2015 11 08: In Flanders Fields

Posted on 09 Nov 2015

Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

100 years ago, a Canadian military doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae took a break from dressing the injuries of wounded soldiers to write a poem. He was inspired after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer in May 1915. It was McCrae’s second tour of duty in the Canadian military. He had previously fought with a volunteer force in the Second Boer War. Though a doctor, he considered himself a soldier first. The day after Helmer was killed, McCrae noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at in the field. While sitting in the back of an ambulance, he composed this poem.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row, That mark our place;
and in the sky the larks still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved,
and now we lie in Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch;
be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders Fields

According to stories, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. “In Flanders Fields” was first published on December 1915, in a collection of McCrae’s works. McCrae’s poem has attained iconic status in Canada, where it is the most well-known literary piece among English-speaking Canadians. McCrae, however, never experienced such notoriety. He died of pneumonia in France, three years later in 1918, near the end of the war.

There are many today who would suggest that McCrae’s virtues of sacrifice, honor and loyalty are out of style. Of course, we enjoy treating veterans as heroes. It is after all the patriotic thing to do. There are some who would question whether any religious celebration of sacrifices made in wars long since passed should be commemorated. Rather they should be forgotten, and we should move on. Others would criticize that any Remembrance Sunday commemoration actually glorifies war and encourages people to think that it is acceptable to die fighting for one’s country; and so they say, don’t remember the dead, instead speak about the horror of war, and proclaim that God is against all violence, against all forms of man’s inhumanity against man.

Personally, however, I believe that that such notions may miss the purpose of remembrance. My father was a part of a group of men and women known by NBC newsman Tom Brokow as the greatest generation. He argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.” Of course, my father was a stoic Norwegian-American who didn’t speak about many things- especially his military service. He didn’t even talk about his high school football career. Just a few weeks ago, we discovered a newspaper clipping from the Ellendale Eagle where it reported that my father played on the local high school football team the Ellendale Raiders, which had the longest winning streak in Minnesota history. In 1941 they outscored the opposition 353 to 0. My father never mentioned it, nor how he came to be awarded the Bronze Star for heroic achievement in World War II. Yes, my father simply did what he thought was the “right thing to do.”

Interestingly, before my father died, he said that it was important that the appropriate military rites be celebrated at his funeral service. It wasn’t for him, he said, but it was for the sake of those who hadn’t returned from battle- those who had given everything they had to live on. My father believed that in such a rite others would be remembered for their selfless sacrifice for the sake of others.

Throughout history, men and women have been inspired by stories of sacrifice. In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus commends the poor widow who offers her two small coins to the temple treasury. On the temple mount in ancient Jerusalem, in the Courtyard of the Women there were thirteen collecting boxes known as the Trumpets. They were shaped like a trumpet with the narrow part at the top and the wider part at the foot. Each trumpet was assigned to an offering for a designated purpose – for the wood that was used for the burnt sacrifices, for the incense, for the maintenance of the temple. This was where Jesus was seated. As he looked up, he saw many rich people were flinging their offerings into the Trumpets; and then came the poor, courageous widow. She had known only great poverty. All she had in the world were two thin copper coins. But as Jesus watched the woman, he said to his disciples, “Truly, I tell you, this woman has put in more than all of them.”

In the most profound sense, the story of the widow teaches us that one person can make a difference. One soul, willing to offer everything they have to live on can change the world and protect the integrity of their family, their community and their nation. It is all in learning to know and trust to do the right thing.

The story of Martin of Tours as well reminds us that that our choice may not be as great as choosing between life and death, but it may be in simply choosing to use the one gift, the one talent, the one possession that can make all the difference. Sharing his cloak with the beggar was all the choice that Martin was given. It was everything he had to live on. But it is the one story of sacrifice that is told over and over each year. Through the scriptures the young Roman soldier had grown to know Jesus. He had grown to know what was good and godly and that sharing his cloak was “the right thing to do.”

Today, my friends, is not just an occasion to mourn. It is not just a time to remember those who died. It is certainly not just a time to say that war that is good or honorable. Rather it is an occasion when we remember just why it is they who died, did what they did- because like the greatest generation, they believed it was the right thing to do. Remembrance Sunday is of course a time to remember the horror of war and to vow to ourselves never again. It is a time to take up the torch and to dedicate ourselves anew to living in such a way, for the sake of the poor and hungry, the weak and lowly, the widow and the orphan, the refugee and the war torn, and to do the right thing, so we do not break faith with those who died to bring peace to the world. It is a time to commit ourselves anew to the struggle against evil, and the struggle against the very things that lead nations to war in the first place. Yes, commit ourselves anew, and everything to live on, to do the right thing. And in this way, we will remember them. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.