This is my attempt at this year's Veterans' Day sermon. Until my current congregation, I had never been in any institutional setting, school, church, or otherwise, where Veterans' Day was even mentioned, but in my congregation it's extremely important. My own feelings about the day itself are extremely mixed. But I do hold the men who want to recognize it and whom I've gotten to know a bit, in high regard, so I want to do what I can, for God and for them.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Do you know those words? Of course you do! You hear them replayed every January when our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King roared out those words in his “I have a dream speech” at the March on Washinton fifty years ago last August, and again in his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech on the night before he was killed less than five years later.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
We have been moving through the Bible in chronological order this this fall, hearing together the story of creation, the narratives of some of God’s earliest people, Abraham and Jacob, and now, as Advent approaches, we are listening to the voices of the prophets – those called by God to speak the truth about justice and righteousness, loud and clear. We tend, in contemporary culture, to think of prophecy of some kind of fore-telling, as prophets as people who can divine the future. And indeed, the Biblical prophets did warn the people of the catastrophes likely to befall them if they did not realign themselves with God and God’s purposes.
But it was that re-alignment that the prophets were really about. By the time of Amos, the prophets are speaking to the people as a whole, and not merely to their kings, and their message is consistent:
You are called to justice and righteousness. You are all, every one of you, called into God’s project of care for all beings and all of creation. God’s project – not your own.
Abraham Lincoln, a man with a prophetic voice for our own nation, famously said, “Our concern is not whether God is on our side. Our concern is whether we are on God’s side.” And that is the question for us, isn’t it? Not: Is God on our side? But: Are we on God’s side?
And what is it to be on God’s side?
When we think of justice and righteousness today, we often limit ourselves to those concepts as portrayed on television or in the movies or in the news; we tend to think in terms of our criminal justice system. We think that justice is all about exacting the appropriate punishment for a wrongdoer, and about somehow exacting retribution on behalf of those who have been wronged.
But the Biblical prophets tell us, over and over again, that God’s justice and righteousness are much broader and in many ways for us as a culture, more challenging concepts.
The question is not whether God is on our side in our conflicts, whether they be conflicts as simple as a football game or conflicts as significant as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question is whether we are on God’s side in all things. Are we attentive to what God wants for all people and for all of the world?
The prophets are clear about what justice and righteousness are. Justice and righteousness are about care for the disenfranchised. You might want to read the Book of Amos sometime soon. (It’s a short one!) Amos describes a world in which the wealthy regularly and dramatically take advantage of the poor in every possible circumstance, and then go off to worship with great sacrifice and show and deem themselves faithful people.
And Amos has nothing but harsh words for those who manage wealth and position to their advantage at expense of others, and then worship God extravagantly, oblivious to their own wrongdoing. God is not interested in their liturgical finery, in their feast and festivals:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
This is a tough day for those who listen to God’s words. Let’s be clear: God is.not.interested. in our worship, in what we have to offer God in church, if we are not offering ourselves in service to others. Those who are poor. Those who are homeless. Those who are undocumented. Those who are injured. Those who are mentally ill. Those who are lonely. Those whose lives we do not approve of. Those who are hungry. Those who are “different” – in color, in religion, in ethnicity.
What does it mean to be on God’s side? It means to recognize that abundance, God’s abundance of hope and love, extend to all, and to act accordingly.
What does it mean to be on God’s side? It means that we are called to be uncomfortable. It means that we are called to ask ourselves, every day, “After I worship God with singing and prayer and praise in our beautiful church, do I go out the door and serve God? Do I honor God’s project for justice and righteousness by caring, in whatever ways I can, for those for whom God cares deeply? (In other words, for all people?)
Today, we honor a particular form of service, as we recognize our veterans and their service to our nation and world. We are called to remember that there are those among us who have pursued justice and righteousness in particularly demanding ways, in ways that took them from home and family for long periods of time, in ways that compromised their physical safety on a daily basis, in ways that mean that today they remember fallen friends and comrades even as they – and we – give thanks for freedoms thus preserved.
And although it is our national day of remembrance, we remember also those who have fought for other nations. We are reminded that others, too, have dreams and hopes for their nations and that they, too have sacrificed, by the words of the patriotic song of Finland, found in our hymanals as “A Song of Peace”:
This is my song, oh God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
We honor all those who have sought peace by their service, for in seeking peace they have been on God’s side.
We honor those who have challenged us to a better world by their service. In seeking God’s justice and righteousness for all, they have been on God’s side.
A couple of weeks ago, I read a news report, written by a religion journalist who was flying to LAX and noticed that several soldiers in uniform were on the flight. As the plane neared Los Angeles, the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced that the plane was bearing the body of a fallen warrior. The soldiers on board were his military escort. The pilot asked that the other passengers await deplaning until the soldiers had gotten off so that they could meet the casket and the family members, and told them not to be alarmed by the lights and sirens and water hoses, as the airport traditionally greets fallen veterans with a water salute and a police and fire escort.
The plane’ cabin became silent as the plane landed and the soldiers exited. The journalist could see out the windows on the other side as the flag-covered casket was lifted down, and then one of the officers re-appeared on the plane and spoke over the loudspeaker. “We vow that a fallen warrior will always be given a military escort home,” he explained. “That’s what these soldiers were doing today, and today you, too, served as the escort for one of our soldiers. Thank you.”
The passengers, still silent, gathered in the waiting area after they got off the plane, and watched through the windows as the flag was folded and handed to the veteran’s wife or mother – the journalist wasn’t sure which. It was only after that moment that they began to disperse through the airport.
Today, we in this congregation escort those among us who have served our nation, and we are grateful that they lived, and that we might be their companions on this day of memory. We remember those who have already died, whether in battle or after postwar lives we hope were a great gift to them. We remember and honor the parents and spouses and children who served at home, waiting and hoping and sacrificing their lives as well. And in particular we honor those among us who know what it is to sacrifice daily, body and spirit, in the cause of justice and righteousness. Amen.