Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
May 26, 2019
Texts: Proverbs 8:1-33; Luke 7:11-19
Religious buildings seem to be a particular target in war, whether by armies or by terrorists. Those of us with families from the South heard stories about Yankee soldiers dese-crating Southern churches by quartering their horses there––and anyone who has been on a city street with horse patrols knows what horses drop.
Here at Old First we have heard the stories of the re-treating British and how they commandeered the church and made a mess of it. At least those two armies left most build-ings standing; in Iraq, home of the Assyrian Christian Church, established, as the story goes, by Thomas himself, churches have been not only desecrated but totally destroyed by bombings.
Attacks on houses of worship don’t just belong to our modern times; the Christians were relentless in destroying mosques as they marauded through the Holy Land during the Crusades. Why attack churches or other kinds of religious institutions? Churches serve as the identity of a people and thus if the church or mosque or synagogue, for that matter, can be destroyed, thinks the conquering army, so, too, will the identity of the people be destroyed.
It doesn’t seem to work that way, though. Whether the physical building remains standing seems to be irrelevant to a people’s religious identity; and the irony is, of course, that faith seems to be strengthened as people are persecuted and their buildings attacked or destroyed. This is perhaps because the peace inherent in a religious house of worship cannot be destroyed as easily as a building; that faith is from within and the buildings are extraneous to the core of faith. So as often as Yankee soldiers and their horses trampled into southern churches, the core of southern faith grew stronger. That is the case with those who feel attacked.
First a commemoration of the Union dead, Memorial Day expanded to being a commemoration of the dead of all wars. Just as two sides fought in that terrible war, both sides are sometimes buried side by side as they are at Gettysburg and Arlington.
Today, we do not seem to recognize the terrible price paid for the survival of the Union. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, more than in World War II with its loss of 446,000. Civilian casualties for the Civil War, the only one fought on American soil are estimated to be be-tween 200,000 and 250,000, this in a country with a popu-lation of just over 31 million. Little wonder the Nation con-sidered these losses staggering.
In contrast, 6,626 lost their lives in the combination of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not to belittle the value of the service personnel who died in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is, however, a comment on how we as a Nation have changed our perspective on what we consider to be acceptable losses in any war.
So this Memorial Day the President will make his cust-omary and obligatory visit to some memorial, lay a wreath, and mumble something about the price of liberty being eter-nal vigilance. On this Memorial Day, it is rumored that the President will pardon several soldiers and a civilian contractor either convicted or accused of war crimes, including shooting unarmed civilians and prisoners. Is this not an insult to those who fought and died honorably for the Union, for the Nation?
Memorial Day, in addition to honoring those who died that we might live, should also be a time for reflecting on how we can help to build peace. The writer of Proverbs asks, “Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice?” By her power, “rulers decree what is just.” As the voice of wisdom points out, her counsel is worth more than all the gold and silver we can imagine. Walking in the paths of justice and the way of righteousness is what creates peace. And peace is what we owe our honored dead. They did not die so we could fight; they died so we could have peace.
According to the Stockholm Peace Institute military spending is at an all-time high, more than $2.5 trillion in 2018 alone. Although there are still tyrants looking to control territory, most of our conflicts are over trade, terrorism, and technology. The U.S. outspends the next three largest coun-tries combined, including China and Russia.
We live in a world where the real battles are ideolo-gical and religious. Those religious battles capture the hearts and minds––remember that phrase?––of people. And that’s where it is won or lost. Economic and social justice is part and parcel of this issue. Our writer states it so well in this morning’s reading: wisdom rules when decrees are just. We need not only sustainable development but the equitable distribution of resources.
While I agree with some that peace and development go hand in hand, I am not so pollyannish to believe that just and sustainable development will take care of it all. But walking in this way of wisdom will enable us to walk more securely in the way of peace. More difficult is the balancing of development and local custom, especially when it gets mixed up with religious and cultural values.
What do we do when a culture oppresses its women, not permitting them an education? By the way, poverty is more determinative of this than religion. Children are often sold into servitude because families are simply too poor to support them. Take the case of Shazia, who at the age of 12 died after eight months of scrubbing pots, pans, and toilets. Her boss––shall we say master?––is being investigated over her death because her body evidently bore the signs of beatings.
Walking in wisdom in order to achieve peace means that we must, to use a cliché, think out of the box. If we spent one tenth the money figuring out how to achieve peace that we spend on waging war, perhaps much of that money would not have to be spent. This thought doesn’t just belong to fuzzy headed liberals. Listen to a general:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
That was Eisenhower, the general who led the Allied forces to victory in World War II. He understood, more than anyone could know the real cost of war and the value of peace.
Eisenhower also understood the value of crossing boundaries, reaching out to those who were once enemies. Just as Jesus healed all who came to him, including the Samaritan, Eisenhower knew that the best way to secure peace was to help create a new and prosperous Germany
This year on Memorial Day there will be parades, the laying of wreaths at a whole host of memorials, and the usual holiday traffic for people who just want a head start on sum-mer, only thinking about the real meaning of this day when they catch a snippet of the news, then changing the channel to something a bit more cheery. Other than spouting a few lines here and there, most of us shrug off the day.
I’ll be gardening if the weather cooperates but I also will be thinking of my high school classmates, the ones whose names appear on the wall––the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. They went in early as officers because of ROTC programs at their colleges, and several of them did not return. No matter what I think about the stupidity and the politics of that war, I honor their memories. And it is my fer-vent belief that the best way to honor them is to work for a world where justice and righteousness rule.
Let us pray: Guardian of our lives and of those we love, move us beyond a dream of peace into a sustainable peace so that our children and our posterity will be able to live in a world without war. In the name of him who came to show us a path to peace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.