A New Birth of Freedom
Sermon for Memorial Day Weekend
by Pastor Bob Weeks
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Verona United Methodist Church, Verona, Virginia
This morning I will be reading my sermon from a manuscript. I do this once or twice a year when I feel that the choice of words is extremely crucial to the message and I believe this is an important message for this Memorial Day Weekend. The short speech I am about to read is familiar to everyone here. It is not contained within the canon of Holy Scripture, but still, there is something holy about it. It was written and spoken by a man who was known for his homely appearance, down-home humor, and innate ability to frame great truths in words that still stun and move and challenge us:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
From where I stand, no greater words were ever uttered on earth than those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in his farewell discourse with his disciples in the Gospel of John. Yet, to prove that mere human beings are capable of divine inspiration in their speech, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address must be acknowledged as beyond the pale of ordinary human discourse – in its simple, dignified beauty – in its clear and concise exposition of the truth.
Lincoln purportedly believed that his remarks on that day six months after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 had been an utter disappointment to those assembled. The speaker before him had spoken at great length; Lincoln only a few minutes. When he finished there was no applause. Some who witnessed the address by Lincoln later said his word had so affected the crowed that they stood in silence as a sign of respect, that applause seemed unseemly. His address demonstrated the power of a few words.
Both the Sermon on the Mount and the Gettysburg Address are about attaining and maintaining a proper perspective in the consideration of life and death - and life beyond death. They are part of a rich heritage of words that belong to all human beings, defining us, inspiring us, directing us.
I’ve always loved words. My father, a Veteran of World War II, was a writer. His photograph is among the many here today, along with a portrait of his brother who died in Viet Nam. My father also loved words. It is a shame that some students come to despise the creative use of words as they text and tweet with little regard for lyricism and structure. I love words because when used with care they are the breath of our intellect and the mirror of our hearts. They have power. They are the seeds of revolutions, yet they can also mend torn relationships.
I grew up on the poetry of the King James Bible. While it is true that this 400-hundred-year-old version of Holy Scripture is sometimes difficult for the modern mind to decipher, I found in its words a spiritual rhythm that moved me to delve deeper into its mysteries. I loved the King James Bible because words are greater than the sum of their definitions. They convey messages through intonation and the way the tongue and mouth and breath and the word interact.
The first chapter of John’s Gospel is a wonderful example of the way words can cascade down from on high like a waterfall feeding a river. John says that “In the beginning was the Word” the Word was with God - and the Word was God - and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s like listening to living water cascading out of the heavens. We know that God is love. But God is also Word.
Words have transforming power beyond our comprehension. Over and over in Scripture, from Moses to Jeremiah to Jesus to Peter, healings and miracles come forth out of a spoken command, out of Word.
Words can transmit authoritative power. Jesus was once asked by a Roman army officer to cure his servant: The Roman officer said to Jesus, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the army officer answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word
, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. And Jesus said to the Roman military officer, "Go; be it done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed at that very moment, by those very words. ( Matthew 8:5-13)
They say we live in a visual age. They say words aren’t as important as they used to be – that no one has the attention span to pay attention to words alone without other stimuli thrown in. In the modern age we move our images in 7-second or less clips. We seek to entertain with multiple stimuli to keep our audience from falling asleep. But words remain the foundation of human communication because they have a unique power to interpret our personal experiences, to share with others what lies in our hearts, and to share our interpretations of what we see, and touch, and hear.
Words are also capable of wreaking havoc, of inflicting pain, of undermining the best laid plans and best lived lives. The New Testament reminds us that the tongue is a little fire capable of setting the whole forest ablaze. Like water that can destroy or save, words must be carefully employed by those who seek to honor God and love their neighbor. Certainly we have seen the power of words to undo political careers in the past few years and to bring down pastors and leaders in every walk of life.
But words can also lighten our load, can release our inner child, can trigger a laugh or a tear of joy. Most of you know I can’t resist a good pun. The English language is tailor-made for puns with so many words having multiple meanings. Even Shakespeare made good use of puns in his comedies. And you have a punster in this congregation who has more fun with puns than any man or woman I’ve ever met: Dennis Gardner. Dennis can share a pun and immediately lighten the atmosphere, although he just as often hears groans.
Now why am I going on about words and their importance and their power on this Memorial Day Weekend? Some of you brought portraits of your fathers and grandfathers and uncles and cousins and brothers to place before the congregation this morning, to remind us of the sacrifice others have made for our freedoms. The men and women in these photographs knew the importance of words. They sacrificed and in some cases died because they obeyed words uttered by their superior officers. Words such as Fire, Charge, Attack!
But they also sacrificed and in some cases died because they believed in words like duty, honor, and country.
They did not go to war fighting for property – they went fighting for principles.
In the Civil War, they did not shed their blood in the fields of Virginia so that we might trash those fields with suburban sprawl and fast food litter.
In World War II, they did not die on the beaches of Tarawa and Normandy so that I might dream of luxuriating on the beaches of Miami and Malibu.
I don’t believe that over 2,200 men and women have given their lives in Afghanistan in order to preserve my freedom to super-size my fries at McDonald’s, as precious a freedom as that might seem to some.
They did not leave their homes to die in far-off lands so that I might spend evenings in my home exercising my thumb with a remote control.
I don’t believe members of the American military are fighting and dying to make sure I have the freedom to do whatever I want, regardless of the consequences of my actions to the world around me, to go through life cultivating addictions to drugs, to media, to over-consumption as if life were simply a grab fest for my own benefit . I have to believe the American soldier, sailor, marine, and airman have gone to war because somewhere at some time they heard certain words that transformed them, that touched them in a way that they had never been touched. These words called them away from a life of self-indulgence to a life of self-sacrifice.
We do no honor to those who stormed beaches and endured muddy, shell-pocked fox holes for our sakes, when we confuse liberty with libertine. To be a libertine is to live as if there is no word of authority over us, no commands under which we must live, no principles to deter us from our self-destructive course. To live in a land of liberty, on the other hand, is to understand that our freedoms come with certain responsibilities.
Nor do we honor these men and women when we reduce their sacrifice to the simple preservation of our consumer and property rights, as if America were no more than fruit in a canning jar, or that the true measure of our greatness would be key economic indicators, Wall Street reports, and the Gross National Product. The American Revolution of the eighteenth century was not about the mere accumulation and preservation of physical property but about a new birth of freedom of ideas and principles unlike any this country or this world has ever known - a birth of freedom that liberates us from the baser impulses of our fallen nature and elevates us to the nobler instincts of our God-given souls.
We need look no further than the historical record of the Revolution to understand that it was principles and not personal profits that motivated its leaders. The final line of the Declaration of Independence assures us of this fact: “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." In other words, these 56 signers were willing to sacrifice everything for the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that had arisen from their mutual experience of life in America. I found these statistics about the signers of the Declaration online:
Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. One lost all 13 of his children. Two wives were brutally treated by enemy soldiers. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes.
Twelve signers had their homes completely burned.Seventeen lost everything they owned. Yet not one defected or went back on his pledged word.
Even before the list of signers of the Declaration of Independence was published, the British marked down every member of Congress suspected of having put his name to treason. All of them became the objects of vicious manhunts. Some were taken prisoner. Some, like Jefferson, narrowly escaped. All who had property or families near British strongholds suffered. Here are but a few examples of their sacrifice:
Francis Lewis, a New York delegate, saw his home plundered and his estates - in what is now Harlem - completely destroyed by British soldiers. His wife was captured and treated with great brutality. Later, through the efforts of Congress, she was exchanged for two British soldiers, but she died from the effects of her abuse.
Philips Livingstone had all his great holdings in New York confiscated and his family driven out of their home. Livingstone died in 1778 still working in Congress for the cause, not realizing that the revolution he had worked so hard for would succeed.
Louis Morris, the fourth New York delegate, saw all his timber, crops, and livestock taken. For seven years he was barred from his home and family.
John Hart of Trenton, New Jersey, risked his life to return home to see his dying wife. Hessian soldiers rode after him, and he escaped in the woods. While his wife lay on her deathbed, the soldiers ruined his farm and wrecked his homestead. Hart, at the age of 65, slept in caves and woods as he was hunted across the countryside. When at long last, emaciated by hardship, he was able to sneak home, he found his wife had already been buried, and his 13 children taken away. He would never see them again. He died a broken man in 1779, never finding his family.
Thomas Nelson, signer from Virginia, ordered American gunners to fire on and destroy his own home when it was being used as a headquarters by the British at Yorktown. Out of respect for him, they refused, so he took control of the cannon and destroyed his home by his own hand. But Nelson's sacrifice was not over. He had raised $2 million for the Revolutionary cause by pledging his own estates. When the loans came due, the newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them and Nelson's property was forfeited. He was never reimbursed. He died, impoverished, a few years later at the age of 50.
Remember these sacrifices. I can’t help but wonder what body of politicians in today’s world would make these kind of sacrifices. Two-hundred-thirty-two years after those 56 men put their lives and fortunes on the line, we cannot escape hearing the term American Consumer at every turn. We hear it in the daily business reports on our radios, on the numerous business channels on our televisions, in the newspaper articles detailing the woes of our economy and the top issues in our elections. We have truly brought into the claim of President Coolidge that “the business of America is business.” I believe that, to a great degree, the average American today views his or her relationship to this country as a business relationship. We are consumers and taxpayers whose primary duty is too accumulate as much wealth as possible while paying as little in taxes as possible. We have lost our sense of community, our sense of duty to each other and to our nation that calls on each of us to contribute to the common good and to sacrifice when necessary.
Rarely these days do we hear the term American Citizen unless it is in relationship to issues of border security and immigration issues. We have become a nation measured not by its devotion to the high ideas of our founding fathers, many of whom sacrificed everything, but by our devotion to holding on to our property and our pocketbooks. Other nations have come to view us as consumers of their commodities rather than as ambassadors of freedom and justice.
Our recent political leaders of both parties seldom use the word we so desperately need to hear: sacrifice
. Instead, we are coddled and encouraged to shop ‘til we drop; to pray for our servicemen overseas but to share little in their burden. President John F. Kennedy, who knew the sacrifice of military service and later would give his life for this country, once asked the American people, not just those in the armed forces, but all the American people, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” He asked that of all of us, not just those in the military. Those are words that could have come straight out of the Gospels. They reflect the spirit of the servant’s heart that Jesus himself possessed.
Recently Lydia and I visited graves of my parents in Spotsylvania County and I thought of how much they had sacrificed for their family, their church, and their country. Like many veterans, my father suffered wounds beyond the bullet that shattered his left arm. He contracted malaria in the south Pacific and pneumonia in the hospital at Pearl Harbor and it was a recurrence of that pneumonia that took his life in 1998. His experiences in World War II left him never wanting to ride in a boat – boats for him were reminders of the beach assault at Tarawa. He never wanted to camp – he had camped enough in the dank, dark jungles of Guadalcanal. He never wanted to hunt – he had seen too many men die, both friend and enemy, to take any pleasure in firing a weapon at a living thing.
He lost his only surviving sibling in 1965 when his younger brother was shot and killed in Viet Nam.
My dad’s experiences are shared by tens of thousands of veterans from World War II to Korea to Viet Nam to Desert Storm to Afghanistan to Iraq who are haunted by their experiences, including my own son Robert who served over a year in Iraq. Tens of thousands will carry debilitating physical and mental wounds with them to their graves. Spouses suffer, children suffer, our society suffers from the pain these veterans carry with them.
That is the price they have paid for our nation’s freedom.
But if we who call ourselves Christians are to honor them, we must hear our own call to battle as Christian citizens. God’s Word reminds us that we who survive, we who benefit from the sacrifices of others, we who have put on the name of Christ, are also called to a field of battle. It is a battle for a new birth of freedom in this world, a freedom that cannot be secured by a nation’s laws and armies. A freedom that is born in the soil of God’s love and grace and mercy. It is the noblest and highest of freedoms that requires a submissive humility before God. It is a freedom that transcends national boundaries and allows us to see all people not as races or nations or classes but as children of the same Creator whose Son died not for one nation but for all nations. It is a freedom that shatters the false illusion that accumulation of possessions is the path to happiness. It is a freedom that allows us to enjoy life without being enslaved to it.
The nobility of those who understand this freedom leads them on mission trips to aid those devastated by natural disasters. It leads others to sacrifice financially for the good of others. It leads others to volunteer to feed the hungry, to help house the homeless, to provide clothing for the poor, to work on blood drives for the benefit of others as so many of you do. For millions of Christians throughout the ages, it is a freedom that has led to their martyrdom. In short, it is a freedom that fulfills the gospel of Jesus Christ to be our brothers’ keepers, even to the giving of our own life.
The freedom this nation can offer us, that is secured by the blood of our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, is a wonderful gift to all Americans and, indeed, to the world. But it is an incomplete freedom unless it is coupled with the freedom from sin and death given only through the cross of Jesus Christ.
Every Sunday is a memorial to the One who is the Way to true freedom. The Apostle Paul once said that “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” [I Cor. 6:19b-20a]. That price was the Son of God crucified. Tomorrow we will remember and honor all who have paid the price for the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens. Let us not forsake that responsibility. Above all, let us not forsake honoring our God whose Word alone can penetrate to the very marrow of our souls, who alone can bring about a new birth of freedom in our lives, by the shed blood of his Son Jesus Christ, both in this world and in the world to come.
May this God bless America and all lands where his Word is upheld.
Our final hymn on this Memorial Day weekend is “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” This hymn, invoking the security found in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone, is 153 years old. It has served as the official hymn of military services in both Great Britain and the United States, and was sung as the final hymn at the funerals of President Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. We sing it today in tribute to all those who died and now live with the One who died to save their souls.