May 26, 2013

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


John 15:9-13

There was a little girl whose brother was in the hospital.  He was going to have surgery.  He was going to be fine, but he needed some blood.  His sister had the same blood type so she was asked if she would give her blood for her brother.

It took a few moments for her to decide, but then she gave a clear and confident answer.  “Yes, I’ll do it.”  As her blood was being drawn, she looked up at the nurse and asked, “When do I die?”  Because, you see, she thought giving blood for her brother meant she would die so he could live.

“Greater love has no man than this,” said Jesus.  “That he lay down his life for his friends.”

Tomorrow is Memorial Day.  It’s sometimes called Decoration Day.  It’s a day for decorating the graves of loved ones with flowers.  Originally it was called Reconciliation Day.

It began in 1866, the year after the end of the Civil War.  It began with fourMississippiwomen.  They went to a cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers, their friends and their relatives.  But there was a separate section in this cemetery where 40 Union soldiers were buried.  These same four women went there, to the graves of those who were not only strangers but were the enemy, and they honored them by placing flowers on their graves as well.  That’s why this day was first called Reconciliation Day.

Over a million Americans have now died in war, nearly half of that total in the Civil War.  It was brought to my attention that each year in the middle of May we have a National Police Week.  This is a time to remember those who have died in the sometimes war-like conditions on our streets.  Police officers right here inNampaare putting their lives on the line for us every day.  Memorial Day has, of course, been generalized into a time to remember all our loved ones who have died, but I would like us this morning to think especially about those who gave their lives as a sacrifice.  Those who “laid down their lives” for us.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln was informed that there was a Mrs. Bixby inMassachusettswho had lost five sons in battle.  As it turned out, this was in error.  Two of her sons had died, not five.  Abraham Lincoln wrote her a personal letter.  It’s a classic in the use of the English language as well in the expression of human sympathy.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.  I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

So costly a sacrifice.  It’s the ultimate sacrifice.  To give your life for the benefit of others.

I remember as a child being thrilled by the story of Nathan Hale.  He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  General Washington asked for a volunteer for a dangerous mission to spy on the British.  Nathan Hale stepped forward.  He was captured.  The next day he was hanged.  September 22, 1776.  Nathan Hale was 21 years old.  The British asked if he had anything to say before he died.  He said this:  “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

As a child fascinated by American history, I thought this was great.  As an adult, fully aware of the tragedy of a life ending so young and of the grieving family left behind, I no longer think this was so great.  But I am still deeply moved and profoundly grateful for so costly a sacrifice.

Curtis Wilhite last week in worship expressed appreciation to those often referred to as “The Greatest Generation”.  He was talking about my dad, who risked his life in World War II but who was one of the lucky ones who came back home.  He was talking about those who supported the war effort here at home and who also endured great personal sacrifice.  And he was talking about those who served overseas but who didn’t come back.

They died in many places and in many circumstances, but the image I carry in my mind is D-Day on the beaches ofNormandy.  It hardly looked like a great victory at first.   It looked like a humiliating defeat.  The men in the first wave to hit that beach were mowed down by the Nazis.  They didn’t have a chance.  Very few survived.  Hardly any.  But without them giving up their lives, those who followed them in the second and the third and the fourth waves wouldn’t have had a chance either.  As it turned out there wasn’t ammunition enough for them all.  So some died, many died, that others might live.  The sacrifice of their lives, as it turned out, was the turning point of that terrible war.

“Living History Day” is a tradition that began inMilwaukieHigh School, nearPortland, in 1996.  It has now spread to a number of other high schools.  Veterans visit these schools on that day and share their stories.  One of the students, Ashley Keller, was quoted in the newspaper.  She said, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them and the freedom they upheld for us.”

We’re very grateful for those who came back from those wars. We’re grateful for those who are able to participate in a “Living History Day.”  But we’re especially grateful for those who didn’t come back.  For those who gave their lives for their country, which meant they gave their lives for us.

Now I don’t mean to glorify war.  War is not something to celebrate.  We celebrate the ending of wars, not the fighting of wars.  We celebrate peace.  We simply have to find a way of settling our disputes short of killing each other and it’s shameful that in the 21st century we still haven’t.  But Memorial Day has its origins in a recognition that those who gave their lives in war deserve to be remembered.  They deserve to be honored.  Their sacrifice was for us.  The least we can do is be grateful.

Our nation was deeply divided about the recent war inIraq.  Some students were holding a protest of that war.  One was holding a sign that said: “Oil is not worth dying for.”  Someone stopped to engage this student in conversation.  He said, “You’ve told me what isn’t worth dying for.  But what is worth dying for?”  The student said, “There isn’t anything worth dying for.”  The passerby said, “That’s too bad.  Because that means that someday we are all going to die for nothing.”

Some things are worth dying for.  The little girl who gave blood for her brother had decided that he was.  What would it take for you to lay down your life?  Or another way of asking that same question:  For what purpose are you living your life?  Whether our lives are long or short, they are finite.  What are you giving your life for?  Is it for a purpose higher and greater than yourself?

On Memorial Day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  But this is also a good day to honor those who didn’t die, but who barely lived.  In many cases it’s a miracle they lived with the injuries they sustained.  In some cases the injuries were so horrific, their sacrifice in living may be greater than their sacrifice would have been in dying.  We have a lot of “wounded warriors” who we often don’t honor enough.  One of these wounded warriors in this church is Richard Pimentel.  He still suffers the effects of agent orange inVietnam.  We are honored that Richard is prominent on the Wounded Warrior Project speaker list.  He gave a speech for them in early April and has another one coming up in early June.

And as we honor wounded warriors, we honor also those who love them and care for them and help them find hope in their new life circumstances.  I want to share with you a love story.  But rather than tell it to you, I want to show it to you.  They say a picture is worth 1,000 words.  Here are 56 pictures, so I guess this amounts to about 56,000 words.  I’m just going to be quiet for as long as it takes to scroll through these pictures.  They will tell their own story.

(The pictures illustrate a young couple before and after a war           injury renders the man a quadriplegic.  A condensed version        can be found on youtube: “A Love Story in 22 Pictures”.)

On this Memorial Day, let’s not just remember those who died.  Let’s remember those who lived.  Their battle scars may be visible and obvious.  They may be hidden and the one bearing them may be trying very hard to keep them hidden.  But they all paid a price.  A big price.  Let’s not forget them.

I remember years ago the red poppies that were for sale this time of year.  My parents always bought several.  As I recall, they were made by disabled veterans and the money raised selling them went to benefit disabled veterans.  Maybe that’s still done, I don’t know, but I haven’t seen them in a long time.

I was curious about the connection between red poppies and Memorial Day, so I did a little research.  The red poppy was a symbol of World War I.  Part of the history of that war that was called “the war to end all wars” was this poem by Captain John McCrae.  It’s about the cemetery atFlandersfield.  It’s told from the perspective of one who gave his life in that war and who is now buried beneath the poppies.

In Flandersfield the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flandersfield.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from falling hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flandersfield.


The last verified veteran of World War I died two years ago.  But there were many World War I veterans who were part of this church over the years.  I think today about all those who died in that war or in other wars who considered this their church home.  They “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved” and died far too soon, because they believed something was worth dying for.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus is the ultimate example of one who gave his life for others.  The cross is the ultimate symbol of such love and such sacrifice.  Nothing is more valuable than life, and yet Jesus teaches us that no one’s individual life is so valuable that it is to be held onto at all costs.  Even the life of Jesus was a life that found its highest meaning in the giving of that life for others.  And today we remember and honor those who, perhaps inspired by the example of Jesus, gave their lives for us.

Many things can be traced back to the Civil War.  Including Memorial Day.  Including the simple, haunting melody that is heard each day at our national cemeteries.

It began in 1862.  Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing inVirginia.  The Confederate Army was on the other side on a narrow strip of land.  During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moan of a wounded soldier.  He had no way of knowing if it was aUnionor a Confederate soldier.  He decided to risk his life to go to this man and bring him back for medical attention.  He crawled on his stomach, gunfire erupted, but he succeeded in bringing this soldier back across the Union line.

It was immediately apparent that it was a Confederate soldier and that there was no helping him.  He died in Captain Ellicombe’s arms.  It wasn’t until he lit a lantern and looked into the face of the dead soldier that he recognized his own son.  His boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out.  Without telling his father, he had enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning the heartbroken father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial even though his son was the enemy.  The answer came back that it would not be appropriate for the Army band to play for a Confederate soldier, but that out of respect for the father, he could have one musician.

Captain Ellicombe chose a bugler and asked him to play the notes that were written on a piece of paper in his son’s pocket.  It was a melody we know today as “Taps” to which the following words are now attached:

Day is done,

Gone the sun,

From the lakes,

From the hills,

From the sky,

All is well,

Safely rest,

God is nigh.


(Taps is played.)

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  So we remember and we honor all those who have sacrificed their lives on our behalf.  And we ask ourselves:  For what cause would I die?  For what cause will I live?

Thank you, God, for those whose sacrifice makes possible the blessings we enjoy today.  And help us to see that the purpose of life is not to enrich our individual lives.  The purpose of life is to use our lives, to spend our lives, to give our lives for others.  As did Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.