Raising Up Destruction by Living Generously

Today is Veterans Day, which has its origins in the November 11, 1918 armistice agreement to end WWI, 94 years ago today. WWI was known as the “Great War” and “the war to end all wars.” Within two decades after the end of the “war to end all wars,” Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI and quickly occupied half of Europe. Europe plunged into continental-wide war again. Meanwhile, Japan invaded China and Manchuria–they had already occupied Korea for decades–and then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States, having been largely on the sidelines, entered full-force into WWII. By the end of the war in 1945, tens of millions of people were dead, millions were mercilessly exterminated in concentration camps, and tens of thousands of civilians were vaporized by Little Boy and Fat Man. In declaring the first anniversary of Armistice Day in 1919, President Woodrow WIlson said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” How ironic it is that Congress declared “Armistice Day” a federal holiday on May 13, 1938, a day “dedicated to the cause of world peace” at the same time Germany took control of Austria and Japan reached the Yellow River in China.

In 1954 the name of the holiday was changed to “Veterans Day,” and in his proclamation on the occasion of the name change, President Eisenhower asked the United States to “let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

I would like to share with you one story of sacrifice in the midst of military duty.  [audio here] [full text here]

PRESENTATION CEREMONY AT THE WHITE HOUSE, APRIL 21, 1966.

President Johnson’s Remarks Upon Awarding the Medal of Honor to Milton L. Olive III.

Mr. and Mrs. Olive, members of the Olive family, distinguished Mayor Daley, Secretary Resor, General Wheeler, Members of the Senate, Members of the House, ladies and gentlemen,

There are occasions on which we take great pride, but little pleasure. This is one such occasion. Words can never enlarge upon acts of heroism and duty, but this Nation will never forget Milton Lee Olive III.

The Medal of Honor is awarded for acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. It is bestowed for courage demonstrated not in blindly overlooking danger, but in meeting it with eyes clearly open. He was compelled by something that’s more than duty, by something greater than a blind reaction to forces that are beyond his control.

And that is what Private Olive did. When the enemy’s grenade landed on that jungle trail, it was not merely duty which drove this young man to throw himself upon it, sacrificing his own life that his comrades might continue to live.

So in dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.

In all of this there is irony, as there is when any young man dies. Who can say what words Private Olive might have chosen to explain what he did? Jimmy Stanford and John Foster, two of the men whose lives he saved that day on that lonely trail in that hostile jungle 10,000 miles from here are standing on the White House steps today because this man chose to die. I doubt that even they know what was on his mind as he jumped and fell across that grenade.

So Milton Olive died in the service of a country that he loved, and he died that the men who fought at his side might continue to live. For that sacrifice his Nation honors him today with its highest possible award.

He is the eighth Negro American to receive this Nation’s highest award.

So I can think of no more fitting tribute to him than to read from a letter that was written to me by this patriot’s father, dated March the 10th. And I quote:

“It is our dream and prayer that some day the Asiatics, and the Europeans, and the Israelites, and the Africans, and the Australians, and the Latins, and the Americans can all live in one world. It is our hope that in our own country the Klansmen and the Negroes, the Hebrews and the Catholics will sit down together in the common purpose of good will and dedication; that the moral and creative intelligence of our united people will pick up the chalice of wisdom and place it upon the mountain top of human integrity; that all mankind, from all the earth, shall resolve, ‘to study war no more.’ That, Mr. President, is how I feel and that is my eternal hope for our Great American Society.”

And ladies and gentlemen, I have no words to add to that.

From the Congressional Medal of Honor citation: “Private Olive and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle together when a grenade was thrown into their midst. Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body. Through his bravery, unhesitating actions, and complete disregard for his own safety, he prevented additional loss of life or injury to the members of his platoon.”

Milton Olive was just two weeks shy of his 19th birthday when he gave up his life for others. What was going through the mind of this young kid from the South Side of Chicago when he sacrificed his life in the far off jungles of Vietnam? We will never know.

One thing is sure for us as Christian believers, as we heard in the Gospel of John this morning: Jesus “knows all people” and Jesus knows “what is in everyone.” In Milton Olive III was the power to raise up life in the midst of destruction. Contained in his brief life was the central contradiction of human history, that life and its highest ideal of self-sacrifice for the common good shine brightest in the midst of warfare and destruction. In that brief incomprehensible moment when Milton Olive threw himself on that grenade he lived a lifetime of generosity and he preached the greatest sermon in the tradition of the prophets, in the tradition of Isaiah chapter two, as alluded to by Milton’s father in his hopeful letter to President Johnson, praying that we humans will “study war no more.” Isaiah preached that the Lord “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Strewn throughout the pages of the Bible are several examples of when even God has to be reminded that violence and destruction are not proper paths to go down but rather generosity and forgiveness are the righteous ways. For example, just before the story we heard this morning from Exodus chapter 32, just before Moses comes down the mountain with the first set of tablets, God says to Moses after seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” And how does Moses respond to God after God says he wants to destroy the people? Moses says to God, “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

God changed his mind. And what caused God to change his mind? Moses. One single person acted as the catalyst for God to remember his generous promises. How sad it is, yet how deliciously ironic, that just a few verses later in the passage we heard this morning Moses forgot he had just begged God to relent, which God did, but then Moses came down the mountain full of rage and bent on destruction: As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

Troubling in the Exodus passage is what concludes chapter 32, God says, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. [And then] the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf.” From the troubling to the beautiful is Exodus, chapter 33, a dialog between Moses and God about what to do with the people. After their conversation, God comes sweeping though in his full glory, and Moses hides himself in a cleft in the mountainside. The result is a new, second set of tablets of instruction to give to God’s people. This is when the Lord teaches Moses (and us) that he is a God of enduring love (to the thousandth generation), “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” I admit, this sounds difficult, “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon … the third and the fourth generation.” But think about what the scriptures are saying here. God’s generosity extends to 1000 generations versus only 3-4 generations for the negative effects of sin. Of course these numbers of generations are not to be taken literally but rather they illustrate that God’s love and generosity reach far beyond the human circumstances of sin.

Do you feel caught up in the destructive influence of those generations who have gone before you? Be they parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, friends or co-workers, ex-spouses or current spouses? Are you drinking water made bitter by the powder of pulverized idols? Do the ruined idols of your life poison your ability to live generously? Have the idols of your life even been pulverized yet? Have you looked to the Bible over and over again for answers to your difficult questions and for healing to your pain only to find cryptic texts, hopelessly out of date and locked up tight by another time and culture? If so, then don’t be afraid to act like Moses, to smash the tablets, to smash the Bible, to smash your faith against the destructive things in your life. If the Bible breaks, even if your faith breaks, do not worry because God is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” and God will give you a new understanding of the Bible, a new understanding of faith.

We are made in the image and likeness of God, and thus it is in our nature to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger.” This is the essence of generosity, to be merciful and gracious. We worship God in the spirit of mercy and grace every Sunday morning in this sanctuary that dates back to the close of the Civil War. Our worship fans the flames of our generous spirits by reminding us that even though destruction may be all around us and throughout the world, we are a people who celebrate and worship the Risen Christ who promises to make all things new. We need not fear the destruction of anything or anyone in our lives because God will raise us all up in the fullness of time. We also need not fear giving away as much of ourselves as we can to the service of others because that is what Jesus did for us. He generously gave himself up for us so that we may become the Body of Christ for the world.

In a heartbeat Milton Olive gave himself up for his comrades, not knowing if they would make it out alive. Betrayed by a kiss, Jesus gave himself up for us knowing full well what we would become. And now Jesus calls us to live as generously as we can to give life to others, full of manifold blessings and disasters. He calls you to be raised up with him in the midst of whatever decay and destruction you may happen to be in. “So in dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live,” said President Johnson. The Gospel of John: “His disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” Amen.

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