Proper 27B: Remembrance Sunday, Centenary

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
  That mark our place; and in the sky
  The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
  The torch; be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 

This so-familiar poem was written by John McCrae on May 3, 1915, after he presided over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier. The poem, which was written from the perspective of dead soldiers, urges others to avenge their deaths. . . 

 Death, is the reality during war.  Sgt. Henry Gunther fought during the Battle of the Argonne Forest in one of the many long skirmishes that made up World War I.  He and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by German fire when Gunther apparently bolted, against the orders of his close friend and sergeant, Ernest Powell, with bayonet fixed, and charged the German machine-gun nest. The German soldiers, already aware of the signed armistice, tried to wave Gunther away. He kept going and fired "a shot or two.” When he got too close to the machine guns, he was shot in a short burst of automatic fire and killed instantly. The time was 10:59 a.m. on November 11, 1918, and the armistice that had been signed and that all troops knew about, took effect at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month.  Gunther was named the last soldier to die during WWI, a dubious honor, and brought home to the United States and buried as a hero.

Today, 100 years after the signing of that armistice, is Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries.  In the US, we call it Veterans’ Day, but its history is rooted in the signing of the agreement to end the war that was to have ended all wars.  Sadly, that expectation was not met.

In churches and civic celebrations in many places round the world, we mark this centenary of the end of a war in which, according to PBS, some 65 million men were mobilized, and more than 16 million soldiers killed or found missing.   Each of those millions of men left families at home who were affected by this “Great War.” Today is a time to remember, yes, but also to reflect and to pray for peace – in the world and in our land.

There is a popular African proverb that says when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This proverb highlights the reality that too often while nations and powerful entities fight amongst themselves, the common people of the land suffer the most. It is a historical truth that those who make the decision to wage wars often have the least to lose. Sure, they might lose their prestige, position or power, but in the end their essential well-being and access to basic necessities are maintained. Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of those who are the instruments and casualties of war and political conflict.

So, today while we remember, thank, and honor all veterans, we remember also those who were left at home, particularly in the wars in Europe, whose husbands, brothers, and sons, left and went off to fight in dangerous wars, and then, surprisingly, the war came  to them, right where they lived, and they often were without basic necessities and were in danger when troops from the other side moved into their homes and villages.  The wives, the widows, the mothers, the elderly, the children, the vulnerable.

The sacrifices of brave fighting men and women must always be seen in the light of those who were left behind at home.  What happens, one might ask, to the faith of those fighting and those left at home?  Where is God found in all of it?  Too often it seems to me, it is that we find God in the justification, and to some degree, the glorification of war. 

One year, during the years of my teaching elementary students, I’d taught several lessons around the meaning of Veterans’ Day, and of the dangers in war and in the sacrifices of those who fought.  We’d studied the World Wars and even taken part in a parade through downtown Sedro-Woolley to mark Veterans’ Day and to say “thank you for your service” to the veterans in our community.  Later, I remember, that a youngster, a third grader at the time, talked with me about it all.  He asked me, “Do you know why the United States wins all of its wars?” Thinking about the lessons we had had over the past few days, of brave soldiers and sailors and marines, I responded, “No.”  And he, with deep regard to the truth as he’d been taught it, said, “We win all the wars because God is on our side.”  I remained silent for a time considering my possible response.   I might have asked him, “Oh, and what about the German children and their families…is God on their side too?  Does God love them as God loves us?” but I didn’t ask, because I knew that this child had been raised with a certain patriotism, a certain theology, one that as a teacher in public school, I dared not enter.  God was, to this boy, a protector, a God of ease, a God who is there and who takes away all that is bad – or declared to be bad - and who sees to it that the good win all the wars.  Our beliefs, both as individuals and as cultures, about who and what God is, change both with our age and our experiences – war being one of those experiences.  

Remembering those who died, those who killed and were killed, points us beyond Remembrance Sunday and Veterans’ Day as an act of national pride in parts of the world and reminds us that war brings human beings into terrible conflict.  One of the most terrifying things about war, I think, is how it brutalizes and dehumanizes.  All sides used appalling propaganda, during and after the world wars.   Dehumanization of the enemy was not confined to other times and other people though.  Consider the disturbing constant and continuing portrayal of all Germans as Nazis in the British media following WWII, or the uninformed, undifferentiated accounts of Islam in much of the Western media now,  or the of the Jews and Israel in much of the Arabic media.  These sorts of caricatures are disturbing because it can be a very small step from stereotypes and  ignorance into persecution. 

Reflecting on the brutality and inhumanity of Auschwitz, theologian, mystic and social activist, Thomas Merton, wrote that in order for something like that happen, “It is enough to affirm one basic principle:  anyone belonging to class x or nation y or race z is to be regarded as subhuman and worthless, and consequently has no right to exist.  All the rest will follow without difficulty… As long as this principle is easily available, as long as it is taken for granted, as long as it can be spread out on the front pages at a moment’s notice and accepted by all, we have no need of monsters.”[1] Merton finished.

As we commemorate past events, we speak to the state of our world, and we recognize that all political and military action changes the fabric of global community, for good and ill. And, as Christians, we must respond in some way, the first being prayers for peace and for strength for our military men and women and then we must work to make the world closer to the place of harmony that it was created to be.

And yet, war has the capacity of creating the kind of strength in an individual, the kind of depth and human solidity that is shaped by tragedy.  It does not necessarily justify, explain or excuse tragedy, but it is one of the few benefits of war.  Wars, especially World Wars, sorted out the wheat from the chaff and served to build some powerful moral clarities.  When war happens, we must ask the ongoing question, where is God in all of this?  Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams rightly said, “. . that losing the safe, problem-solving God who protected nations and empires might itself be a gift, a moment of truth that brought the reality of God closer, recognized or not.”[2]

So many who have lost their lives in war, who have served in times of war and in times of peace, some of whom are here among us right now, we remember them today, and we offer to God our thanksgivings for all that they have given.  For those who died, if their deaths can awake in us an understanding of our need to break down barriers of hate and the call to all of humankind to discover in each other their common, God-given humanity, then we are remembering them as they should be remembered. And remembering what they gave for us. That we might build a better world.

To close, a story of a soldier.  Franz Marc was born in Munich, Germany in 1880.  As he grew, he developed a close affinity to the natural world, and became a painter in the Expressionist movement.  He is widely remembered for his paintings of brightly colored animals, especially horses, and he saw them as a way to convey deep messages about humanity and its fate.  The natural world was more than of interest to this young artist, it was spiritual and a means to state his growing concerns about modern life, from which he was feeling more alienated.  Franz was drafted into the German Army as a cavalryman with the outbreak of WWI in 1914.  By 1916, he had used his artistic skills to create military camouflage and painted large canvas covers used for hiding artillery from aerial observation using pointillist style.  The German government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat for their own safety.  Marc was on the list, but was struck in the head and killed instantly by a shell splinter during the Battle of Verdun in 1916 before orders for reassignment could reach him. He was, at the time, deeply grieved by what he had seen and experienced in war.  This is a deeply sad ending, but his art survived him, and it touched something in a poet a hundred years later.  Marc’s legacy for us to consider further.   In 2013, Mary Oliver experienced one of Marc’s paintings, “The Large Blue Horses”,[3] and from that experience, a poem came.  The poem expresses not only her sense of the painting, but the deep yearning that wars should cease, and that their effects on all people cannot be ignored. 

Franz Marc’s Blue Horses by Mary Oliver

 

I step into the painting of the four blue horses. / I am not even surprised I can do this.

One of the horses walks toward me. / His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm / over his blue mane, not holding on, just / commingling. / He allows me my pleasure.

Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. / I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses what war is. / They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. / I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.

Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. / Maybe the desire to make something beautiful / is the piece of God that is inside each of us.

Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me / as if they have secrets to tell. / I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. / If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what / could they possibly say?[4]

 

I bid you peace.

 


[1] Merton Thomas, On Peace (Mowbrays:  London 1976), p. 81.

[3] The Large Blue Horses (1911), oil on canvas, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

[4] Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York, Penguin, 2017), p. 21.