A Memorial Day Paradox

Preacher: Jeff Davidson Scripture: Romans 8:12-17

We all have different memories that we associate with different holidays. A couple of my Memorial Day memories are set back in Ohio, one of them when I was a kid and the other just a few years ago.

The one when I was a kid isn’t a real specific memory. We had a small parade in Tipp City on Memorial Day. Not a big parade – the big parade was in the fall for the Mum Festival. This was a smaller one, with just our local bands, and the Boy Scouts and the Cub Scouts. The American Legion marched in the parade, and there was probably a car or two with some of our oldest surviving veterans. When I was growing up they would have probably been from either World War I or maybe the Spanish-American War.

The parade would go down Hyatt Street to the Maple Hill cemetery, where there would be a ceremony of some sort. After the ceremony we’d visit the graves of our family members and then return home. What I remember is marching in the parade when I was a Cub Scout, waving a little American flag. “Marching” implies a lot more discipline and precision than we Cub Scouts actually demonstrated. “Walking along in a rough group” would be more like it.

The second memory was just a few years ago, although I’m not sure exactly when. I was back in Ohio visiting, and drove through West Milton, the next incorporated town west of where I grew up. It was Memorial Day weekend, and I noticed banners on the street lamps as I entered town on State Route 48. The banners had pictures on them, mostly black and white, of men and women in uniform. Eventually I hit a stop sign and could look at one of the banners, and I realized that each banner represented someone who had grown up in West Milton and who had later served in the military and in some cases killed during their service. The program is called “Hometown Heroes.”

As I drove by the West Milton Church of the Brethren, I saw that they had a banner on their front lawn. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something about “He was a hero too” or “Here is one of our heroes”, something like that, and it had a picture of Ted Studebaker, the brave man from West Milton, Ohio that we heard the song about. (The first link is the song, and the second link is about Ted Studebaker:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTYf3Ahyndk

https://daytonpeacemuseum.org/peaceherostories/ted-studebaker/  )

There is always a tension on Memorial Day, or the 4th of July, or any other so-called “patriotic” holiday for those of us who don’t believe that war or killing is ever appropriate, or for those of us who are pacifists, or at least non-resistant, or who think that the United States is not the morally superior nation that so many of its citizens like to claim that it is.

When I think of myself as a 10 year old marching in a parade waving a flag, that’s a long way from who I am now. I’m not being critical of Memorial Day or the parade or anything, but I wouldn’t wave a flag and march in a parade today. I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, because I believe my first allegiance has to be to God and not to the flag or the nation it represents. Other people have other views, and that’s fine. I’m not saying that’s what anyone else should do. I’m just speaking for myself.

At the same time, the reason that Ted Studebaker had the option to go to Vietnam as a non-combatant, as a conscientious objector, was because other people had given their lives. The people that Memorial Day honors, while they died doing something that the Church of the Brethren and even the earliest Christians believed was sinful, are the reason that Ted Studebaker could be a CO. They’re the reason why I don’t have to say the Pledge of Allegiance, why I don’t have to venerate whoever is leading the government at any given moment. I may still face societal disapproval for those choices, and that’s to be expected, but the government recognizes my freedom to make those choices nevertheless and actively takes action, even police or military action, to protect that freedom.

This is one of the many paradoxes that Christians always have to live with. We are called to live a certain way. Our ability to live in this way with comparative freedom as opposed to many other countries in the world is secured by the sacrifices of people who choose to do what we believe to be sinful. 

The Church of the Brethren recognizes this paradox, although they don’t state it quite so explicitly. There was a time when participation in war or being a member of the military would get you kicked out of the church. As more and more members of the Brethren began to join the military or to support war efforts the denomination began to recognize individual conscience on this issue. Now there is no prohibition against military service, there are many congregations with American flags at the front of the sanctuary, there are congregations that have “God and Country” celebrations, and there are congregations that sponsor Boy Scout troops. We recognize the right of individual conscience on the issue of war, although as a denomination our official stance is that war is sin. It’s just not an official stance that we enforce against individuals or congregations.

This paradox doesn’t exist just with war, though. It exists with almost every aspect of our society, at least here in the United States. We don’t think about it a lot but Christianity’s roots are as an Asian and African religion, as a minority religion in a world that was ruled by pagans and non-believers. Christianity’s roots are in Judaism, an Asian faith whose members were not only minorities, but which initially taught against the existence of a secular government. Contrast that with what Christianity is today, again here in the United States, where people regularly complain when non-Christians of one sort or another are elected to political office, where Jewish officeholders are regularly accused of dual loyalties, where many Christian citizens of our nation itself believe that it has somehow been especially blessed by God even though Christians believe that God no longer makes covenants with nations or judges nations as a whole, but only covenants with and judges individuals.

The paradox isn’t even necessarily related to the government or what the government does. My retirement income is greatly affected by what happens to the stock market. What happens to the stock market is greatly affected by the success or failure of individual companies. What happens to the individual companies is greatly affected by whether or not they can convince people to consume more and more, to buy more and more, to want more and more. What happens to individual companies is greatly affected by whether or not they can increase their profits, reduce their labor costs, or exploit market inefficiencies. Any one of those things might be bad for any given individual who loses their job or sees their wages or benefits reduced. Those things may be bad for the environment or for the stewardship of God’s creation. But those things may also reduce what it costs me to buy groceries, or a car, or a house, or may help my retirement and pension income increase. They may make things more affordable for a poor person. They may provide someone else a job who needs one.

The paradox is there for all of us. It’s there in different places, and in different ways, and at different times for each of us. Sometimes it’s related to what we reflect upon on Memorial Day, but most of the time it’s not. It’s still there, though. The question is how do we live with it.

For part of the answer, I look to our reading from Paul this morning. There’s a little bit of a paradox in that too. Paul, as a citizen of the Roman empire, is a part of one of the main currents that has led Christianity in the United States away from it’s Asian and African roots and towards the view that Christianity is somehow a “western” religion. 

Still, Paul provides one way to approach the issue. The key verse is Romans 8:14 – “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” That’s hard to remember sometimes, but it’s helpful to keep in mind when we’re considering what it means for us to benefit from what other people do that we might consider to be sinful.

I always start from the premise that I can’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. There are a lot of people who say that they are Christians. They don’t always seem to me to act in a Christ-like way, but I can’t see inside them. I can’t look at their heart and know what’s in there. I can’t tell if they are genuinely acting out of faith in God or if they are acting in their own selfish interests. I have opinions, but I can’t know.

When I recognize that I can’t know if someone is genuinely acting out of faith, when I admit that I’m not fit by temperament or ability to judge someone else’s faithfulness to God’s leading in their lives, then I open myself up to living with the paradox. Different people are led by God in different ways at different times. Some people are animal activists. Some people care deeply about the right-to-life debates in our country. Environmental issues animate some people. For others, racism is a key focus. 

Even within those broad issues there are sub-groups and sub-topics. Many people who are deeply concerned for racial justice look at it from an individual point of view. Others take a systemic or structural approach. Is the best way to follow our denomination’s teaching on abortion to seek to outlaw abortion, or at least make it very difficult, or is it to change individual hearts and minds and not focus on issues of reproductive rights? There are people on both sides of that question. Can you draw clear lines between the environment and economic justice and racial justice? Some people say yes, others say no.

Paul reminds us that different people are led in different ways at different times. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” This means that children of God will do things with which I disagree, and that I will do things with which they disagree. It means that we will do or say things that the other thinks are sinful. It means that we will act in ways that the other believes are wrong, and that we will in some way likely benefit from each other’s acts, even though we think those acts may be sin.

We can legitimately recognize Memorial Day, even as Christians who are dedicated to the Prince of Peace and who believe that war is sin. We can be thankful for and benefit from the sacrifices of others who may have believed in the same God as we do and the same Christ as we do but who interpreted the Spirit’s leading differently than we do. Likewise people who disagreed with Ted Studebaker nevertheless benefited from his sacrifice. We can trust that, as Paul wrote elsewhere, there are many gifts but the same Spirit. Trust the Spirit. Trust God. Follow the Spirit’s leading, and do not judge others who may seek to do the same. Amen.

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