Sunday, May 5, 1993

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Exodus 13:1-10
Matthew 13:21-35

And Moses said to the people, Remember this day, on which you came out from Egypt, out of

the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place.

Exodus 13:3

Memorial Day is designed specifically for us to remember those who have served in our

military forces, and especially those who have died in this service. It is well that we do

so, but there is a fine line to tread. We must not let an appreciation for selfless

courage slip over into a glorification of war, or let a revulsion against war discolor our

recognition of heroism. Sometimes the worst of circumstances do call forth the best in us.

In one of his "Letters from America," Alistair Cooke reflected on the public turmoil over

the Viet Nam war. A reporter had made his way into a jungle clearing and interviewed a

couple of American soldiers, getting very candid expressions of their states of mind.

This sent him to his bookshelf, to review a book written about the Battle of Flanders in

World War I. The book reported over 200,000 British casualties, and marveled that in the

face of this, morale remained high. The officers were living up to the highest military

traditions, and the soldiers in the trenches were the sturdy Cockneys who couldn't wait to

get at the Kaiser.

Five years or so later, another book was published, called Now It Can Be Told. This

disclosed that there were over 300,000 casualties. It gave a vivid picture of what it was

like to spend a night in the trenches with the corpses of your comrades, and for the first

time outlined the rising tide of desertions and executions. The Viet Nam war was the first

time in history that the general public got a glimpse of war as the soldier sees it, not

as the public relations arm of the military would portray it. Cooke saw this as an epochal

change. He might have quoted the poet William Cowper: ". . . war's a game which were their

subjects wise Kings would not play at." He did quote General Sherman: "War is hell."

Someday, I trust, a generation will look back on these times and wonder at our moral

standards. The voices of moral rectitude have been loud in condemnation of nudity, but

strangely muted in regard to violence, with a presidential candidate borrowing the aura of

Clint Eastwood in order to appeal to the popular will. Granted that sexual

irresponsibility is a major problem, it is still arguable that shooting people is at least

as objectionable as taking off one's clothes. When Mrs. Brady saw what a bullet had done

to her husband's body, it took a great deal of the romance out of firearms.

Only as we face such realities squarely can we make Memorial Day worthwhile. If our view

of those we remember is of white knights sallying forth on white chargers, then we are not

remembering real people. If our view of the wars they fought is the romanticized one of

popular legend, then we have no idea of what they experienced. We are talking about people

who for the most part were reluctant to be where they were, and who had every right to be

so. No one in his right mind looks for the fear and the tedium and the pain that are

characteristic of war. If we would make Memorial Day a day of memory, we might begin by

thinking of the most warlike days we have had.

Divine Providence 251 says this in brief compass, and takes it a step further:

It is not of divine providence that wars take place, because they are inseparable from

acts of murder, looting, cruelty, and other monstrous evils which are diametrically

opposed to Christian charity. Still, they have to be permitted because our life's love . .

. has become of such a nature that it wants to rule over others, ultimately over everyone,

and to possess the wealth of the world--eventually to possess everyone. . . . unless these

evils were allowed to break out, we would not see them. This would mean that we would not

admit their existence, and could not be brought to resist them. This is why they cannot be

prevented by any acts of providence, for if they were, they would stay shut in, and like

the diseases we call cancer and gangrene, would devour everything alive and human.

This section goes on to talk about the many wars in Scripture as symbolic of our inner

evils, and then adds,

The same things are portrayed by the wars of our own times, wherever they occur. In fact,

everything that happens in the natural world corresponds to spiritual events in the

spiritual world, and all spiritual events involve the church.

The implications of this are extensive. What it is saying is that the ugliness of war is

not just something out there, in Bosnia, say, but something in here as well. War is a

picture of our own need to be in control. We would dearly like to justify that need, to

paint it in the noble colors of responsibility and competence and self esteem. We welcome

the romanticized portrayals of war because we want to see our own ego-bolstering efforts

as heroic.

Make no mistake--there is a lot of good news about us. I suspect we spend a good deal of

our time in relative self-forgetfulness, doing things that are basically worthwhile.

These are useful times, times of consolidation, so to speak, but they are not times of

change. The times of change come when we face something in us that needs changing,

recognize its character, and "as if of ourselves" resist it. It is at such times that we

may be tempted to rationalize, to put the mask of honor on the face of selfishness.

There is a brief statement in Arcana Coelestia (¶ 1690) that puts our need in extreme

form. It is primarily a statement about the Lord's glorification, but it winds up with a

rather staggering assumption. It says,

. . . the Lord's whole life in the world, from earliest childhood, was a constant

temptation-trial and a constant victory, the last being when he prayed for his enemies on

the cross, praying therefore for all people in all corners of the globe . . . .

It assumes that "all people in all corners of the globe" are in some respect at least the

Lord's enemies, and I would take it as an urgent reminder to take very seriously indeed

the principle that there is something in me and in everyone I meet which bears that


This may bring us, finally, to our text. It is set in Egypt, at the moment of deliverance.

"And Moses said to the people, `Remember this day, on which you came out from Egypt, out

of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this

place." As we search for the perfect target for our gratitude on Memorial Day, we are

pressed toward the realization that any virtue we claim as our own is tainted by that

claim. What we are looking for are evidences that the Lord is at work in human lives; and

as soon as we start looking, the evidence is all around us.

It has been suggested that if we want stories of heroism, we should simply read the

obituary columns, so I chose one at random. There was a Marshfield priest with an interest

in the education of inner-city children. There was a woman whom the British honored for

her work in shipping food parcels overseas during World War II. There was a psychologist

and minister with a lively interest in music and years of campus ministry. There were a

gold club manager, a woman who founded an Italian American Citizens Auxiliary, the owner

of a Boston company, a veteran and longtime firefighter captain, a veteran and machinist,

two homemakers, a librarian, a film director, and a brush maker. The firefighter might

have had his name in the news fairly often because a fire is the kind of disaster that

makes the news. A few of the others might have had a mention or two, but for the most part

these are not "news worthy"] individuals. In all probability, though, they represent the

majority of people in our region, people who have led good, constructive lives.

Again, we must not romanticize. These were human beings with their virtues and their

flaws, and obituaries do not normally mention the flaws. What we can at least glimpse,

though, is the amount of good that is done every day by ordinary people. What we are told

by our theology is that this is the Lord's doing, and this is the most important lesson

life has to teach us. Remember this day, Israel was told, not because of Moses' leadership

or the people's obedience, but because of the Lord's act of deliverance. By the same

token, remember the veteran not as the hero of the silver screen but as one treasured and

guided and gifted by our creator.

We may well use Memorial Day to pray that wars will cease, that our children or our

children's children will not face what past generations have faced. The message in our

theology is very clear, that wars will cease only when they are unnecessary. There will

not be a war that ends wars. As long as we refuse to face our own "love of dominion," our

own need to be in control, it will remain pent up until it explodes in open violence.

Robert MacAfee Brown once advised Sunday School teachers not to break up fights in their

classes. After all, he said, if they don't learn how to fight in Sunday School, how are

they going to know how to fight in church when they grow up?

We may wince, but it is a wince of recognition. If there is to be an answer to Lincoln's

prayer "that these dead shall not have died in vain," we must start right where we are.

Our prayers to this end are hollow unless we do. War is hell, whether in the Balkans or in

our hearts. It involves "monstrous evils which are diametrically opposed to Christian

charity." We remember those who have served with gratitude and with grief, grateful for

the gifts that the trials of war called forth, and repentant for our own participation in

the denial that is the seed bed of open violence.


contact phil at for any problems or comments