Memorial Day Service, May 28, 2017
Micah 4:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Luke 6:20-31
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Birka Lutheran Church, Rural Washburn, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our first reading was one of George Washington’s favorite passages, and he quoted it a lot, particularly verse four: ‘they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’ It’s a picture of what God’s kingdom will look like, when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. But it’s also a picture of what Washington dreamed America could be: a peaceful place, where all citizens were prosperous and happy, and never needed to be afraid. This is, at its heart, what we dream America could be like. There has never been a place, anywhere in the history of the world, where this has been true for all the citizens of any nation. There has never been a time in American history when all Americans of every tribe and race were prosperous and happy all together, but it is what we hope for, it is what we work towards. It is, in a very real sense, what we send our soldiers out to fight and die to protect and try to establish: a world where all people are prosperous and happy.
I don’t know if that is possible in this broken, sinful world. Human beings are flawed creatures who seem bound and determined to keep finding new ways to screw things up. We also find new ways to fix things and make things better, but too often it’s one step forward, two steps back. I don’t know if it will be possible to achieve that before Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead. Whether or not we humans can achieve the good and godly society the prophet Micah dreamed of, we know that God can. Whether we succeed or fail, we know that Christ will return one day and establish his kingdom. In that kingdom, we shall beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more. It won’t be necessary. God will arbitrate between peoples; we shall all be fairly judged, and all people will truly learn to walk in God’s footsteps. There will be no evil, no pain, no hatred, no fear, no jealousy, no grief, no pride, no boasting, nothing that could possibly lead to violence. Nothing that could require good men and women to lay down their lives.
I am very grateful, as I know you all are, for the many courageous men and women who have done just that, and are still doing that today. I am grateful that for all the veterans who have defended this country and protected us from evil, but I am especially grateful to those who have given the last full measure of devotion. I am grateful for their sacrifices, and for those of their family and loved ones. And I pray, vehemently, for that day when it will no longer be necessary. When nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, with no need to fear.
Washington was a soldier; he had seen the cost of war. He knew, as any veteran does, just how important it is to know what you’re fighting for and what you hope to accomplish. If you don’t know what you’re fighting for, you can’t possibly choose the right tactics to accomplish it, and in the end you achieve nothing but death and destruction. We’ve seen that in America’s wars. Sometimes, there has been a truly good cause worth fighting and dying for, something that could only be achieved through violence, something worth the sacrifices demanded. Other times, we have fought because of pride or fear or political advantage, and what was gained was never worth the lives it cost. We have a responsibility, as citizens of this great nation, to ensure that our leaders keep their eyes on the goal that Washington and our other Founding Fathers set. We have a responsibility to ensure that when our leaders send our men and women off to war, they do so only when it is absolutely necessary, when the cause is worth their lives and their blood. We have a responsibility to make sure that their lives and their sacrifices are not wasted. We have a responsibility to make sure that when our people are sent into harm’s way, it is to build up a world where justice and freedom reign for all people.
Freedom. That’s an important word for us as Americans, but what does freedom mean for a Christian? Is freedom the same for us as it is for other people? All too often, when people talk about “freedom” they mean a very selfish thing. They mean that nobody can make them do anything they don’t want to do, and if they want to be a jerk to others, or stand by as their neighbors suffer, they can do so. This is not what the freedom of a Christian is, at its heart. The freedom of a Christian is not about politics, or legalities. The freedom of a Christian is not about political systems. The freedom of a Christian is a spiritual gift from God, and it comes with responsibilities.
The world does not want anyone to be free, and it comes with traps to break us and chain us and keep us from God. These chains look different for everybody, and they come even for those of us who are lucky enough to have political freedom. They can look like power, or self-righteousness; they can look like fear, or jealousy; they can look like ambition that drives us to cause harm in the name of advancement or sloth that convinces us there’s no point to even trying. They can look like a hate that drives us on to attack people we think are our enemies, or a love that causes us to excuse and cover up the harm our loved-ones do. These chains can even take the form of Christianity, driving us to make noise about the outer forms and ignore the heart of God’s Word. In all cases, these chains harm us and those around us. These chains break us and twist us and the world around us, and sometimes, we can’t even see them for what they are. That’s what sin is: a chain that binds us and twists us.
The freedom of a Christian is that God has broken those chains. Jesus Christ died for our sins, and taught us to love one another in word and deed. We are redeemed through his sacrifice for us. And even though the chains of sin are still at work in us and around us, God sends the Holy Spirit into our lives to inspire us, to fill us with God’s fire and keep us free from all the evils that want to entangle us. The freedom of a Christian starts with this: we don’t have to drag around the dead weight of sin in our lives any more. We don’t have to let the world’s chains drag us down. We don’t have to live in fear; instead, we can focus on the work God is calling us to do. The freedom of a Christian is not the freedom to be idle, or the freedom to focus on our own little corner of the world and ignore the suffering and evil around us. The freedom of a Christian is the freedom to act.
Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, said it this way: “A Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is the perfectly bound servant of all, subject to all.” In other words, we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our chains are broken, and we don’t have to work to earn our way into heaven or anything like that. We are saved, and we are free from the chains of sin and evil, we are the children of God, and no one can force us to do anything or constrain our consciences. But being a child of God comes with responsibilities. We don’t need to earn our salvation—that is a free gift from God. But we do need to act like it. Because we have been saved, because we are free, that means we are free to act. We are free to do God’s work in the world. We are free to work for justice and peace even when the world would rather have fear and oppression and senseless violence.
That work can look like a lot of things. It can look like volunteering and donating to the local food pantry. It can mean standing up against bullies. It can mean loving people that the world tells us should be our enemies. It can mean serving in the military. It can mean honoring our veterans, not just on Memorial Day and Veterans Day but by being there for them throughout the year and working to make sure that all veterans and their families receive the support they need. It can mean holding our leaders accountable so that none of our servicemen and women are sent into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary for the safety of America.
I am so thankful for the political freedoms which our brave men and women have died to give us, and I am thankful for the spiritual freedom Christ brings. I pray for the day when no more of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers need to to go into harms way and perhaps die. I pray for the day that the prophet Micah promised, when the Lord will judge the nations, and there will be peace, and everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees, free from fear.