Complete – Rev. Tony Romaine – May 24th, 2020
A brief research on the internet reveals that 58 countries have various monuments to unknown soldiers, spanning from Argentina to Zimbabwe. I’ve selected some for our purposes, especially since this weekend is Memorial Day weekend and we remember and honor those who gave their lives. The idea to memorialize and remember an “unknown soldier” began out of the ashes of World War I, and then again after World War II. Two wars in which millions of soldiers lost their lives. Wars which rendered lives incomplete, and all for what reason?
As a pastor, advocating for peace is not only something I consider my duty as a professional, but something I consider our Christian duty. As a historian, I look to learn from history to see why these wars were fought and for what purpose. From this standpoint, and from the perspective of history and being able to look back, we can talk honestly about how these wars could perhaps have been prevented. How even the atrocities of genocide and mass-murder of millions of innocents could have perhaps been avoided.
For instance, World War I could have been prevented, perhaps, if national pride was not more important than human interest. If alliance with another country was not more important than the actions of said country. If imperialism and colonialism and the allure of power and wealth were not more important than the dignity of every human being and sovereignty of the freedom of all people.
Or take the bloodiest war in the history of our young country, the Civil War, a war which pitted a people against their own people; this war probably could have been prevented if economies were not built on the backs of innocent people, if money was not the driving force behind our national pride, if the pursuit for the common good did not exclude anyone, any race, any Northerner or Southerner, and if a group of colonies which had only recently in terms of world history had formed a country, could have thrown off their colonial and imperial genetics to examine and understand what it takes to live in a republic such as we have now.
And while this is only a cursory evaluation of major conflicts and certainly does not cover all the intricacies of what leads up to war and the perceived need for conflict; tasks a sermon even as long-winded as this one cannot truly accomplish; at some point, is it not in our best interest as humanity to evaluate and remember the reasons, the steps, the entrance points to these wars, so that we do not have to repeat them? Is it not our duty to the unknown and known who gave their lives to protect our “freedoms” to not put those freedoms at risk again; to not have to war over the same things again and again?
And while I am a person who strives for peace, I am also fully aware of the need for those with the ability to do so, to step up and protect the innocent and fight for those who have no rights. Certainly, we honor the sacrifice of all of the known and unknown soldiers who “paid” for this country we have now. But, does it honor those who died if we remember their memory only to forgot what they were fighting for? No, in fact it dishonors the sacrifice of all those who paid the ultimate price; of all those who died to give us life, if we live our lives negligent of our duty to learn from the past and create a better future.
There was once another “unknown” soldier. One who people asked about and struggled to believe that this person was part of their tribe. A soldier not of war, but a soldier of peace. A soldier who taught and demonstrated that the greatest thing we can do for one another is to lay down our lives for each other; but not in terms of weaponry or wars, in terms of placing one’s life on the altar of peace and acting humbly so that all of the great things about life itself can be enjoyed by you and me.
Of course you know the “soldier” I am speaking of is Jesus Christ. Many have misappropriated the teachings of Jesus to justify their bent toward war and fighting. Many have justified their actions by using the very same quote I used above from John 15, where Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Without remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, what he did and how he did it in order to give us the complete gift of life eternal.
Jesus’ self-sacrifice came without fighting, without guns or bombs, without raising a fist in violence. In fact, remember when the soldiers and authorities came to arrest Jesus and Peter lopped off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus took it and put it back on and told Peter that this is not the way. And when we use Jesus and his message of peace to justify our own human ways, our own human greed, our own human penchant for war; then we once again do a disservice to the greatest gift we have ever been given.
This does not mean that we roll over and take the world as it is and let bad people off or injustice to reign. But what it means is that we work and strive for a world in which war is not necessary. It means that we strive for a world where no one is hungry so no one need fight over food. It means that we strive for a world where all people are given the same chance at a full and vibrant life so that no one need or desire more than they have. It means that when the world grows crazy and people begin to lean toward war more and more, the voices of peace and prosperity lean heavier and remind everyone of the painful lessons we have had to learn through war.
And it means the world holds people accountable, not by force or might, but by the almighty teachings of Jesus Christ, that we treat each other as we would want to be treated, and that we do not interpret God’s Word for our own validation; but live by God’s Word of love for all creation, love for all God’s children, and love for neighbor.
Striving in this way is not easy, just look at what Jesus endured. So yes, we will suffer and struggle, that is part of being incomplete and finite beings. But when we do so on account of Jesus, when we suffer and are put to trial because we long to live as Jesus taught us to live; then we are not unknown, we are not incomplete, for we are perfected through the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross and through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are made complete by the sacrifice that God made for all creation who trust and believe in the promise of the Cross. We are made complete when we strive for the peace Jesus sought, when we put our trust in God, when we lift up our neighbor and long for them to have what we have. We are made complete when we give over our lives to Jesus and trust that God, yes, I know it is difficult, trust that God’s will and wisdom and way is better than our finite human thinking. We are made complete, even in our imperfection, because God loves us and longs for us to learn and grow and trust completely.
And let me say one thing about our current trajectory in the United States and the world: We are dividing ourselves once again. We are creating greater and greater gaps in prosperity, wealth, economy, freedom, food, and care. We are forgetting the lessons of our past and moving toward a place where extremism rules and moderation is seen as weak. We are not progressing, but regressing to a place where we put our trust in weapons, money, and nation; rather than, God, each other, and love. We are not working to lift our neighbors up, rather we are striving to get ahead at whatever cost to our neighbors. And we are fast moving toward a world which will soon again sacrifice innocent lives with the underlying motif of doing so for the “greater good.”
Why; because as history teaches us, nations come and go, power grows and wains, and the only thing that seems inevitable is that innocents pay the price for our failures to grow and learn. See, all of the unknown soldiers whose memorials we briefly saw at the beginning of this message had not always been “unknown.” They had a mother and a father, they had friends and colleagues. They were known as something more than a soldier before they became the unknown and countless who so often perish for humanity’s inadequacies. They were known as teachers, doctors, students, police, fire-fighters, teenagers, children, friends, brothers and sisters; before they became an example for us all to take a breath and examine our histories, our motives, and our ethics. So take a moment and think about your child, your grandchild, your great-grandchild, your brother, your sister, your friend, or even that nice stranger who smiles at you when you get gas or coffee. We are not too far away from them becoming the next “unknown.”
But this message today is not all doom and gloom; for we are not there yet. And we have the incredible human ability to shape our future for the better. So that the promise of hope for today and for our future is that we would remember the sacrifice of all those who we memorialize today. That we would honor their life and their duty and their willingness to answer the alarm. That we would do them the honor of living full and vibrant lives helping others to live full and vibrant lives in the peace that they paid for with flesh and blood. That we would honor our Savior by remembering how he lived, how he died, and how he completed our lives through the resurrection. Not for us to throw away for worldly gain or power, but to lift others up so we could all become complete.
What an incredible hope indeed! My how we could truly honor and memorialize our known and unknown. And when the world seems to be awash with pain and suffering and everything seems to be running toward more pain and more suffering, remember the words of 1 Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”
So let us, the completed humanity take heart in the message of peace. Let us who suffer now from isolation, anxiety, and the “unknown,” take heart that our God does not abandon us. And let us indeed follow what Jesus told those disciples millennia ago, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” May we ask God for all we need, trust in God’s providence, and rejoice in the complete joy of Jesus Christ.
The inscription that engraves the United States Unknown Soldier memorial says, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Our world does not need more statues or memorials; our world needs more memory. Let us indeed honor all those we remember this weekend and live into the completeness of our Savior. So that their sacrifice, Jesus’ sacrifice, would not be in vain; but would be known to all through the living of our lives, through the peace of our hands, and the complete love of our hearts, Amen!