striking and tragic representation of God in another war story, God becomes irate when Saul kills most but not all of the Amalekites. The attacks led to a veritable slaughter of women, children, and men. Only the king and the good livestock were allowed to live, and the story says that God was extremely irritated with Saul for allowing any Amalekite or Amalekite animal to live. God had warned the Israelites that they would suffer because of the decisions their new King would make, but as things turned out, it was God who was displeased with Saul. The plot of the story has God becoming livid with Saul for leaving any life there at all, and, unbeknownst to Saul or anyone else, God calls Samuel back into service. It was already time in God’s mind for a new king. (I want to make sure you understand that I'm retelling the ancient story using the same theological framework from which it was told and the same anthropomorphisms for God assumed in the story. These do not match my theology in any sense. Still, the story is a very important one.)
This is when Samuel appoints the shepherd boy David to be Israel’s next, its second, king, but it would take a long time for David to mature and to learn before he could take the throne from the King into whose service he was placed, the King whom he loved. Talk about a rocky road!
Saul had trained three of his sons in the ways of war. The oldest of those sons was Jonathan who became David’s soulmate and eventually David’s lover, though both Jonathan and David were married to women. Jonathan recognized that his father, Saul, whom he loved, was supposed to resign and allow David to take the throne, which was established in the story as God’s will. By no means, however, is Saul going to give up his throne freely. That, however, is for another sermon.
For now, I point you to a fierce battle in which both Saul and Jonathan die. It was the battle of Gilboa. The Philistines fought against the Israelites, and the Philistines won mightily!
When it was evident that the Philistines had won, some of them turned on Saul’s sons and killed all three of them. A Philistine archer wounded Saul with an arrow, but didn’t kill him. Preferring death to capture by the enemy, Saul pled with his armor bearer to finish the job the arrow had only half done. The armor bearer refused to harm his King so Saul tried to end his own life by throwing himself upon his own sword or spear. The second wound had not ended the King’s life, but only caused him to agonize in convulsing pain. A young enemy soldier happened to catch Saul’s eye, and Saul called to him and asked him to finish the job so that he would no longer be in such a state of suffering. The Amalekite soldier did so, and he would respectfully take the King’s crown and an amulet from Saul’s arm to David.
The Amalekite soldier found his way to David and personally told him that both Saul and Jonathan along with the two brothers fighting alongside Jonathan were dead. He explained the circumstances of Saul’s death, and he handed David Saul’s crown and amulet. David was so angry and shocked and bereaved that he ordered one of his men to strike the messenger, and the attack on the messenger killed him on the spot. Tragedy upon tragedy.
The 2009 movie, “The Messenger,” is about two soldiers whose full-time job it is to travel around and knock on the doors in order to announce to family members that their loved one has died in battle. I have a buddy who has been doing that for years; it is a horrible job. Many who perform that function become numb entirely and feel absolutely nothing as they repeat yet another time, “I regret to inform you....”
Even when war is declared for protection or principle instead of, let’s say, oil, there are deaths of military personnel. In a sense, all are unnecessary and only demonstrate how far the human family still has to go in understanding both diplomacy and life itself. Otherwise, war would have become extinct long ago.
Even so, through no fault of their own and in an effort to protect their fellow citizens who are not on the battlefield these military women and men are where they are and die where they die. Some are brought home for burial; others are not. Any way you slice it, they die for our wellbeing. Patriotic poems and an annual holiday to remember the war dead do nothing at all to describe or respond to the depth of their sacrifice.
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
David wanted the news of the death of Saul and his sons kept within Israel; he couldn’t stand the thought that upon hearing the news that King Saul and his sons were dead, there were people, and plenty of them, who would celebrate and rejoice. He wanted the story told throughout Israel, and he wanted learning the story of the death of Saul and Jonathan taught to all generations of children yet to come.
He praised the bravery of both father and son, and he reminded the people in his eulogy that much that they had materially came because of Saul’s protection of and provision for his people. David’s repeating refrain throughout his eulogy was, “How the mighty have fallen,” and he rhetorically moves to a special spoken tribute to his lover, Prince Jonathan. Again: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
The moving eulogy closes with a most unusual statement: “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” The weapons of war have perished in his mind, in his plan, in his hopes, his dreams? What exactly did he mean? How, exactly, had the weapons of war perished? Well, one scholar insists that “weapons” is the wrong translation of this Hebrew word, and a better translation would be “instruments.” The weapons haven’t perished, but those who used the instruments of war have; in fact, Saul and Jonathan and the other two brothers were themselves the instruments of war, and they had perished. There was reason for angst until new leadership was in place. The nation had lost a part of its foundation and some of its sense of security with it.
In insisting that no Israelite should ever be allowed to miss out on the opportunity of knowing who Saul and Jonathan had been and the principles for which they stood, David was establishing unintentionally a basis for our modern Memorial Day. Memories and Memorials.
Something is wrong with letting people who have stood for a cause that impacts us die forgotten, as if they’d never been here. This is why many Christian churches and seekers’ congregations remember each year those in their number who, in the previous twelve months, have left this world for life in the next realm.
Something is also terribly wrong with failing or refusing to learn from the situation that led to the military person’s death. Dorothy Brown Thompson, “Unlearned Lesson.”
Of every year
The little valiant
On every fallen
Symbol of what
Each died to save.
And we who see
And still have breath--
Are we no wiser
For their death?
In the book of Revelation, the book of symbols unveiling vital spiritual truths for people living through crisis and tragedy, some people on earth are concerned about those who have died isolated or en masse at the hands of evil and been forgotten. The word that comes back to them from God’s realm is that they were never lost to God and certainly not forgotten. God knew their names when they died, and God remembers them, their suffering, and their lives before they suffered because they stood for God’s goodness in a world heavily tainted by a very active evil.
Similarly, on Memorial Day, we pledge to the best of our abilities never to forget those who died for our freedom and for other causes to which our country connected itself. The tomb of the unknown soldier reminds us that some brave souls, their lives on the line for our wellbeing, did leave this world anonymously--some all alone, some in the company of other victims who didn’t know them at all, some surrounded by enemies who didn’t care to know their names.
The fallen military personnel gave what they gave with no strings attached. They were not seeking recognition, much less glory. They gave their lives in the hopes that the world they left behind might become a better world--a safer world, a freer world. At the very least, they earned the right to be remembered.