A sermon by Dr. Anton DeWet, minister at First Congregational UCC, Portland, and member of Circle of Peace. First Congregational UCC, Portland, is a congregation steeped in the emerging Progressive Christian movement. This sermon was intended for a congregation on Memorial Sunday, but it is supportive of the sacred dream of peace among all people.
Based upon 1 Samuel 31:1-3 & 2 Samuel 1:1-12, and Matthew 5:1-10
Three points I would like to make at the offset this morning:
- Standing before people whose history you have not shared*, and whose individual journeys you cannot know, makes one tremble with uncertainty when addressing the issues that touch us deeply.
- It is a custom of the kind of public Christianity of our times to speak of peace without any personal commitment to do much more than pay lip service to it.
- The prophets and by name, Jeremiah, warns against the self-deception of proclaiming “Peace, Peace: when there is no peace”.
I would like to return to these three points as we go along.
Today is Memorial Sunday. Personally, for a large part of my childhood and youth, violence was my daily reality in some way shape or form. My innocence came to an abrupt end one evening in 4th grade when the insurgency in Zimbabwe, my homeland, began with a violent attack on a couple who were killed as they woke from a Sunday afternoon nap.
Since that day, at the age of nine, I have never known peace again. Even as I have found a peaceful life in the United States, in my heart and mind I have never found peace again.
So, when I speak of war and I speak of peace, I have personally known the destructive power of the one and the elusiveness of the other.
Today it is with caution that I address these issues knowing we may have many conflicting thoughts on these issues in this diverse congregation. Who is worthy of speaking of such defining issues to begin with? So, when I do so, please know that I do so haltingly; wishing that we had more time for mutual conversation; sharing with you what I believe might be God’s voice calling to us through the eons—warning us, healing us, encouraging us and guiding us.
That being said tomorrow is Memorial Day and for most Progressive Christian communities this is a day we love to ignore.
I invite you, however, in offering a scratch where there might just be an itch. I hope we do so offering each other love and charity, even in our misunderstandings and our disagreements.
Here is the reality:
Among us are people who have answered the call to bear arms at times when our nation has called upon them to. And among us are those who have refused to bear arms under any circumstances. Both have paid dearly for their choices.
May I offer you my first, possibly controversial, statement: “Whoever you are, you are my heroes!”
No, this is no cop out from my side. Let me explain:
In my life I chose the side of violence. My anger and fear compelled me to make the choice I made. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that choice as I made what I believed to be the best choice I could as a young, immature person. Given those choices today I might choose differently, but that is irrelevant. When people started dying and my family was threatened my decision was to bear arms in any way I could.
Today, and every day of my life, I find my memories return to that life. I replay the stories of friends who died tragically, I remember the stories told of others who survived, and I have seen the continuing destruction of those experiences in the lives of the survivors. For me that experience can never end. It is etched into my soul. I sometimes whisper the names of comrades fallen and ask forgiveness that I have been fortunate enough to have reached this age, and that I have been fortunate enough to have found a new home where that violence no longer threatens my immediate family, while they remain forever young, frozen in time, some only 17 years old.
There are some of you here who know what I am talking about. You too, made those choices. You too, continue to pay that price. Yes, even our WWII heroes who came back from what was regarded as the one true Just War. I know, as I interviewed your comrades in my doctorate studies trying to find out how they survived and whether they ever found a sense of wholeness again. I have seen the tears of 90 year olds as they recounted their experiences, their haunting dreams, and their ongoing memories.
Some are more fortunate than others, but all have paid a terrible price.
I say again: You are my heroes; my comrades; my friends—and we wish upon you the love of God and the inner peace of Christ that comes to still our storms.
Then there are those who took the other road. Who felt that it was beyond their ability to participate in violence of any kind. These veterans of peace were shamed; were threatened, and most were persecuted. To you I offer my salute for you too, are my heroes.
There is a direct conflict in our faith that much more able men and women than I have addressed in one way or another. That is the question as to whether war or violence is ever an option, especially when one is threatened personally. Jesus was clear as to the question of violence as he rebukes Peter when he pulls his sword to protect Jesus from the Temple police in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Today I confess to you that as much as I abhor war and violence, I have neither the courage nor the faith to denounce the use of violence in extreme cases. But I shall remain committed to peacemaking.
I say this as a personal confession of weakness, and I say it without any pride.
Why all this personal stuff in a sermon? Hypocrisy is the trap one can fall into and I certainly do not wish to sound like the one to cry out “peace, peace: when there is no peace.”
The world in which our faith forebears lived was one of great violent threat. It is a world we cannot imagine.
The one story we read from this morning was of King Saul of Israel, of David, the soon to be king, and of Jonathan, King Saul’s son and David’s best friend. This is one of those great Biblical dramas that fascinated me as a child.
First there was Saul, the man who had it all and who squandered it. Growing more and more psychotic, Saul regularly tried to kill David, his ally, but the nation’s rising star.
Then there is the undying friendship of David and Jonathan who is conflicted by his loyalty to both his father and to his friend, David.
In today’s story there is a disastrous battle. A messenger arrives at David’s camp and we read: “On the third day a man arrived from Saul’s army camp. He had torn his clothes and put dirt on his head to show that he was in mourning. He fell to the ground before David in deep respect.”
He is the messenger bringing the news of deaths of both King Saul and Jonathan. David’s reaction is one of shock and grief: “David and his men tore their clothes in sorrow when they heard the news. They mourned and wept and fasted all day for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the Lord’s army and the nation of Israel…” (2 Samuel 1)
The reality of war is a terrible one. We have seen the effects of war on our brothers and sisters; our families and the young people of our nation. The costs of these wars are not only displayed in rows of crosses and the names of the fallen etched on cold granite slabs. The costs continue as the survivors continue to pay the price through broken bodies and broken minds.
The new wave of young people, many of them unable to cope with their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, have become the clients and patients of our VA system. A good friend described how she, as a VA doctor, treats this new wave of returnees battling their demons. Up to 20% of them, we are learning, are already giving up on civilian life and they are walking our streets as the newly homeless.
That being said, I urge you, on this Memorial Sunday, to consider those who have borne the burden of war and violence in our name. Let us show them the love of Christ. Listen respectfully to their stories. Allow them to remember and find wholeness among us. Mourn with them when they mourn. Rejoice with them when they find peace. In all things, show them love!
And for those among us who chose the road of peace, to you we offer our gratitude for your witness of non-violence. May the love of Christ bear out your witness to us and to the world. Be patient with us who do not share your courage nor your conviction.
May it be that God’s love will bind us together, the wounded warriors of violence and those who have chosen the road of peace, so that our voice of hope remains strong and our conviction to seek peace in all things continues to inspire us.
Jesus once addressed a crowd of gathered listeners and proclaimed what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon of Jesus is a blueprint for God’s Peaceable Kingdom where we can live as fulfilled human beings. In verse 9 we read this proclamation: “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.”
Let us remember the words of the prophets and poets of all times:
“You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. The tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” -Luke 1:76
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” — Mohandas Gandhi
I close with the adapted words from the Poem, For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon:
“They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond [ocean’s]* foam.
*[replaced England’s with ocean’s]
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
We bid another farewell to our fallen friends—we shall never forget. We give thanks to the God who graced us with their presence. We commit ourselves to work and pray for the peace of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Born and raised in South Africa, Dr. DeWet has resided in the US for the past 18 years