On the secular calendar, this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we honor those who’ve given their lives in service to the nation. On the church calendar, we’ve begun a different marking of time, the “long green season” of ordinary time, the Sundays after Pentecost. For the next few months – until Advent, in fact – we’ll hear stories from Jesus’ ministry, as well as their Old Testament roots, fleshing out for us the never-ending journey of Christian discipleship. So in this odd juxtaposition of a national holiday and the Church’s ordinary time, how do we make sense of our need to remember those who’ve died in our nation’s conflicts, as well as our need to worship the God who commands us to beat our swords into plowshares and follow the Prince of Peace?
Though war is certainly “all hell,”1 as William Tecumseh Sherman said, God also lifts from its blood and ashes what Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.”2 On Memorial Day, I think we’d say it’s not simply millions of deaths that we honor but the purposes we imagine those deaths sought to realize. After all, simply honoring death is not a particularly Christian thing to do. But we also believe, deep in our national soul, that a war must mean more than death, more than raw assertion of power, if it is to be just. So we focus on the good we believe the war intends, as well as the virtues war can raise up in otherwise unremarkable people.
As it happens, I think an event in town last weekend, as well as our readings here this morning, help us glimpse some of those better angels of our nature rising from the hell of war. The event last weekend was a concert by the Kansas City Symphony that included the world premiere of a work to mark the centennial of World War I. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this in Kansas City, home of the national World War I Museum. The new symphony reflected on the war not just instrumentally but through the words of two Americans who served in it. As it happens, one of those voices belongs to the father and uncle of two members of our parish family. That soldier is 1st Lieutenant Burnham “Burnie” Hockaday, uncle of Irv Hockaday and father of Laura Rollins Hockaday.
In his letter home, you can hear Burnie’s pride and hope as he writes to his mother from England, on the threshold of six months literally in the trenches, suffering he surely can’t yet imagine. On that innocent side of the bloodshed, Burnie readies himself for what I’m sure he sees as a noble conflict, a war the U.S. entered intending to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy. A hundred years later, we hear those words and cringe at their naiveté, for we know about the failure of the League of Nations; the unspeakable carnage of the next, even greater war; and the sinful acts that have been perpetrated in freedom’s name. But Burnie and his comrades believed in the nobility of what they were doing – making the world safe for democracy, fighting to inaugurate an era of peace. That was the good those young men intended, for no one wants lasting peace more than the 18-year-old who’s heading into the trench. They saw their mission not simply as winning a war but as extending liberty to those outside the boundaries of that blessing.
And there in England, as he made his way to the front, Burnie Hockaday noticed a virtue arising among the people, a virtue that enabled the mission he and they were striving to achieve. Riding a train through the English countryside, Burnie Hockaday was surprised by the first fighters he saw in action – the women of England who literally were making the war possible. He wrote to his mother about the example they set: “One of the things that impressed me most was the women in the big factories and plants. … [In] every factory, whether it [is] an iron foundry or a chemical plant or what[ever] we passed, … [i]t is the English women who are winning the war today, in my opinion. The sacrifices which they are undergoing ha[ve] won from all of us [soldiers] the highest admiration.”3
But even more than the women’s work ethic, Burnie noticed the last thing he expected to see in a society strictly divided by class. Here’s how he described it to his mother: “[T]he servants are working side by side with the mistresses, all in [overalls] and cheerfully doing any unpleasant work assigned to them, all the way from making shells, [to] running a steam engine … to delicate tasks in a chemical factory.”3 Now, anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey knows social class was an unbridgeable gap in Edwardian England, and the Conservative and Labor parties are still fighting that battle in English politics today. But the fire of war can fashion noble virtues. Among those British women, that virtue was unity – setting aside longstanding and intractable division, setting aside a deep and sinful presumption of difference, all for the common good.
And what, you may be asking, does any this have to do with our discipleship, as we follow Jesus with stumbling steps through this long, green season as he teaches and heals and brings the commonwealth of God to life? Here’s the connection I see: In our best moments – certainly as Christians but also as Americans – in our best moments, we transcend our temptation to make life all about “us” and “them.” In our best moments, we seek to reach across human boundaries and bless those we find on the other side.
Think about the reading we heard from 1 Kings, part of the great history of the people of Israel as they moved from scattered tribes, to a unified nation, to grievous division, and finally to destruction and exile. Today we pick up that long history at its Camelot moment, at least from the historian’s perspective, with the great Temple of Solomon just completed. Solomon is Israel’s most powerful king; he has taken what his father, King David, left him and built Israel into a regional power. As his crowning achievement, Solomon builds a great Temple to the Lord – a magnificent structure to reflect the glory of the one true King, Yahweh, whose palace the Temple would be. And in this moment of national triumph, with the people gathered around this symbol of the exceptionalism Israel claimed – in this moment, as Solomon prays to dedicate this symbol of divine nationhood, Solomon also prays for the outsiders. He asks God, “When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven … and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name…” (1 Kings 8:42-43).
Even in Israel’s greatest national moment, Solomon knows his nation’s existence is not about itself. Israel is there as a missionary presence. As the prophet Isaiah says, speaking for God, “I have given [Israel] as … a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:6-7). “You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 55:5). And about that glorious structure Solomon built, Isaiah makes its intention clear: The Lord will bring outsiders to join themselves to the Lord’s family. “[T]hese I will bring to my holy mountain,” God proclaims, “and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Then, in the Gospel reading, God keeps pushing back the boundaries that our world and our hearts erect. Jesus gets a plea for healing from probably the last person he would have expected – a Roman centurion. Roman army officers were more likely to kill Jewish leaders for sport than to seek a blessing in respect. But this company commander is what they called a “God fearer” – not a Jew, because Roman army officers were forbidden from professing allegiance to anyone but the emperor, but someone who honored the God of Israel nonetheless. This centurion stands for the nations that Solomon and Isaiah described, those who would come to Israel’s God to share in the blessings of healing providence. And Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the Jewish elders around him that God welcomes this outsider with open arms. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” as his (Luke 7:9).
At our national best, we know we’re called to serve the outsider, too. We’re called to light “the torch of freedom for nations [yet] unborn,” as the collect for Independence Day puts it (BCP 242). But before we can reach across our boundaries to bless those on the other side, we must first join together ourselves, like the English women of all classes whom Burnie Hockaday saw laboring in the iron works. In our best national moments, we have found ways to join hands so that we might reach out in blessing to those beyond us.
But more often now, we hear the discourse of division and the rhetoric of retrenchment. We vilify those who disagree with us, and we fan the flames of fear of the outsider – especially those who look “different” somehow. Yes, the world can be a dangerous and ugly place; but God’s call to people of faith is to proclaim a contrast reality, not to buy into a narrative of negativity. As Lincoln noted, “the Almighty has his own purposes”;4 and nothing frustrates those holy purposes quite like dividing ourselves from one another and walling ourselves off from those we’re called to bless.
This weekend, as we honor those who have given their lives hoping to bring blessing to people they didn’t know, and as we worship our God who always looks to push back the boundaries of the circle of blessing, we might do well to ask ourselves, “How are we measuring up?” Are we answering the call to become “out of many, one”? Are we adding chairs to the welcome table? Are we following Jesus’ lead and looking for the next person to bring into the family?
As a people, our greatest generations were those that came together, and gave themselves away, to bless those they didn’t even know. Are we among those greatest? We can be, if we spread out our hands to heaven and pray for our hearts to be changed.
1. Military Quotes. “William Tecumseh Sherman Quotes.” Available at: http://www.military-quotes.com/william-sherman.htm. Accessed May 28, 2016.
2. Lincoln, Abraham. “First Inaugural Address.” Available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp. Accessed May 28, 2016.
3. Hockaday, Burnham, to Clara Hockaday. Personal correspondence, June 23, 1918. Archives of the National World War I Museum, Kansas City, MO. For more information on Burnie Hockaday, see https://kcsymphony.wordpress.com/tag/kansas-city-symphony. For information about the Kansas City Symphony commission involving his letter, see http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/classical-music-dance/article77235677.html and http://www.kcjc.com/index.php/current-news/latest-news/3745-jewish-mystical-thought-inspires-leshnoff-s-symphony-no-3.
4. Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address.” Available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp. Accessed May 28, 2016.