Isaiah 2:2-4, Matthew 26:47-52
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 27, 2018
I grew up in Norfolk, VA, just a few blocks from the giant naval base there. In 1955, early in the first week of first grade, we were marched to the auditorium and we were told we were going to see a film. It turned out the film was on the atomic bomb, and how destructive it could be. We were shown Hiroshima and Nagasaki as evidence, and we were told all the gruesome details of what radiation could do to us. Then, after the film, we were shown how to get under our desks with our hands clasped behind our necks in case of a nuclear bomb being dropped on Norfolk. Several times a year, throughout elementary school, we would have “disaster drills” and get under our desks. I always took them seriously– all of us did– after seeing that horrifying film. And the truth of the matter was that if the Russians bombed the US, Norfolk would have been a first target. It was only later in life that I had to laugh about how ludicrous it was to get under our desks with our hands behind our necks, in order to survive a nuclear explosion.
Growing up in Norfolk, I always had great respect for the sailors and their families who put themselves in harm’s way, but I also hoped that we could do something so that my friends did not have to go through the loss of their dads in war (in those days, it was almost all men in the Navy). This is still my hope.
Memorial Day was begun to honor those who died on both sides of the Civil War, and we continue to have this special day as a time to honor the ones who have died in the Armed Forces of our country. Even though there has been no world-wide war for almost 75 years, our country has been involved in conflicts around the world for most of those 75 years. And men and women are still putting themselves in harm’s way, and far too many never come home.
I remember close friends who served in Vietnam, some who did not some home, some whose names are on that long black wall. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, people have been leaving notes and mementos ever since it opened. I’d like to share 3 notes left at the Wall. On this Memorial Day weekend, they say more than I can in my own words.
Today, I come to this memorial, this black wall. I come to put flowers and a letter, not because it’s a special day, like your birthday or Memorial Day. But just because it’s Tuesday, and just because I love and miss you so and want the whole world to know.
The other day I saw a picture of Elvis Presley on a poster in a music store window. Under his picture it read, “Remember I lived, forget I died.” I stood looking at this for a long time, wondering how you could possibly forget that someone you loved so much had died.
Yes, I remember that you lived. I remember our laughter together and our tears when your rabbits died and especially when your grandparents died. I remember when you would get mad at me because you had to do the dishes or carry out the trash or be in bed a certain time on school nights.
But I can’t forget that you died. I will never forget the day I heard of your death. I will never forget the long days of waiting for your body to be returned from Vietnam. I will never forget the millions of tears I have shed. And I can’t forget the terrible hurt because you are not with me and never will be again.
I have cried many, many tears since you left us because I saw no reason for you to die then and I see no reason now.
But this I do know, you are happier with God in heaven than you could ever be on earth. So forgive me, my son, my Billy, when I cry because most of my tears are for me, I guess, because you are not with me and I miss you so.
For some of those who came back from Vietnam, or from any war, life was never the same again.
I didn’t want a monument,
not even one as sober as that
vast black wall of broken lives.
I didn’t want a postage stamp.
I didn’t want a road beside
the Delaware River with a sign proclaiming:
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.
What I wanted was a simple recognition
of the limits of our power as a nation
to inflict our will on others.
What I wanted was an understanding
that the world is neither black-and-white
What I wanted
was an end to monuments.
And for some that came back, life seemed to have no more meaning.
Whenever you start losing a grip,
Remember them guys
Remember those promises,
Even if that’s the only thing you stay alive for…
You promised …
You might be the only thing they died for.
It is easy to understand why so many who came back have become peacemakers, have decided to dedicate their lives– in memory of those who did not come back- to peacemaking in any way possible. Yet peacemakers are not those who avoid necessary conflict, cry peace when there is no peace, settle for harmony without resolution, keep all things the way they are so as not to rock the boat, or who hide from their own losses in order to feel good. Peacemakers sometimes wind up in the middle of conflict where there is injustice or strife. And sometimes peacemakers must take steps to provide security for themselves and their communities, especially in a world of injustice and greed.
However, if our concern for our own security becomes ultimate for us, becomes extreme, then it can become destructively counter-productive.
Peacemakers are also risk-takers. The biggest risk we take may be to look at the world differently.
Martin Luther King once said that, if we continue with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, one day we will all end up blind and toothless. If we only use force and violence to stop force and violence, we risk falling into the trap force and violence sets for us, for then we become part of the problem, not part of the answer.
On this Memorial Day weekend, it is a time to remember and honor those women and men who gave their life for their country– for us. But, in memory of them, may we do all that we can, in our own way, to overcome the will to make war with the will to make peace. May we eventually come to the point where our Memorial Day memories are full of people who died generations ago, because we have all somehow learned to stop creating memories of war, memories of violence, memories of armed struggle.
May we all do what we can, in our own way, to begin to create a response to people that reduces the desire to fight. If we truly believe that what compassion can do to violence is more powerful in the end than what violence can do to compassion, and dare to hold onto that belief, then there is a possibility that healing and wholeness will win out over violence and destruction.
We must all pray for peace, real peace, but to be other than mere idealists, we must also act for peace in our world and in our relationships with those around us.
Let us pray for a time where swords will be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they need to learn war anymore.