Sermon
May 28, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

1 John 5:1-6     Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

    6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.


John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

    12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

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Sermon

John Bradley was a funeral home director in Antigo, Wisconsin.  He was a man who married his third grade sweetheart and raised eight children in same town where he had been born.  When he died in January of 1994 his family went searching for his will.   How many times do you think, as a funeral director, he had helped other families make sure all their papers were in order and admonished his friends and children to plan ahead and make things easier for their survivors.   But at the time of his death, his will could not be found, so his wife and two of their children were his private office when in a dark closet they discovered three old cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, dusty on the top from years of being unopened and undisturbed.

 

When they opened the boxes they found a collection of letters, photos, and documents from John Bradley’s service as a Marine in the Pacific theater in World War II.   One letter they found was mailed to his parents from Iwo Jima on February 26, 1945 and read:

“I’d give my left arm for a good shower and a clean shave, I have a 6 day beard.  Haven’t had any soap or water since I hit the beach.  I never knew I could go without food, water, or sleep for three days, but now I know it can be done.  You know all about our battle out here.  I was with the victorious Easy Company who reached the top of Mt. Suribachi first.  I had a little to do with raising the American flag and it was the happiest moment of my life.”

 

The happiest moment of his life?  What a shock it was for his family to read that.  Everyone knew John Bradley, for he was one of the US Marines pictured in the most famous war photo of all time - not only the most famous war photo, but the most published and reproduced photo of all time - the photo that would be on the front page of every newspaper in America, on stamps around the world, and carved in stone as the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia - the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.  

 

The happiest moment of his life?  How hard it was for his children to understand that, for it was a moment their father never spoke of to them.  When their teachers in school would tell them that their father was a hero, they would come home and ask, and he would not speak about it.  “We were there, we put up a pole, someone snapped a picture.” End of conversation.  When there would be phone calls from newspapers, magazines, TV and radio shows, he would not go to the phone.  “Tell them I’m fishing in Canada,” he would say, although he never went fishing. 

 

The photo of their father that was on 150 million 3 cent stamps did not hang anywhere in their home.  It did not hang anywhere in their father’s place of business.  The distance between the emotions of John Bradley in the letter to his parents describing that flag raising as the happiest moment of his life and the silence about it that he maintained for 45 years of his adult life was such a mystery to one son, that it set him on a quest to understand the real story of Iwo Jima, of his father, and of the flag raising. That quest is now a book called “Flags of Our Fathers,” and it is a tale about the war and especially about the six marines who are pictured raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi above the beaches of Iwo Jima. 

 

The only clue John Bradley ever gave his children about his silence on the subject of the war and the photograph was a simple thought.  He’d say to them: “The real heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn’t come back.”  Of the six Marines who raised that flag, only three made if off the island alive.  Contrary to what is commonly thought, the raising of the flag did not come at the end of the struggle for the island, but quite near the beginning.   Of the three who survived the battle only one lived to old age - and that was John Bradley. 

 

I’m eager to read the rest of this book, but what has really interested me in hearing interviews with the son who wrote it is the whole question of the life of survivors - the tasks of survivors - the work of living when some have died.

 

Accounts of survival are most riveting when all participants have been involved in some common experience like war where it seems that fate has rather randomly picked some to live and some to die.  When you read accounts of people who survived terrible battles or bombings, you get that sense that there could be no meaning drawn from the list of those who lived and those who died.  And if such a significant question can be decided without apparent meaning, than what meaning can be assigned to any aspect of human endeavor.

 

Sometimes this meaninglessness, this sorting out by random fate, produces in the survivor a sense of guilt.  I have read of this in survivors of great public horrors like Hiroshima, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.  I have also read of it in those who have survived private tragedies.  Do you recall the movie “Ordinary People” about a family who loses a son in a boating accident?  Two brothers get caught in a storm in their sailboat.  One brother survives; the other drowns.  It is incomprehensible to the living brother that he was the survivor.  He cannot cope with the guilt of it, with the pain of it, with the meaning or lack of meaning of it.  The work of survival overwhelms him, threatens to drown him, but ultimately leads to his transformation.

 

What meaning can life contain when we lose the ones we love who gave it meaning?  This question is stated with great force in the poem by W. H. Auden that begins:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

 

The sense that life’s meaning comes from the love of others is expressed in this verse:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

 

And the despair of the survivor is the note that ends the poem:

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

It is the hard work of the survivor to create meaning when the meaning we knew and loved is gone. 

 

The memoir, Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther, deals with a family’s struggle at the dying of their seventeen-year-old son Johnny from a brain tumor.  The book is written by Johnny’s father, but it is his mother Frances who writes the final chapter.  In her last paragraphs she struggles with creating meaning out of this death.  She writes:

 

Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life.  Nothing, not even the birth of one’s child, brings one so close to life as his death. 

 

Johnny lay dying of a brain tumor for fifteen months.  He was in his seventeenth year.  I never kissed him good night without wondering whether I would see him alive in the morning.  I greeted him each morning as though he were newly born to me, a re-gift of God.  Each day he lived was a blessed day of grace.

 

Today, when I see parents impatient or tired or bored with their children, I wish I could say to them, “But they are alive,” think of the wonder of that!

 

I wish we had loved Johnny more when he was alive.  Of course we loved Johnny very much.  Johnny knew that.  Everybody knew it.   Loving Johnny more.  What does it mean?  What can it mean now?

 

Parents all over the earth who lost (children) in the war have felt this kind of question, and sought an answer.  To me, it means loving life more, being more aware of life, of one’s fellow human beings, of the earth.

 

It mean’s obliterating, in a curious but real way, the ideas of evil and hate and the enemy, and transforming them, with the alchemy of suffering, into ideas of charity (and love).

 

It means caring more and more about other people, at home and abroad, all over the earth.  It means caring more and more about God.

 

I hope we can love Johnny more and more till we too die, and leave behind us, as he did, the love of love, the love of life.

This weekend our thoughts are with those who have lived and died and left a legacy of love and courage, of charity and meaning.  Each of their lives had a story, a tale to tell.  We remember them; we honor them.  And the greatest tribute we can give is to use the strength of their lives and the pain of their loss as a source of meaning and purpose, of kindness and charity, of patience and devotion here and now in the world of survivors.  For it is in the hard work of surviving that we honor them best and sustain, from generation to generation, the legacy of their living.

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Let us pray:

As you have loved us, O God, so we will seek to love one another, to be faithful disciples, to honor our beloved departed who now find rest and peace in your presence. 

Give them eternal rest, O Lord; let your light shine on them forever; May their souls, and the souls of all your children, rest in peace.

God of healing and hope, we pray this day for all those whose lives are burdened with cares, with grief, with anxiety or fear.  May we find the words to comfort and the deeds to help.  May they experience your nearness and support, your presence that is a light in the darkness, a cool drink of water in a dry and barren land.

We remember before you all those whose names have been recorded into our Book of Remembrance and those who generously gave these gifts.

We ask for your healing power to bring health and strength into the lives of:

We seek your spirit of mercy, truth and justice as we participate in the government of our church and town, as we respond to issues that occupy our public agenda, as we seek to fulfill our roles as children, parents, spouses; as teachers, coaches, leaders, volunteers and citizens in this diverse and democratic society.

We ask your blessing our nation and all the nations of the world, on our leaders and all who bear authority among us, on all who serve our country in places of danger and are distant from their families.

Give us, we pray, that proper sense of all your mercies that our hearts may overflow with gratitude and appreciation, that we may live lives worthy of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ, who invites us to abide in his love, to love one another, and to have our joy made complete in the keeping of his commandments.   In his name we pray.  Amen

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