A baptismal meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost Sunday 2004, May 30, 2004, dedicated to Joel William Bishop on his baptismal day, to my father, Herman C. Ahrens, Jr. and the men and women of this church and this nation who defended Freedom in World War II, and to Matthew Goetz, as he and others, seek to defend freedom in our times and always to the glory of God!
(Part V of VI in the sermon series, "Good News for Today")
Acts 2: 1-21, John 14:8-17
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Harry Garton grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He came of age on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Gino Merli came from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and landed on D-Day in the same landing craft as Harry, although they never realized this until they returned to Normandy's Beach in 1984. Recalling that day, they shared matching memories of chaos and death all around them. They recalled alternating feelings of fear, rage, calm and most of all an overpowering determination to survive.
Forty years later, as they made their way along Omaha Beach, they stopped and pointed to a low-lying bluff leading to higher ground. Merli said, "Remember that?" They both starred at the steep, sandy slope, an ordinary beach approach to the untrained eye. Merli continued, "That hillside was loaded with mines, and a unit of sappers had gone first, to find out where the mines were. A number of those guys were lying on the hillside, their legs shattered by the explosions. They had shot themselves up with morphine and they were telling others where it was safe to step. They were about 25 yards apart, our guys, calmly telling us how to get up the hill. They were human markers." Garton finished, "When I got to the top of that hill, I thought I'd live at least until the next day." (Quoted in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, Random House, New York, 1998, pp. XXI-XXII). Theirs was a generation of sacrifice.
My father, Dr. Herman C. Ahrens, Jr. was my son Luke's age when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941. Like my son, he was the oldest son of a pastor in Marion, Ohio, when the war broke out. By his 21st birthday, he was wearing a Purple Heart and other medals of honor, packing up his uniform, and getting ready to start college as a freshman at Heidelberg College. As would over 1 ½ million other men, he would walk into college as a freshman fresh off the battlefields of Europe. Less than one year earlier, he had been a soldier in the Battle of the Bulge. In the fall of 1945, he would receive a secondary education (following the primary education of WWII) thanks to the GI Bill.
The other night, speaking to me by phone, my father recalled the values held by men and women of his generation. He spoke of sacrifice, honor, and duty. On this spring evening in May, the young man, now almost 80, rekindled a memory of one icy cold night in battle. His unit had taken many prisoners as it marched toward Germany. That night, in the heat of battle, he spent the night in a foxhole guarding a German POW. The Nazi prisoner was just a few inches away from my father and his gun. My dad remembered his dual commitment - to keep his prisoner alive, at the same time to stay alive himself. As he told the story, I realized this was a memory he had lived with for more than 60 years and yet it was the first time I remembered hearing it. Theirs was a generation of honor.
At least 226 men and seven women of this congregation are listed on the honor roll of First Church posted in the southwest corner of the sanctuary. Those that came home alive from the war went on to become doctors, bankers, teachers, professors, judges, lawyers, and business leaders. You would remember their names if I read them to you now. Some of them have parks named in their memory. Streets and boulevards of this city carry other names. Others simply gave themselves to the community and nation and their names rarely, if ever, appeared until the time of their death. They were husbands and fathers. They were wives and mothers. These 233 individuals, and so many others of their generation "were united by a common purpose, but also by common values - duty, honor, economy, courage, service, (sacrifice), love of family and country, and above all, responsibility to oneself" (Ibid, inside cover).
In his book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw writes:
(Coming of age in the Great Depression) these men and women had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future that played out one day at a time. Then, just as there was a glimmer of economic recovery, war exploded across Europe and Asia . . .
At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war. They saved the world.
They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They were mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.
A grateful nation made it possible for more of them to attend college than any society had ever educated, anywhere. They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. They helped convert a wartime economy into the most powerful peacetime economy in history. They made breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences. They gave the world new art and literature. They came to understand the need for civil rights legislation. They gave America Medicare and the Civil Rights Act. (Ibid, pp. XVIII-XXI).
They were not perfect. They made mistakes. Quite frankly, most of them are the first to admit their mistakes and imperfections. They allowed McCarthyism and Racism to go unchallenged for too long. Women of the WWII generation, who had played such an important role in the liberation of the world, returned to traditional roles after the war. It wasn't until the 1960's when the daughters of the greatest generation spoke out and sought to claim their rightful place alongside men in the workforce and in societal leadership. And when a new war broke out, many veterans initially failed to recognize the difference between their war and the one in Vietnam. Nevertheless, in my mind and in the memory of this nation, they are and will endure as our greatest generation.
Today, only one in four WWII veterans remain. One thousand people from this generation are dying each day. "In the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest. They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases, they have never told before, because in a deep sense, they didn't think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too." (Ibid, inside cover). As I listen to these stories, I hear repeatedly, words like Duty, Sacrifice, Honor. They say, "if I had it to do all again, I wouldn't walk away from anything that happened."
One soldier, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me the thing that sticks out most in his memory of WWII was the different sense of Duty his generation had. "Before, the war it had seemed like we were caught by the obligation of overcoming the Depression and our daily struggles. But, with the coming of WWII, a new sense of Duty took over. Duty to Family, country, and the world. It was a sense of Duty which came from somewhere deep inside the soul of this nation." He admitted that sense of duty no longer pervades our nation, our families, our world. Now, it appears that looking out for "Number 1" drives people. Duty has gone. Theirs was a generation of duty.
This Memorial Day, I feel called and I feel it is our Duty to celebrate Good News for the greatest generation! Yesterday, a war memorial was dedicated for this generation in our nation's Capitol. Former Senator Bob Dole, speaking at the dedication called the event, "Our final reunion." More than 140,000 people attending the dedication ceremony, with a mixture of sadness and pride. The sadness came from the long overdue recognition and the realization that so many more had not lived to share the pride of this day. I have often said that the reason it took so long for a war memorial to WWII veterans to be constructed was because they were soldiers and citizens who would never ask for something for themselves. They sacrificed in war and in peace, and in so doing made sure that all other wars and their soldiers were memorialized before they were recognized. The memorials to their younger siblings, to their children and even to their grandchildren all came first. It was their way. It was the way of duty, sacrifice, and honor.
Today is Pentecost. Many of you are wearing red to symbolize the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church. For twenty years I have preached on this day about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of Christ's church, the power and purpose of living Holy Spirit-led and Holy Spirit-filled lives. Throughout all these years, the men and women of the Greatest Generation - the generation of my mother and father - have encouraged my calling to ministry. They have sat in church and inclined their ears to my words in preaching and in teaching. The children of the Great Depression and the Great War, have come to church and here they have become our greatest lay leaders, teachers, stewards, mentors, and guides. Many of them have been my spiritual heroes and heroines. They have been the ones who've sacrificed for the church to make her unique and blessed in this nation and in this world. They have been the silent majority, quietly and effectively leading the church through the last half of the 20th Century, cheering her on and then raising up a new generation of leaders and teachers, and then cheering them on. Through it all, they have asked for very little. They have demanded nothing. They have smiled on my errors in grammar and judgement. They have loved me and all of us in spite of our shortcomings, although many of them could have named each shortcoming. They have persevered. Many have perished. They have lived lives worthy of their baptism in Christ. They have been good men and women. They have been great churchmen and churchwomen. They have lived into the calling of being the church militant. Many have died and gone in glory to become the church triumphant.
So this day, this Pentecost Sunday, I simply say "thank you." Thanks be to God For the Greatest Generation! Thanks be to God for the men and women who have believed in Jesus Christ - his teachings, his healing power, his passion, his glory, his story. Thanks be to God for the simple and splendid ways the Greatest Generation has received the gifts of God's Holy Spirit and shared those gifts with each of us. Thanks be to God for the way they lived God's Good News as our Greatest Generation! Thank you! Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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