Today we celebrate Independence Day, July 4th. I open this homily with a prayer of Abraham Lincoln that is definitely “apropos” to us today as it was when it was penned.
“Lord, give us faith that right makes might. Grant, O merciful God, that with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as you give us to see the right, we may strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord”. (Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th president of the United States)
When you think of Independence Day, Fourth of July celebrations what do you think about? Okay, I confess. I think of fireworks, family barbecues, picnics, parades, a day of relaxing on the beach or sitting around a table with friends and loved ones, enjoying a Padres baseball game on TV, or visiting the grave sites of veterans or other loved ones that have passed on. In my mind all these comforting things point to an appreciation of the freedom that we have in our country to make decisions about careers, the opportunity to vote and express opinions without fear of reprisal.
When I watch fireworks, smell hamburgers or ears of corn cooking on grills, or sitting down to enjoy homemade potato salad, pork and beans and a tall glass of ice tea, it points me to the reality of the price others have paid for my freedom, this lifestyle I enjoy not only on Independence Day, but on every other day of the year. And, on this day I am especially grateful for veterans that have died and those that have been wounded and those that have not been wounded that have served in the military for our country all the way back to 1776, and to the current time of our soldiers serving at places around the world on our behalf.
This is a day to be grateful, to appreciate and to celebrate the United States of America, which George Washington dubbed as the “Great Experiment”. Does that mean we are without reproach, and that we are a model of how to function as a nation? I don’t even begin to claim that truth. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” . . . yes, that was the plan: it is sad that today, hundreds of years later, we are not there yet.
When we think of Independence Day, we need to be reminded that those that serve or have served in non-combat zones as well as those that serve or have served in combat zones are all veterans of our nation. We all have stories, either personal or stories of veterans we know or have known. I want to share with you three of my personal stories in closing. Many of you have personal stories that you could share too.
When I served as Chaplain in Residence for the VA Hospitals of New York City, (which included Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) I encountered those with physical war wounds and those with mental and emotional war wounds. Many of the veterans I worked with suffered from PTSD, and Joseph was one of many that suffered from his role as a sharpshooter or long-range marksman. These veterans had been trained as specialists at shooting enemy officers or other key figures using long-range telescopic rifles. Joseph was one of our Chaplain Assistants. He assisted us in substance abuse and recovery workshops and group discussions. He had suffered from substance abuse but had been free from that for several years. What he was not free from was memories and pictures of those he had shot. He told me that he did not sleep at night and hardly ever slept at all. He slept in troubled moments or fits. Joseph is one of the many thousands of casualties of war that have mental and psychological wounds, but physically they are fit. Many have both physical and psychological wounds. I’m thankful that the VA Hospitals of NYC and other facilities around our nation understand Joe’s sickness, and I am thankful that he has a place to care for his war wounds.
I met Mark in College. He and his friends were veterans from the Vietnam War. Mark was quiet and reserved. It appeared that his friends kind of looked out for him. They told me about their experiences together in their time in Vietnam. Not only did they serve in fox-holes, but now four of them were in college together. Joe had some physical problems. When he took off his shirt you could see that much of his stomach was missing. I was told that Joe was awarded the Purple Heart for falling on a grenade that fell in their foxhole, saving the lives of all of them. Joe later told me in private that the grenade was his. He was throwing it, but it slipped out of his hand. Knowing that they were all in grave danger, he fell on the grenade. Joe survived, but he will always have physical and psychological wounds. I am thankful that he had friends that loved him and were there for him. Joe saved the lives of several other men that are now grandparents and great grandparents.
Most of you know that my father, Robert Madsen was a pastor. I grew up as a Preachers Kid. But, before he was a pastor, he was a young man in the Navy. At the end of World War Two, he was in a transport plane carrying several other sailors headed toward Pensacola, Florida where he was stationed. They were all training to be pilots. The plane crashed somewhere in the Florida Everglades. My Dad tried to pull the men out of the plane before it exploded. He pulled two out before the plane exploded. One did not survive, but the other man did. Except for some cuts and bruises, Dad was not physically hurt. He said it took the rescue team over 24 hours to find them. My father was not on the front lines. He was at the tail-end of the war, but thanks to him one other sailor survived like my father to perhaps be remembered by grand-children and great grand-children. I only heard my father tell this story one time. He like many other veterans did not like to talk about those things.
In our gospel passage today Jesus says: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, around those that know them.” Our veterans may not be prophets, but they are our brothers and sisters, and on this day may we honor them as well as all those that have gone before them to insure that we have the opportunity to share and celebrate the Independence of our nation, the celebration of what is referred to of our nation as “the Great Experiment”.