Sermon for Memorial Day 2009 “Service”

By: Richard N. Taliaferro, Jr.

In Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel,  Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” And Jesus adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Note what is being described here: actions, not just thoughts or principles. And note also the kind of actions these are: actions that serve others. Thus the theme of this Memorial Day sermon: service.

A statement which some attribute to St. Francis says: “Pray without ceasing, if necessary use words.” On the other hand, in a talk to a clergy retreat, the Archbishop of New Zealand has been quoted as saying, “Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke is a language of verbs, action words, unlike Greek and Latin which are languages of nouns.” So praying, words and action [pause] are closely linked.

In recent debates about how to handle our current economic problems, people have said that in order to get talented leaders you have to pay them huge salaries and even bigger bonuses. I would assert that that view is false. I offer two examples: Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and General David Petraeus, both immensely talented and both undoubtedly underpaid, but enthusiastically willing to serve. They both have the characteristic of a strong desire to make a difference, a characteristic common to many who have answered a call to serve, be they soldiers, firefighters, police, nurses, clergy, teachers or others in service-oriented professions.

“A desire to make a difference”: this motive was one of the points that Bishop Barbara Harris made in her address to the 2009 graduating class at the Virginia Theological Seminary this last Thursday. The theme of her speech centered on the concept that Christianity contains within itself both a movement and an institution and that it holds these in tension. One could say that other vocations of service contain the same aspects, especially that of a movement, and thus that this situation is one of the differences between them and other lines of work.
The life of Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion, embodies the tension between movement and institution tension,  and she has certainly made a difference. But I would say she definitely reflects more the movement side of the church. The lives of many in military service have evidence of the same type of movement commitment exhibited by Barbara Harris.

To define what Barbara Harris meant by “a movement,” and how it applies to military service, my wife Norma suggested that, since many people today have not had any military experience, I should describe the life of a soldier, or given the time limits here, certain unique aspects of such a life. Most jobs have set hours of work; service in the military does not. It is, to use current jargon, “24/7.” Also, unlike most jobs, there are no normal work rules. The goal is to be extra well-trained and to be successful in carrying out the mission you are given. I offer some examples. In 1955, when I was serving as a U.S. Army officer in Korea just after the armistice, people asked me how I had cooperation of the night guards or sentries. I answered that I served them coffee at three o’clock in the morning. Having night guard duty did not excuse the troops from day duty. The guards served one four-hour night shift. The duty officer was on duty the whole night! The other example is seen in the image of my 17th Heavy Artillery Battalion commanding officer outside his “hooch” at 6 am on a frigid morning, clad in his heavy parka, boxer shorts and combat boots, stomping on the fuel line to his heater stove to break the ice that had formed inside the fuel line. A third example is that of a soldier who had stepped on a land mine and which resulted in a small piece of shrapnel lodged in the side of his head. He was in a state of shock and it took an effort on the part of two of us other soldiers to get him to hold the piece in his head so that he would not bleed to death as we walked in to the medics’ building.
I offer these examples to give flesh to what the word “service” means and I add hastily that the greatest symbol of service is undoubtedly illustrated by the picture in Friday’s Washington Post of soldiers placing flags on the 250,000 (!) grave stones at the Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps nowhere else, except the mass graves at Normandy, is the immensity of the sacrifice so evident. And, I would hope, that this sacrifice would have such an effect on us, in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Among a variety of effects, such sacrifice should make us consider possible calls to service for ourselves, our children, grandchildren or friends. An example of a call to service comes to mind in the life of Donnie E. Wheatley, the Executive Director of the Boys’ Home in Covington, Virginia, who received an honorary degree at the VTS Commencement. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, served in the U.S. Marines, then earned an engineering degree, worked as an engineer, then earned a business degree and returned to the Boys’ Home, where he had begun as an orphan, as Executive Director a number of years ago. Definitely a life of service.

I am sure many of us know people who have had second, or even third, careers, at least one of which were calls to a service type job. And so, I would ask you, “If you have never considered a call to a vocation of service, is it possible that you too, or one or more of your children or grandchildren, would get such a call?” It certainly is something worth considering for yourself, or suggesting to others, and praying about. Amen.


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