Memorial Day, by definition, is about remembering.
That’s an easy task, in a place like this. I’m a few feet away from the graves of my great-grandparents, the ones who got on a boat and left all they cherished behind to come to this place, to help build this church. You know, we do live in interesting times, some might describe as challenging times. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a look backward, look at the people who paid the price to bring us to where we are today. The first Otrey Township meeting was held in 1880, and a school was built in 1882 and shortly after that this church had its beginnings. That’s a lot to accomplish in not very much time. America has accomplished remarkable things, but just imagine, 125 years ago Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes were able to bury 1500 years of history to helped build a church.
One of the things I like about feeling that sort of longevity, that connection through generations, is that it helps you to follow the arc of history, to see that amongst the whirlwind of change we live in, there are some constants.
as a descendent of immigrants it made me smile when not so long ago I read an article about the first American Naval warship named after someone born in Mexico.
Sergeant Rafael Peralta was born in Mexico but immigrated to America with his family and grew up in San Diego. He joined the Marine Corps the day he obtained his Green Card.
He was killed in Fallujah. His unit was clearing a building and when he entered a room he was shot and fell to the floor as an insurgent threw a grenade through the window. Sergeant Peralta rolled over and covered the grenade with his body, saving the lives of all those around him.
When they cleaned out his room after his death they found on the wall three things. A copy of the Constitution, one of the Bill of Rights, and the certificate of his graduation from boot camp.
Why do I feel that story is a constant? Because where else in the world does that story happen? And it happens here all the time, over all the years.
America is very odd place. As a country we’re not defined by geography as much as we are by our history, by the common stories that bind us together. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything. Last week I had a very odd experience. We were invited to a wedding in the Twin Cities. We went down a little early so we could have breakfast with our daughter and her boyfriend. We met at a diner and during our meal I was eavesdropping on the guys at the next table. They were talking politics and were obviously very conservative, but in addition they were very angry, talking loudly about people the way I never would. It made me sad, in a, “Boy, these are not my people,” kind of way. When they left I saw that one of them was wearing a “Navy” cap. The couple getting married are college professors and we went to their house for dinner the night before the wedding. We stuck out a little, because almost all the other guests were also academics of one kind or another. I sat in the corner and enjoyed listening to the conversation, full of informed opinions concerning stuff I know nothing about. There was one jarring note. Someone, a really nice guy, asked me, “What’s the story about the carnation you’re wearing?” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Earlier in the day we’d stopped for gas in Delano and there was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary selling poppies and I’d bought one. No big deal about that – I buy about ten a year, throwing a buck in the jar every time I see someone selling them. I’d stuck this one in my coat lapel and forgotten I had it on. I was kind of stunned, to tell you the truth, that this very pleasant, highly educated man had apparently no idea what the poppy stood for. It threw me, because the two experiences happened pretty closely together – two groups of Americans and I clearly didn’t belong with either one. And more important, how do they as Americans find common ground? It might seem impossible, but let me tell you a story.
I’ve seen all sorts of reports that our country hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. Let’s face it - the Civil War was bad. Six hundred and twenty thousand Americans died. Remember, this was at a time when only thirty million people lived here. By comparison, with the current population of the United States, we’d have to see death losses of about seven million people to understand the bitterness of the war.
There’s more to understand. Shortly before the end of the war, several of Robert E. Lee’s officers went to talk to him. Everyone knew the war was lost; it was just that no one knew how to end it. The officers suggested that Lee not surrender, that he simply disband the army and send everyone off into the woods to fight as guerillas. The struggle could go on forever.
Lee chastised them. They’d fought so the South could stand alone to do as it wished, which included owning slaves. That war had been lost and there was no way to win it. If they fought as guerillas, the only thing they could accomplish was to ruin the country. Lee ruled that out.
A few weeks later, Ulysses S. Grant rode out to accept Lee’s surrender. By this time, Lee’s army was down to about 25,000 starving soldiers, many of them without weapons. Grant had over 100,000 soldiers completely surrounding Lee. He had it within his power to wipe them off the face of the earth or dictate any terms he wished. The surrender terms he wrote were the most generous possible. Simply put, the Confederate soldiers were required to leave their guns and return home. If they owned a horse or a mule, they were allowed to take it with them, because it was planting season and the animals would be needed to get a crop in the ground.
Those two men, who’d literally been trying to kill each other for years, who had shed oceans of blood, somehow found within them the ability to see the larger picture, to move past hate. They, and people like them, are the reason we aren’t Iraq or Syria, or any number of other countries, where hate rules and there is no larger vision. There’s the lesson. Bitterness, passion, anger, and conviction abound in this country. Some of the differences are as stark and irreconcilable as the difference between slavery and freedom. Luckily, we’ve yet to start killing each other.
At least not in an actual war.
We need to talk to each other and we need to find a way forward together. None of us get exactly what we want, but between us we have the ability to save the world or ruin it.
If Grant and Lee could step back from the brink, so can we.
Back to Sergeant Peralta. He joins an honored American tradition. The most highly decorated unit in the American Army in WWII was the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was composed of Japanese/American soldiers, many of whom had relatives in detention camps because of doubts about their patriotism. In the Civil War it was Irish immigrants, people who fled their homeland because of terrible famines and oppression, who when they started looking for work in this country saw signs everywhere that said, “No Irish need apply.” It turns out the Union Army wasn’t as fussy and the Irish soon proved their right to be Americans. In the very beginning of our country it was a Frenchman, Lafayette, and a Prussian, Baron Von Steuben, who helped build a rabble of farmers and shopkeepers into a weapon that could defeat the British armed forces. Over and over again, throughout our history, it has been our newest citizens who’ve proved that they know all there is to know about being an American. Sadly, the price most often paid for American citizenship has been blood. Thomas Jefferson said it first and best when he said, “The tree of liberty must often be refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural fertilizer.”
When our son was on his way home from the Persian Gulf I had a tremendous opportunity. For a fairly small amount of money I got to meet his ship in Hawaii and then sail with him back to San Diego. It was an eye-opening experience for me and the biggest shock was how young all these young people were. Oh sure, there were senior officers and a few grizzled master gunnery sergeants on board, but by and large, of the several thousand people aboard ship, the vast majority were between 18 and 22. (story…)
It’s funny how you can know something, but not really. When you’re young you can talk about marriage being a big commitment but it’s not until you are standing in the front of a church, in front of your family, your friends, and God and you find yourself promising out loud that you are going to love and protect this person standing next to you for the rest of your life that you understand what a commitment really is.
Being on that ship was much the same sort of feeling. I’ve known my whole life that wars are fought by young people but it wasn’t until I was walking through this massive ship, with throngs of young people moving all around that I was able to places names and faces with that fact. Truthfully, it’s an experience I have not been able to move beyond. Whenever I hear on the news about our Armed Forces being sent to some spot or another, the memories of all those young faces come back to me.
I’d like to talk about one memento and one other memory from our son’s deployment. The memento is his combat boots – sitting in a drawer in our porch. They’re a little beat up, with a set of dog tags strung through the laces. He did that before he left for his ship – and the reason is that some, maybe all, of our military when they’re being sent someplace you or I wouldn’t want to go, put one set of dogtags around their neck and another set on their boots, so in case they are killed – blown up – there might still be a way to identify the body. I watched him undo the laces on his left shoe to do this. It was a hard thing to watch. And the reason I remember that is the memory of him that same day waiting until his mother wasn’t around so he could give me his Last Will and Testament to look after. It wasn’t very complicated – at that point in his life he had a guitar, a pickup, and ten thousand dollars in government life insurance, but it wasn’t the sort of responsibility you really want to handle for your child.
Our freedom is protected for us by people in uniforms carrying guns. It would be pretty to think otherwise, but we would only be fooling ourselves. Evil exists in this world, and despite our best, most earnest efforts, sometimes the threat of violence is all it will respond to.
The Declaration of Independence is the blueprint for our country. It has inspired and justified so many of the sacrifices that we honor today. Almost everyone can quote those lines about “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but many of us neglect the part, right near the end, where the founding fathers say, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Those old boys understood that you didn’t get something for nothing and in exchange for freedom they were willing to pay with everything they had. Ultimate cost, but perfect value. A measure of accountability that many of us can barely comprehend. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is part of what defines us as Americans, but we cannot forget that the same document also says we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
In closing, let’s circle back to the Civil War. I’d like to quote Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman is perhaps our greatest American poet – you can get some argument on that, but he is certainly our most American, American poet. He worked in a hospital during the Civil War, caring for the wounded and this is from one of his poems.
"The moon gives you light, and the bugles and the drums give you music, and my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans, my heart gives you love.”
This is a wonderful country. That didn’t happen by accident. This is the day we need to think about the people that made this wonderful place possible. Tomorrow, and the rest of the year we should be trying to deserve it.