Today we gather to honor those service men and women who were inspired by the example of our American predecessors; who have been encouraged to sacrifice on behalf of their fellow citizens in order to preserve and promote that most precious American gift: Freedom.
Many things have been written and documented about these American heroes. One dedicated historian, Sian Price, spent three years traveling the world searching through museums, libraries and military archives to locate, compile and record the last letters home from soldiers who never made it back; letters that are testimonials to the vitality of their lives and therefore the profundity of their sacrifice.
Like the cheerful, breezy letter from Robert Mitchell, a Columbia law student, to his friend Winifred, October 6, 1918, from somewhere in France a week before he died; from Ross McCollum, November 1944, who was shot down over the North Atlantic, to his brother Bud; from Jack Emery to Audrey to whom he had just proposed, July 6, 1944, sending all his love and his hopes that she had received the ring and proposal letter; from Dean Allen, killed in Vietnam, July 10, 1969, to his new wife.
The letter I found most heart wrenching was written from PFC Jesse Givens, from Springfield, Missouri, who was killed in Iraq, in May 2003. His farewell letter to his wife Melissa arrived three weeks after his death and just a few days after the birth of the son he would never meet.
On paper stained with muddy water, he wrote, “I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and, well, if you’re reading this . . .
“I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. You will never know how complete you made me.
“Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your mom’s belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on the way. I dream of you every night, and I always will. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love” (If You’re Reading This – Last Letters from the Front Line, Frontline Books, 2011).
Throughout the generations of this great nation, these brave men and women have been fighting – not for abstract ideals of freedom and justice – but rather as an expression of their deep love and gratitude for all that this country represents; out of an abiding experience of what it means to be free and a deep, visceral, compelling desire to preserve it at all cost for all people.
This past Tuesday, we celebrated one of our greatest gifts as American citizens: we exercised our right to vote in a free and fair national election.
Diane and I cast our ballots at the Fenner Town Hall Building. We filled in the little dots beside our choices with a Sharpie, were thanked by the election volunteer for voting and then left. The whole process took about five minutes. Quick and easy. Perhaps too quick and easy. However, as we walked back to our car, I noticed a pickup truck in the parking lot with a bumper sticker that reminded us: “Freedom isn’t free.”
Freedom comes with a price. And it also comes with responsibilities and consequences.
I came in early the day after the election – Wednesday morning – to get ready for the men’s breakfast, and was greeted by Tom Leone with the question, “Who won?”
I informed Tom that, “Donald J. Trump is going to be our next president.”
With kind of stunned look on his face, Tom replied, “What’s going to happen to us now?”
And I said, “Tom, we are going to keep right on living our lives; we’re going to carry on as a nation. We’re going to work together to preserve the freedoms we enjoy, freedoms that were bought at such a high cost, and promote the high ideals that America stands for.”
We are fundamentally the same country that we were last Monday. America is still the greatest country the world has ever known. And the people of this country still represent the loftiest ideals and the deepest wellspring of compassion of any people in the world.
And as we gather here, in this beautiful place on this glorious autumn Sabbath morning – gathered to rejoice in the freedom of expressing our faith the way we chose to do so without fear of reprisal, persecution or oppression – we, too, should be profoundly grateful for being given the opportunity to worship with a sense of joy and hope; reminding ourselves that such “Freedom isn’t free.” It has come with an immeasurable cost.
As Americans, we need to honor the price that was so dearly paid.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
That was part of Jesus’ last address to his disciples, as he prepare them, and himself, for the sacrifice he was about to make on their – and on our – behalf.
Those words were documented by the Apostle John so that they might be forever remembered. We gather in this time and place so that we might honor their memory; that they never be forgotten. And that we, as the body of Christ in the world today, might carry the truth of that message of love and the significance of those words to all people in all places.
This past Tuesday millions of Americans put `pen to paper,’ as it were, and sent a message to Washington – and to the entire nation – by voting for the candidate of their choice. In the days that have followed tens of thousands more Americans have made their own voice heard through peaceful demonstrations throughout this land.
Our ability both to vote and to protest that vote has been afforded us only through the great sacrifices made by so many men and women who have bravely fought to preserve those rights throughout the generations. Today, we honor that service, and those sacrifices, by respecting the process of American democracy; regardless of who you voted for or who now holds office. Because, while far from perfect, democracy still, I believe, represents the “last, best hope of earth,” as Abraham Lincoln said.
One month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln sent a long letter to Congress; they were some of the most inspiring words Lincoln ever wrote – indeed, which gave rise to composer Aaron Copeland’s evocative symphony, “Lincoln Portrait.” Listen to what Abraham Lincoln wrote in those challenging days of great national unrest:
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.” (December 1, 1862)
We have been through fiery trials before, in this country. In the 1860s; in the 1960s; in the 1760s. And our nation has stood the test. It stood the test because good men and women stood forward to fight the good fight, to make the necessary sacrifices, and lead the way to a new era of national conscience and prosperity.
We are called this day to follow their courageous example. For, while Election Day has come and gone, our civic responsibility to stand up for what we believe in this country has not come to an end. Indeed, it is just beginning. And while political candidates run for themselves and their constituencies to get voted into office, once they are elected, they now work for us. Because ours is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” And that truth will endure, regardless of who holds office at any given time.
Now that we as a nation have chosen a new president, he is going to have a steep learning curve, just as every new president has had before him. It’s up to us to monitor our elected officials, to let them know – by the varied avenues afforded us – what we expect of them; how we expect them to comport themselves in office; the values and ideals we expect them to uphold and embody: freedom and equality, truth and justice, civility and compassion. And to hold them fast to the uniquely American ideals which allows each and every citizen in this country of ours to live peacefully and in the individual pursuit of happiness.
Many things were written by many people in the days that follow 9/11. I think the one that struck me the most was – essentially – a love letter written by an anonymous American to this country they called home. I’d like to end with that letter and dedicate it to the prospect of enduring peace for all of us who live in this great nation:
“Let us deploy our troops. Let our diplomats seek broad international agreement. Let our soldiers advance first, to clear the field of violence. Then let us unleash our most powerful weapons!
Let us lay down roads where none have ever been. Let us dig wells of clean water where people can safely drink. Let our armies build hospitals and schools. Let our warriors teach hygiene and mathematics. Let our doctors inoculate against disease, and our soldiers battle malnutrition. Let us scour the Earth clean of terrorism through the merciless application of knowledge, compassion, hope, and tolerance.
Terrorism is the weapon of the desperate and hopeless, the brutally blinded, and the deliberately blind. And we can defeat terrorism. We, America, have the power to do so if we are not ourselves blinded by vengeance, anger, and fear: we hold the light of Liberty.
So let us unleash our weapons of mass construction, even as we deploy our gunships and missiles to defend our endeavors. Let us carry the battle into the tent-cities of the Palestinians and the arid crags of Afghanistan, the doctor and the engineer shoulder to shoulder with the U.N. peacekeeper and the U.S. soldier. Let us hurl homes at the homeless, unleash law upon the lawlessness, and let justice roll down like a mighty river and wash away the unjust.
We have an opportunity, now laid so grievously before us, to start and win a war with our most powerful and uniquely American weapons: love, opportunity, education, and hope. England and Israel teach us that the battle against terrorism takes decades. Let the next generation all over the world say to the terrorist recruiters, `Why would we want to harm America, who inoculates our children, houses our poor, champions justice, and feeds our hungry?’ Only then shall we have defeated terrorism. So let us arm our soldiers and mourn our dead, and take up both the pen as well as the gun.
Let us fix a steel-eyed gaze on the true costs and the real efforts involved, let us gird ourselves against our inevitable losses and unavoidable setbacks. Let us join with all people in all nations who worship in truth and love, and let us set forth on this, the true, final World War.
Let us incessantly, relentlessly, wage Peace.”