Here’s my speech, as well as the prayer I gave as part of the commemoration.
Memorial Day Prayer
Let us pray.
Holy and eternal God, we give you thanks for those who have died defending our right to gather here today. We give you thanks for all who have fought and continue to fight for a cause greater than themselves, for liberty and justice for all.
Today, gathered in a cemetery, we see the costs of war. We ask your blessing of comfort on the families of all who have served and died on their behalf, all who have given their lives in service to their country.
Even as we celebrate our freedom and remember the sacrifices it cost, we are mindful of the rest of the world, especially those places where people continue to suffer. We pray for your children around the world suffering from war, for victims of terrorism, and for refugees fleeing violence and seeking the kind of safety and security we enjoy today.
Bless this gathering today, and hear our prayer of hope and gratitude as we remember and reflect today. All this we pray in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Memorial Day Speech: “It’s Not About You”
Good morning. It’s an honor to be with you as we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. I’m going to begin with a story about a living veteran, the youngest living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On November 21, 2010, Lance Corporals Kyle Carpenter and Nick Eufrazio were manning a rooftop security position in a small village in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters had been attacking their outpost for two days, and enemy forces were getting closer.
Around 10 am, three grenades were thrown over the east compound wall. The first grenade landed inside and injured one Afghan soldier. The second grenade failed to go off. The third and final grenade landed on the rooftop where Carpenter and Eufrazio were positioned behind sandbags.
As his Medal of Honor citation reads:
“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine.”
In an interview almost four years later, Carpenter was asked if he would have done anything differently.
He answered, “”I mean, I would grab that [grenade] and kick it right back, but besides that … I wouldn’t change anything. We’re both alive and we’re here and I’m fully appreciating my second chance.”
Today, we gather to remember those who have given their lives in service to their country. We remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, those who unlike Lance Corporal Carpenter, are not able to look back and reflect on whether they would do it again.
As I’ve thought about why we celebrate Memorial Day, why we honor our nation’s fallen heroes, I’ve been struck by the idea of sacrifice, serving others even to death. Memorial Day is a time to remember that life is not all about you. Heroism is about sacrificing for others.
Historically, in many cultures, going into battle was a way to gain glory. Young men would seek the honor of fighting for their homeland, the glory and the thrill of war. Vestiges of that idea remain, but thanks to more efficient, deadlier weapons and a modern media showing war’s horror in pictures, that idea is dying out. To paraphrase Union General William Sherman, “Some of you think war is all glamor and glory, but let me tell you, war is hell.” As Ernest Hemingway put it, “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying.”
We can still celebrate heroism and valor in war, but our gathering today is different. On Memorial Day, we honor the memory of heroes by dedicating ourselves to peace. We are not here today to celebrate the killing and the dying. We are here to celebrate the sacrifices of those who have served and died for others.
Of course, each person has their own reasons (good or bad) for going into the service, but it is their service to others that gives meaning to the death of those we remember today.
Sometimes, it’s serving your fellow soldiers. You know the lifelong bonds that come from the shared experience of training, drilling, and fighting together. One of the highest ideals of military service is to leave no one behind, to work together as a unit, to rely on your buddies. Your service is not about you; it’s about your team, your unit, those who depend on you. It’s about being willing to jump on a grenade for someone else.
Some of you joined to serve your country, because you believe in the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence, that every person is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom is worth fighting for. The oath of enlistment calls for soldiers to support and defend the Constitution, to fight to preserve and protect the ideals of this nation. It’s not about you; it’s about a cause greater than any one of us.
Soldiers fight so others don’t have to. As someone who has never served in the military, I give thanks that others have fought and died on my behalf, even for my right to not fight. One of our most powerful national principles is our dedication to protecting the rights of others, protecting the rights of people even to protest those who fight for them.
Many of you joined because you were drafted. Although you didn’t volunteer to go to war, you answered when your country called upon you. Sacrifice isn’t always something we want to do. No one should ever want to go to war, but it’s not about you. General Grant once said, “I have never advocated war except as a means of peace.” Sometimes war is necessary for the sake of peace. Like paying taxes, sacrifice for others may not be pleasant, but it is necessary.
Some join the armed forces to serve our neighbors in other countries. As Jesus explained the idea of serving our neighbors, he didn’t limit it to people we like, or people we agree with. May we continue to be a nation that stands for freedom around the world, a nation that responds to disasters with humanitarian aid, and a people who are generous to those we will never meet. America is at its best when we seek the benefit of the whole world, the benefit of all humanity.
The danger of celebrating a holiday like Memorial Day or of building a monument or a tombstone is that it freezes in place a particular time and a particular person. It can focus us in on ourselves. But we cannot allow ourselves to become stuck in the past, because there’s too much need today. The soldiers we remember today who gave their lives sacrificed them for the future, for potential. We owe it to them to move forward in serving others, to continue fighting for the ideals they died for. This great country is built on potential and opportunity. There is still great need for the kind of sacrifice for others that this day represents.
On February 3, 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, US army transport ship Dorchester was carrying over 900 soldiers through the North Atlantic to Greenland. Early in the morning, the ship was attacked and hit by a torpedo from a German u-boat. On board were four chaplains, Father John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; Reverend Clark Poling, a pastor in the Reformed Church in America; Reverend George Fox, a Methodist minister, and Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode.
In the chaos as the ship was sinking, there weren’t enough life jackets accessible for everyone. These four chaplains are remembered today for willingly giving their own life preservers to soldiers who didn’t have them. Over 600 men died that night, but those who survived reported seeing the four chaplains standing on the deck of the ship praying together as it sank. Heroism is giving up your life jacket so someone else can live. The four chaplains died, but their actions and encouragement saved the lives of many of their companions.
After it was determined the chaplains did not qualify them for the Medal of Honor as their actions hadn’t taken place under fire, Congress created a special medal for them, the “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism.” This is the sort of heroism we’re here today to recognize.
Many of you here are like me and have never served in the military. We often don’t notice or consider the sacrifices made on our behalf. We don’t notice the families writing letters to children or parents overseas, or the loved ones grieving on a certain day each year. How can we appreciate the sacrifices made for us? How do we thank those who understood that it wasn’t about them, that their duty was to put others first, even at the cost of their own lives?
As a pastor, I’m here with you today because this is the kind of heroism God engaged in. God did not sit back and wait for us to do our part to fix our broken world. Instead, God looked at the violence and the brokenness in our world, and decided to do something about it.
God never intended for war or violence to be necessary, but when it happened, God didn’t condemn us or give up on us. Instead, God came in person to redeem the world, and to experience the suffering and death that are so much a part of our reality. As Jesus says in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
How do we respond to that kind of self-giving love? I believe we best appreciate the sacrifices made for us by remembering it’s not about us. Our lives are not our own. We are blessed as individuals and as a nation in order to be a blessing to others.
Instead of focusing on ourselves, I challenge you to honor the sacrifices made for you by serving others and giving to those in need. To quote Jesus in John 15 again, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Stand up for those who are not able to stand up for themselves. Speak out for those without a voice of their own. Follow the example of those four chaplains and when you have nothing left to give, pray for your neighbors. Our way of serving might be less dramatic than falling on a grenade, or going down with a ship, and you probably won’t get a medal for it, but it is still necessary.
May we honor the memories of our fallen heroes by using the freedom they defended to serve and defend others in need. May we honor their memories by working towards a world of justice, peace, and freedom for all, a world where war is no longer necessary.
As the local Lutheran pastor, I’ll conclude with a quote from a great hero of the faith, Martin Luther: “If there is anything in us, it is not our own; it is a gift of God. But if it is a gift of God, then it is entirely a debt one owes to love, that is, to the law of Christ. And if it is a debt owed to love, then I must serve others with it, not myself.”
May God bless you, may God bless our nation, and may God bless all who have given their lives defending freedom and serving others.