I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 11, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Ruth and Hebrews.
About six and a half years ago, on February 4, 2012, Florence Green died at the age of 110 years, 350 days. She was the last surviving veteran of the First World War, surviving 95 years after she enlisted.
Florence Green was an officer’s mess steward, serving in the Women’s Royal Air Force at two installations in England. The last of some 67 million in uniform, from whatever nation, and in her way standing for all of them.
I had been waiting for the news for years. One by one, the survivors died off. They thinned out to the last survivor of particular battles, or from particular countries. Henry Allingham was the last soldier to see combat and the last original member of the Royal Air Force, dying age 113 in 2009 and in advanced old age made public appearances as a public face for those who fought and died. Army corporal Frank Buckles was the last American veteran. He died in 2011, at 110, and was buried with honors at Arlington.
The last sailor was Claude Choules, who died in 2011, signed on at age 14 was also a veteran of World War Two but “shunned celebrations of the Armistice, because he was against the glorification of war.” (Wikipedia article)
Florence Green’s service was almost forgotten, only to be “discovered” when she turned 110 and drew the special attention of gerontologists. She downplayed her service, saying on her 110th birthday, “It seems like such a long time ago now.” (Cited in New York Times)
And of course it was. They’re now they’re all gone, and what remains?
This has been a very dry year in Europe. The dry weather has exposed evidence of human habitation, shadows of ancient road and foundations of lost medieval buildings. The lost evidence of battlefields appeared more clearly than usual. Like an old scar, dried by winter: itchy, tender.
We might expect people in different countries to scratch that same itch, but different countries have different views. Last Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper ran a commentary by Natalie Nou-gay-rède about how the First World War is now viewed differently in different parts of Europe, and that the longing sadness seen in Great Britain, France and to a lesser degree the United States is not shared.
Nougayrède adds: “By contrast, in German collective memory, the first world war features much less prominently – perhaps because of military defeat and the dire fate of the Weimar Republic, but also because it is largely overshadowed by the second.”
Additionally, “[f]or millions of Europeans the war did not end in 1918.” as violence rippled through eastern Europe well into the 1920s. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was also a beginning. In Poland, for example, this is the centenary of the restored independent Polish state. Indeed, examine the embassies around town and you see that this marked, however temporarily.
Filmmaker’s Robert Newman “History of Oil” sees the First World War undulating from that day to this, not through the Somme and through the trenches, but through the oil fields of Baku, through to the invasion of Iraq.
Even as we bow of heads in reverent silence, there are other people telling other stories about the same events.
My husband Jonathan and I had our honeymoon 15 years ago this week in London and Manchester. November 11th was also on a Sunday that year, and we attended services at the Unitarian Christian Church in Brixton.
The thing I most remember, other than the early appearance of mince pies which I love very much, was the minute’s silence in the middle of the service, right at 11 o’clock. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, since that seems to be more of a civil observance, but being the stranger there I didn’t think too deeply about it, but clearly it has stuck with me. There were still World War One veterans alive back then, and we saw two or three of them being driven in open-topped cars for the commemorative parade – perhaps Henry Allingham among them – which passed the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Since the British lost more in that war than the Americans did, it makes sense the commemorations are sharper and deeper.
But even in the UK, there’s a bright line between what the First World War means, demonstrated is something as everyday as what you’d wear on your lapel. Will you wear a red poppy, or a white one?
The red paper poppy is an essential part of the newscaster’s wardrobe in Britain this time of year, as a remembrance to the dead. Back in 2003, I bought one from a member of the British Legion, and while it’s not quite the same custom here, you see them from time to time. But it is so customary there, that it can easily be seen as an unquestioned, unreflective endorsement of warfare, and so peace activists offer an alternative, bloodless white poppy, with predictable derision by those – a Conservative member of Parliament, say – who see a position to score some political points by abusing a minority opinion.
And so the more I look at that war –the trenches, the mud, the tens of million dead by war, genocide and disease – the more it look less like one thing to remember at one one moment in time. It looks more like the complexity of human life pulled low with millions of ways for us – its survivors – to remember it.
This has a particular meaning in churches like ours. The glowing optimism and faith in progress that fueled and emboldened movements like liberal Christianity went cold. Universalist started to decline in the 1920s. Now, we have removed to a corner of the world’s religious experience and imagination. Our religion is not not a cheery or confident as the pre-World War One religious liberals were. Or as naive.
This building we’re in evidence of a transitional attitude in brick and stained glass. Have you ever wondered what exactly is being memorialized in the Universalist National Memorial Church?
The answer depends on who you asked. At one time, when the plans were being drawn up, it would have been John Murray, who gets the credit for being the first Universalist minister in the New World, and in essence the father of the denomination. But the Scrolls — those written panels in the vestibule — tell a different story about Universalist generally being memorialized here. Of gifts large and small to memorialize Universalist worthies and loved-ones.
The minister of this church in those day was John van Schaick. The parlor is named for him and his wife, Julia Romaine. (The two marble busts are her parents.) He went on a leave of absence from the church, and they went to serve in relief work in Belgium with the Red Cross at great personal risk. (The story recounted in his book, The Little Corner Never Conquered. And UNMC member Donna Simonton knows more about the van Schaick mission than I do.)
Also, the Peace Tower is dedicated to Owen D. Young — a late and bittersweet addition to the story of this church, about the peace deal that was too little, too late. Had it worked, the march towards the Second World War might have been slowed or stopped, as the pressure on German war reparations would have been eased.
If we cannot go as far as the religious liberals in the pre-World War One era, then we can recover the common root of optimism, awe, investigation and devotion. And add in a dose of humility and forbearance.
Last time I preached, I talked about the Revised Common Lectionary and how important for me it is both (practically an ecumenically) to hold to a common set of texts.
Which is all fine and well until you preach on Veterans Day, and more than this, the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that brought it into being. And it’s all fine and well until all of the options for the day are problematic. The lesson from Ruth assumes a woman’s dependence on a man for security, and the letter to Hebrews can easily be used to assert that Christians replaced Jews as the subject of God’s care and purpose, the sinful doctrine of supercessionism. And these were the easier texts!
What can we learn from today’s lessons? First, Ruth. Let’s not forget that Ruth is featured by name in Jesus’ genealogy, and that’s important because she was an outsider and that’s nothing to be hidden or ashamed of. She was a foreigner, and God blessed her. This isn’t an appeal to tribalism, nationalism or racism, and that’s something to be glad about.
The lesson from Hebrews is a bit more complex. It’s author is trying to convince the reader that Jesus Christ himself is the new and better High Priest, who takes the sins of the people upon himself once for all. This is important because God has intervened for our sake; the age of sacrifice is over, and the age of an unity between heaven and earth has begun. Its vision is cosmic, a vision of the eternal that reminds us that successes and failures don’t depend on any particular thing we do. We are not God.
Together, these themes make a powerful combination. A cautious approach, not putting too much stock in one version of a story. An appreciation of variety and diversity. A cautionary tale against hubris, naivety, bias and cruelty. The unexpected nearness of the past times and foreign lands. The dull throb of loss that softens power into honor. These are the virtues that make humane life possible, that are the blessing of surviving literal and figurative wars — and which bring me to my last point.
There has been another subject that had been grinding at us for months, and would have been at the heart of today’s sermon had we not had Veterans Day: the midterm elections. Because if the people in this church are anything like my friends, you were either sick with worry or sick to death. Our country is divided, anxious and politically immobilized. There no trust to let down one’s guard, and it’s easier to antagonize and be antagonized than just about anything else. And, yes, personally I feel that the virtues I value have been discarded by my political opponents in a cheap bid to claim permanent power. It make me sick, but not so sick as to despair.
I rely on my faith to give a context to virtue, and hold me accountable to them. I rely on my faith to know that there is something greater than me, and that God guides, care and judges us personally and collectively. I rely on my faith to snap me out of lazy, sloppy or callous thinking. I rely on my faith to knock me down a peg when I need it and to comfort me when I need it. In short, I rely on my faith to be a decent-ish, responsible human being.
But for the American church, there’s always the risk of being co-opted by American culture. That to be a good Christian is to be a good American, and vice verse. But what part of that equation is in control? Little wonder that people can and do and perhaps should try to build their faith apart from churches.
This is very big problem. Our identity as a church does not come from our national identity, or should not. Treating it as aligned with American values makes the church just one more organization and not a conduit to God’s love and will. Just one more thing to be co-opted. The point is to remember that the church is always political.
There was a good commentary published on September 29 in the New York Times, recently about the question is there a political party for Christians? Rev. Timothy Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church –hardly what you’d call liberal – observed that
“Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel,'”
“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.” (“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t”)
What we – as a church – should never be partisan.
Our faith challenges to see the world in a way that normal political processes don’t understand or won’t abide.
We must engaged in a world that is often unfair and cruel, where well-organized and powerful forces conspire to minimize and hurt weaker and isolated people, ideas and causes. But our approach relies on imagination, patience, mercy, kindness, vulnerability, persistence, curiosity, and compassion. Like grace, it can have unexpected outcomes. Like love, this different way of approaching the world can break your heart and lift you up at the same time.
Political theories and parties cannot comprehend our own messy, complex ideas, challenged as they are by divine mercy. It’s what let’s us look at the battlefield of the First World War and all wars and pray earnestly for the fighters and the dead, and say “but no, not again.”
It is the strength that makes peace more that the cessation of fighting, and so is our greatest pledge and tribute this Veterans Day.