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May 31, 2004
Rev. Paul R. Meltzer, Retired Pastor
Millburn Congregational United Church of Christ

There are fresh graves to decorate across this land this Memorial Day, more than 800 of them, though none yet, so far, in this place. There are 3,000 more men and women to honor this day who have returned with the wounds of war. All of them join the many who already rest under these trees and in countless other graveyards who served this nation in past wars and conflicts.

One of those earlier soldiers was Archibald MacLeish. He was born in nearby Glencoe, Illinois, and he served in World War I, beginning as an ambulance driver and rising to the rank of captain of Field Artillery. Though he lived to be 90 and went on to a distinguished career as Librarian of Congress, advisor to Presidents, diplomat, architect of the United Nations Charter and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet and playwright, he never forgot his comrades who had died so young for the sake of a free society. In one of his poems he wrote:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.
The question, of course, for us is how best shall we remember and honor the men and women for whom this day is set aside?

This is, for one thing, a day of patriotic pride when we remember the best of our national soul. "There are those," MacLeish once wrote, "who say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream." At our best, people have responded to that Dream. In another time, when our nation was locked in bitter Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson described that call to higher duty:

In an age of fops and toys,
Wanting wisdom, void of right,
Who shall nerve heroic boys
To hazard all in Freedom's fight, -
Break sharply off their jolly games,
Forsake their comrades gay,
And quit proud homes and youthful dames,
For famine, toil and fray?
Yet on the nimble air benign
Speed nimbler messages,
That waft the breath of grace divine
To hearts in sloth and ease.
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When duty whispers low,
Thou must,
The youth replies,
I can.
That we remember today.

But here is another matter to remember today, the awful other face of war. War call us to honor not only the best and highest values of duty, courage and freedom. War also tries to level all human values and deeds to the lowest expectations. There is always the danger that, confronted by some terrible evil, we shall adopt evil's own methods as our own. It is so easy to justify the horrors of war, to slip into easy acquiescence. "I was only following orders," has been the common plea of Adolph Eichmann to justify Auschwitz and the guards at Abu Graib Prison in Iraq. But then there is someone like Spec. Joseph Darby, a reservist in the 372nd Military Police Company. Darby is the one who reported the sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi detainees by some members of his own unit. Someone who grew up with Darby said of him, "Like the rest of us might, I thought maybe he would just turn and forget about it." But for whatever reason, he answered to a higher duty, allegiance to that American Dream that respects the dignity of all human beings. The greatness of the American Dream, Archibald MacLeish once wrote, rests upon such dissenters. "The dissenter," he said, "is every human being at those times of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself." That we remember today as well.

As the American Civil War was drawing to an end with Union victory in sight, Abraham Lincoln called on America to see both our patriotic valor and our national intentions as judged by a Higher Power and Purpose. In his Second Inaugural Address, he said, "Both (sides in this conflict) pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other...The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!' As we are once again engaged in a great conflict, we remember today to submit our worst deeds and our best intentions to that Higher Power. As Lincoln put it, "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

That is how best we shall remember today - honoring the best of the American Dream, resisting that Dream's contamination, setting our national life under the judgment of God's own purpose. That is our task today, Archibald MacLeish reminds us:

They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours;
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths
were for peace and a new hope or for
nothing we cannot say; it is for you who must say this.
They say: We leave you our deaths.
Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say.
We have died.
Remember us.
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