Sermon
June 1, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Back in April when Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan I clipped a few articles I thought might be appropriate for Memorial Day. At the time I didn’t think he would again be in the news – in a letter in the News Times on Friday and in an announcement yesterday that he was probably killed by friendly fire because of a ''misunderstanding'' when two mixed groups of American and Afghan soldiers began firing wildly in the confusion following an explosion.

The letter in the News Times was written by a high school student and is a thoughtful reminder of the meaning of this weekend:

Tillman's sacrifice is so remarkable that I have to give it my utmost respect and pride as an American. For those of you who might have for some reason or another not heard of this story yet, Pat Tillman was a professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals. His position was safety and his salary was valued at $3.6 million for three years.

After the tragic events of Sept. 11, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, a minor league baseball player, made a decision which has been virtually unparalleled in terms of pure courage and bravery. They made the choice to walk away from lives of riches and fame to do what they believed to be morally right. Tillman gave the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs and our freedom during a firefight with Afghan rebels near the town of Sperah, 25 miles southwest of a U.S. base at Khost.

Bob Ferguson, the general manager who drafted Tillman with the Cardinals, described him well when he said: "In today's world of instant gratification and selfishness, here is a man that was defined by words like loyalty, honor, passion, courage, strength and nobility. He is a modern-day hero."

Everyone who serves makes a sacrifice, and those who are wounded or killed make a sacrifice beyond what we know. And not to diminish what anyone else has left behind, the person who willingly relinquishes a position of protected privilege out of love or duty and puts themselves on the front line – that adds yet another dimension of inspiration to the story.

I don’t know how many other professional athletes have answered the call to service in the current war. In the Vietnam War there were two National League Football players killed: Buffalo Bills guard and Army lieutenant Bob Kalsu, who died on July 21, 1970, when his unit fell under heavy fire while defending an isolated jungle mountaintop, and Air Force Major Don Steinbrunner, an offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, whose plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam on July 20, 1967.

In World War II there were many professional athletes who served, among them 638 football players. One of that number was a New York Giant named Jack Lummus, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor at Iwo Jima. Last month the Online National Review had an article about him:

On the morning of March 8, 1945, Lummus was leading a rifle platoon with 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines when he was knocked down by a grenade blast. Stunned, but uninjured, he leapt to his feet, charged an enemy bunker, and "killed its occupants with a single sweep of his submachine gun." A second grenade shattered Lummus's shoulder. Still he attacked, destroying another enemy position.

Then leading his men in a wild charge against a third emplacement, the New York Giant stepped on a mine that detonated with a terrific blast heard across the island. When the roar subsided, Lummus's Marines could hear their lieutenant shouting, "Forward! Keep moving!"

The Marines could hear Lummus's voice, but they were not able to see him until the dust and smoke of the blast cleared. At first, the Marines thought their lieutenant was standing in a hole. They then realized he was upright on two bloody stumps. His legs were gone, and much of his lower trunk had been shredded.

Several of the younger Marines, weeping like children, ran to him. For a moment they considered shooting him to put him out of his misery. But Lummus kept urging them forward. "Keep moving! You can't stop now!"

According to the official Marine Corps report. "Their tears turned to rage. They swept an incredible 300 yards over impossible ground... There was no question that the dirty, tired men, cursing and crying and fighting, had done it for Jack Lummus."

Lummus lingered for several hours before he died, always conscious, managing a few smiles, at one point quipping, "Well, I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damned good end."

Like Jack Lummus, William Broyles served as a United States Marine, although his service was in Vietnam and he came home unharmed. Broyles became a successful writer – he is probably best known for the screenplay for the Oscar nominated movie “Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks. He also wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled: A War for Us, Fought by Them:

I am now the father of a young man who has far more character than I ever had. He volunteered for an elite unit and has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When I see images of Americans in the war zones, I think of my son and his friends, many of whom I have come to know and deeply respect. When I opened this newspaper yesterday and read the front-page headline, "9 G.I.'s Killed," I didn't think in abstractions. I thought very personally.

The problem is… There are no immediate family members of any of the prime civilian planners of this war serving in it — beginning with President Bush and extending deep into the Defense Department. Only one of the 535 members of Congress, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, has a child in the war — and only half a dozen others have sons and daughters in the military.

With few exceptions, the only men and women in military service are the profoundly patriotic or the economically needy.

It was not always so. In other wars, the men and women in charge made sure their family members led the way. Since 9/11, the war on terrorism has often been compared to the generational challenge of Pearl Harbor; but Franklin D. Roosevelt's sons all enlisted soon after that attack. Both of Lyndon B. Johnson's sons-in-law served in Vietnam.

This is less a matter of politics than privilege. The Democratic elites have not responded more nobly than have the Republican. The war is being fought by Other People's Children. The war is impersonal for the very people to whom it should be most personal. If this war is truly worth fighting, then the burdens of doing so should fall on all Americans. If it's not worth your family fighting it, then it's not worth it, period. "

There is something righteous when those who have privilege lay it down to serve and something corrupt when they make decisions that put others at risk but use their privilege for their own protection.

Who goes to the front lines? One of the points that Paul and other writers always made in explaining the character of God in Jesus was that here was someone who came from a place of glory, power, and privilege and went right to the front lines of service – right to the place of danger and suffering and pain out of love for those he came to save.

The apostles, too, although they were in hiding and afraid for their lives, when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, they stepped boldly to the front and served the Lord with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. As an old hymn reminds us:

Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head down was crucified.

Where is the front line of service for those things we value and cherish most? Who are the heroes we hold up to our children, who inspire us with courage and resolve and the willingness to risk it all for what matters most? It doesn’t always involve the threat of physical harm, but it always requires some form of sacrifice.

In church we look to the Lord and the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. And on this weekend we also look to those sitting around us, those who have served in defense of freedom, those whose loved ones are at risk, and those who bear silent witness in the cemeteries and await the resurrection of the just. May God bless and protect them all and bring them to that day when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Amen.