John 15:12-13; Romans 8:14
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 28, 2017
Memorial Day Weekend
Sebastian Junger wrote a book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In it, he writes the following:
Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.
It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.
We live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about -depending on their views the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in war-time, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens. Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits.
It seems that right now our society appears intent on tearing itself apart. There is more than enough contempt to go around, even more so than when Junger’s book came out. He goes on to say:
So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different – you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us?”
Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money, and status.
In the midst of all those things that are tearing us apart, there are far more important things that bring us together. Sometimes all we need is a reminder that we are able to make a difference in the lives of those around us, a reminder that, as Paul wrote in Romans, that “all are children of God.”
The news is dominated by stories of the things that divide us, that show our contempt for each other. Yet, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is the “rest of the story.” Sometimes we can come together with others in surprising ways. In the book, Love What Matters, there is a story that illustrates how we can come together, written by Kelly McGuire:
I went to the Chicago Bears game today. We spent $32 total on the train fares, $200 for our tickets, $7 for a hot dog, and $41 at Giordano’s Italian restaurant after the game. We paid that much money to spend a fun day in the city even though it was cold. I feel guilty. We have much more than what we need, and we don’t even have half of what most people have.
The high today was 30 degrees, so naturally I layered up in a lot of clothing. I wore Under Armour pants and an Under Armour longsleeve shirt along with two additional pairs of pants, four shirts, two sweatshirts, three pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, a coat, a hat, a scarf, and my favorite new pair of winter boots.
While we were inside Giordano’s, I was very warm, so I took off everything except my pants, socks, boots, Under Armour shirt, and hat. I tossed it all into a bag, and when we left, I put on my coat and carried that bag.
We had a short walk to the train station. As we were walking across the street, I noticed a homeless woman crouched down trying to stay warm. The “Walk” light appeared, and Sean, two of our friends, and I hurried across the street to make sure we made it to the train on time so that we wouldn’t have to wait for the next one.
I got across the street and felt like I was going to throw up. I had passed countless homeless people all day, but for some reason, I was so drawn to this woman. I told my friends to please wait for just a moment, and I tried to get back across the street quickly to talk with this mystery woman.
As I approached her, I saw that her cardboard sign read, “I am in need of winter boots and winter clothing items.” Immediately, I knew that this was providential timing and that I was supposed to give her the winter boots straight off of my feet.
I felt a little bit crazy because I was just planning on walking back to the train in just my socks.
I asked her what size she wore, and she said eight and a half. Same as me. I asked her what size shirt she wore, and she said medium. Same as me.
I had everything in that bag that she needed: shirts, sweatshirts, gloves, scarves, and so on.
The boots she was wearing were worn and wet. Mine were warm and waterproof.
I handed her the bag of clothing and winter items I had taken off at Giordano’s, and also my leftover pizza, and told her that I would like to give her my boots.
She stood up and cried. I sat down with her, untied my boots, and slid off the top layer of my fuzzy, warm socks and handed them to her. She said they were the nicest shoes she’d ever had.
We exchanged names and a few other words. We looked about the same age. We talked a lot. Not through words as much as just by looking at each other. She looked worn and tired when our eyes first met, but by the time I left, I could sense the warmth of her personality and the thankfulness in her heart.
I started to walk away, and she said, “I don’t want your feet to be cold. Can I give you my ‘old’ boots?”
She, who had nothing, offered me these boots. Her boots. I wore them all the way home.
Her name was Amy, and I just cannot stop thinking about her.
If you have the urge to do something kind for someone, I want to encourage you to do it.
This is what those, who were willing to die, fought for – a country, a society where we can take care of each other, a country, a society where we can live life, and one that we can be proud to be a part of.
There are those that we remember this weekend who were not only willing to die for us to have such a society, such a country, but they did die. As we look back on our lives, we must be aware of the sacrifices that have been made for us to live. There are men and women who have given their lives for us.
In between the cookouts, the parades, the family get-togethers, the time at the lake, may we also pause this weekend to remember the sacrifices that have been made that we might have life.
Our scripture from John says that there is no greater love that can be shown beyond someone who gives their life for another. Those we remember this Memorial Day have sacrificed their own lives for us. On this weekend, we honor and remember them. But we must also remember in a different way.
- H. Auden, after World War II, wrote two lines which he called “Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier”:
“To save your world, you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?”
As we remember their sacrifices, let us all ask ourselves, if they were to look at the world we have created – our nation, our society, our world – would they feel that their sacrifice was worth it? Would they feel that their sacrifice has allowed us to make a difference?
They have given us freedom and the opportunity to create a better world, to create a more loving, more caring society, a nation that reaches out to those in need, that tries to create a better world for all people.
As we remember their sacrifice, we must renew our vision, reinforce our hopes and dreams, and restore our creativity.
We live in a unique community. The people of Canandaigua, because of the presence of our VA Medical Center, are much more attuned to the needs of veterans than many communities are.
We are a part of an extraordinary and compassionate church family. Yet, we must all do what we can to find new and creative ways to help the veterans who live in this community, who came here and made a home here because of the presence of this hospital. And we must do what we can to keep the pressure on our government and our lawmakers to never forget those who came back.
May those who came back here find a community that cares, a place that enables them to live – not just on Memorial Day, but every day. Whether it is warm clothing on a cold day for a homeless woman, or helping Blue Star Mothers to care for veterans today, or some unique act of caring that we offer, may we show the love of God, the love for each person we meet in creative and visionary ways.