Memorial Day, 2016
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,
As a way of introduction for those of you who do not know me, I am Eric Brown, the Pastor over at Trinity Lutheran Church here in Herscher, and it is an honor to have these few minutes here with you today as we observe Memorial Day. A few brief things to note – I am a pastor and a historian, so you're going to get a history lecture with a bit of theology – I'll try not to be preachy though. Also, although I myself have not served my country in the military, I come from a long line of Marines. My great-grandfather was a Marine in the First World War, which brought about this day of remembrance. My grandfather lied about his age and as a 16 year old was an island hopper in the Pacific in WWII, with many friends who fell, who took bullets instead of him; that's how I'm here today, and why they are solemnly honored. My two uncles served in Vietnam, and I'm sure I needn't bring up how many in our nation have been slow to rightly honor those who fell there.
So while I myself have not served, I grew up in a family, I learned from men who knew that General Sherman was right when he observed that war is hell, that it is a gruesome, nasty business, that no one in their right might would want to see come in their day. This brutal reality of war is something that has weighed heavily on the minds of theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church – from St. Paul in the letter to the Romans, to St. Augustine in “City of God” even on up to theologians this day. How do we understand, how do we reconcile this harsh truth; that so often those who simply wish to quietly love and serve the Prince of Peace, end up being called upon to wage war, and even to make the ultimate sacrifice, that of their very lives.
I would draw your attention to a specific time in history when the thoughts of theologians went again to the question of warfare and the Christian. 1520's were a harsh and brutal time in Europe. Most decades back then were bad, but the 1520's were especially bad. At the time, Europe is being invaded from the southeast by Muslim armies. The Turk was advancing up into Europe. In 1526 Suleiman the Great defeated and killed Louis, the King of Hungary – the invasion was into central Europe. In fact, by 1529, Vienna would be besieged by the Turkish armies.
The defense of Europe ended up falling upon Charles the Fifth – King of Spain and also Holy Roman Emperor – the overarching ruler of what we think of today as Germany, Poland, and Austria – basically Central Europe. And to successfully defend Europe, Charles needed order. Charles had inherited basically three different thrones which made him incredibly powerful, and also gave him many enemies. So before he could go and deal with the Turk, he had to make sure he wouldn't get stabbed in the back. There was war with France, which Charles won in 1525. Which left the main at home problem for Charles, from a military point of view, being Germany.
The Reformation was going on, and Germany was sort of like the wild west. It wasn't a unified country at the time, but over 300 independent dukedoms and princedoms and independent cities – just a political mess. And into this political mess came the Reformation – where you had all the divisions playing out that would end up leading to the 30 Years War in the 17th Century. On top of that, you had radical Christian groups teaching all sorts of things. There was a giant peasants' revolt that was utterly horrific and violent until it was put down.
So basically, in Germany in 1526, everything has been chaotic, and it looks like it will be chaotic even still – and in the midst of this there are some Christians who are calling for all Christians to be utter pacifists, who say that no Christian may ever wage war. In the face of this, one German knight, by the name of Assa von Kram, repeatedly asked Martin Luther to write an essay about this topic, to give an opinion. Luther dragged his feet for bit; he had touched on the topic before and he thought he had done so well enough earlier – but von Kram still pressed. Things have gotten so bad, so violent, so wild – should we just stop?
(Any questions yet)
So towards the end of 1526, and reaching full publication in 1527, Luther writes a fabulous little writing entitled “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.” For those of you who are impatient, the answer ends up being, “yes.” But in this little essay (You may find the text of this essay easily on the internet), Luther does two things. He discusses what we today would call Just War theory – when it is right to wage war and when it is wrong. But the other thing he does, and it's really this that I want to zero in on, is he writes, he gives advice to soldiers as to how they themselves ought to consider their vocation, their duty of going to war.
One of the things that Luther points out is that a soldier is in fact an agent, a servant of God, performing a vital task for the good of the nation. God Himself gave the government the power of the Sword so as to rightly order and rule the nation. Luther notes: “For the very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish the evil, protect the good, and preserve the peace [Rom. 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14] is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing along with all the things that accompany wartime and martial law have been instituted by God. What else is war but the punishment of wrong and evil? Why does anyone go to war, except because he desires peace and obedience?”
Here Luther points out that to make a contrast between war and peace isn't quite right. Properly speaking, a soldier is a agent of peace. That is, when someone or a group has with their vileness and wickedness gone and brought forth violence and chaos, bringing danger and violence to bear upon people – it is the soldier who goes and re-establishes peace. Because Christ desires peace, and He has called and instituted soldiers to bear the brunt of fighting wickedness to protect and preserve their neighbor's peace. Of war itself Luther notes, “What men write about war, saying that it is a great plague, is all true. But they should also consider how great the plague is that war prevents! If people were good and wanted to keep peace, war would be the greatest plague on earth. But what are you going to do about the fact that people will not keep the peace, but rob, steal, kill, outrage women and children, and take away property and honor? The small lack of peace called war or the sword must set a limit to this universal, worldwide lack of peace which would destroy everyone. This is why God honors the sword so highly that He says that He Himself has instituted it and does not want men to say or think that they have invented it or instituted it. For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man's hand, but God's.” To be a solider, to be one who fights for peace, for justice, for order, who risks life and limb and steps into the breech that others may live, is not merely doing something good – God Himself is actually the One who uses the solider to accomplish God's desired peace and justice.
(Questions on that)
Acknowledging that soldiers are meant to be servants of God, Luther notes how the Scriptures do place limits upon them. They have an honorable and mighty office; they need to see that they do not abuse it. “When soldiers came to [John the Baptist] and asked what they should do, he did not condemn their office or advise them to stop doing their work; rather, according to Luke 3[:14], he approved it by saying, 'Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.' Thus he praised the military profession, but at the same time he forbade its abuse.” The purpose of military power, for the individual or even for the nation, is not to abuse that power and profit, but always to serve the neighbor and the nation, even serve in defense of your fellow countries if and only when the situation demands for it.
Peace is to be the desire. “Do not be tempted to think of yourself as though you were the Turkish sultan. Wait until the situation compels you to fight when you have no desire to do so. You will still have more than enough wars to fight and will be able to say with heartfelt sincerity, 'How I would like to have peace. If only my neighbors wanted it too!'” I quote this here in part because it is my own observation that the greatest moments of American History, the times where we have served the world the most as a people, have been in the two world wars, when we desperately longed for peace, and only fought when compelled. This is an attitude that Luther praised. His own ruler at the start of the Reformation was Frederick the Wise. He had died a few years before this writing, and of him Luther notes: “I must mention here the example of Duke Frederick, elector of Saxony, for it would be a shame if that wise prince's sayings were to die with his body. He had to endure many wicked plots on the part of his neighbors and many others. He had so many reasons to start a war that if some mad prince who loved war had been in his position, he would have started ten wars. But Frederick did not draw his sword. He always responded with reasonable words and almost gave the impression that he was afraid and running away from a fight. He let the others boast and threaten, and yet he held his ground against them. When he was asked why he let them threaten him so, he replied, 'I shall not start anything; but if I have to fight, you will see that I shall be the one who decides when it is time to stop.'” Wise words that we would do well to consider in the management of our own personal affairs, and wisdom I hope that leaders now and in generations to come cling to.
Luther then proceeds to give actual advice to the one who is called upon to fight. One thing that he urges is humility – that if one is called upon to be a soldier, that he be prepared against the onset of pride. When it comes to victory, we should not approach it, “as though it were our deeds or power that did it. Rather, God wants to be feared and he wants to hear us sing from our hearts a song like this, 'Dear Lord, You see that I have to go to war, though I would rather not. I do not trust, however, in the justice of my cause, but in Your grace and mercy.'” Since the soldier is an agent of God, the victory belongs to God. This is not a cause for pride, but rather humility before God.
Indeed, here is how Luther describes the proper attitude for a soldier. Luther's ideal soldier says:“'Well, for my part, I would like to stay at home, but because my lord [or today, perhaps nation] calls me and needs me, I come in God's name and know that I am serving God by doing so, and that I will earn or accept the pay that is given me for it.' [Luther continues] A soldier ought to have the knowledge and confidence that he is doing and must do his duty to be certain that he is serving God and can say, 'It is not I that smite, stab, and slay, but God and my prince, for my hand and body are now their servants.' That is the meaning of the watchwords and battle cries, 'Emperor!' 'France!' 'Luuneburg!' 'Braunschwieg!' This is how the Jews cried against the Midianites, 'The sword of God and Gideon.'” The soldier serves God, he serves his nation. His pride is not in his own prowess, but in his love of nation, his patriotism, his desire to serve God by serving for the sake of his fellow countrymen.
This plays out in how Luther thinks soldiers should be rallied, how they should be encouraged. Not with honor, not with riches, not with glory. “On the contrary, they should be exhorted like this, 'Dear comrades, we are gathered here to serve, obey, and do our duty to our prince, for according to God's will and ordinance we are bound to support our prince with our body and possessions, even though in God's sight we are as poor sinners as our enemies are. Nevertheless, since we know that our prince is in the right in this case, or at least do not know otherwise, we are therefore sure and certain that in serving and obeying him we are serving God. Let everyone then, be brave and courageous and let no one think otherwise than that his fist is God's fist, his spear God's spear, and cry with heart and voice – For God and the emperor! If God gives us victory, the honor and praise shall be His, not ours, for He wins it through us poor sinners. But we will take the booty and wages as presents and gifts of God's goodness and grace to us, though we are unworthy, and sincerely thank Him for them. Now God grant the victory! Forward with joy!” I would note that Luther acknowledges that soldiers ought to be well taken care of in return for their service. The words of Scripture that the “worker is worthy of his wages” apply to the soldier, and Luther would be adamant that our veterans and the survivors of those who have fallen receive all the benefits and support that is their due.
I don't say survivors incidentally here. Luther goes on to say, “But I think the best comrades are those who encourage themselves and are encouraged before the battle by thinking about the woman they love, and have this said to them, 'Hey, now, let everyone think about the woman he loves best.'” To serve as a soldier is to serve one's country and nation – but the heart of your country is your family, your house and home. A soldier goes forth to war to protect his parents, his spouse, his children – those closest to him. Always the truth of the soldier is that of service.
To close, I would like to read here a prayer that Luther wrote for soldiers, a model of how the soldier should approach his Lord. “Heavenly Father, here I am, according to your divine will, in the external work and service of my lord [or nation], which I owe first to you and then to my lord [nation] for Your sake. I thank Your grace and mercy that You have put me into a work which I am sure is not sin, but right and pleasing and obedience to Your will. But because I know and have learned from Your gracious Word that none of our good works can help us and that no one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I will not in any way rely on my obedience or work, but place myself freely at the service of Your will. I believe with all my heart that only the innocent blood of Your dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves me, which He shed for me in obedience to Your holy will. This is the basis on which I stand before you. In this faith I will live and die, fight, and do everything else. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me by Your Spirit. Amen.” If you then want to say the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, you may do so and let that be enough. In so doing commit body and soul into God's hands, draw Your sword, and fight in God's name.
So then, how would I as a Pastor encourage you to view our soldiers, and especially those who have served their country with their life and all. Can a Christian who serves the Prince of Peace be a soldier? Most certainly yes – for in this they follow Christ. No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his neighbor. As Christ obeyed the Father's will and braved death and laid down His own life to secure us an eternal home, our own fallen laid down their own lives to secure our earthly homes. While this country is not quite heaven on earth, it is still a wondrous and great blessing that God has given to us, a blessing which He has preserved through the service of the men and women in our armed forces. A blessing which many gave their lives to preserve. All thanks be to God for these faithful men and women who have done this nation, who have done us such great service.
Thank you for your time and attention, and God comfort you who remember the fallen, and may He bless your reflections this Memorial Day. Amen.
Thank you for your time and attention, and God comfort you who remember the fallen, and may He bless your reflections this Memorial Day. Amen.