75th Anniversary of D-Day Remembering Those Who Sacrificed All

Following is the May 29, 2005 Memorial Day Sermon that I preached at St. John the Divine, Ruskin, after an emotional visit to Normandy.  It includes a very personal story.

This weekend we observe Memorial Day.  This is the day we set aside to honor those men and women who have died in the service of our country.

We look back to the earliest observances of Memorial Day, to those years just after the Civil War, when the nation was deep in grief over its losses. People sought to honor those who had died in the War Between The States.

Many began visiting the great battlefields of the war, and the nearby cemeteries where the fallen from both sides of the conflict had been lain to rest.

Often those from the North and the South who were killed in the same battle were buried in adjoining fields.  Mourners included family members, who often had kin and neighbors and friends fighting on both sides of the war.

Fellow soldiers also re-visited battlefields, to remember those who had fallen at their sides, as well as to grieve the losses that had taken place at those hallowed fields.

In 1887, some women in Columbus, Mississippi placed flowers on the graves of the war dead buried in their town cemetery, both the graves of the “fallen Blue of the North” as well as their “fallen Gray of the South.”

Their actions were captured in a poem by Francis Miles Finch, which was widely published and quoted throughout the country.

Around that time Memorial Day, also known as “Decoration Day,” became a traditional time for honoring those fallen in combat by placing flowers, and later flags, on their graves.

That tradition continues to this day.

In cemeteries…in our own country, and across the world, we honor those who have died… by placing flowers and flags on their graves…and by remembering them in prayer.

This month, my husband and I were privileged to visit the American Cemetery in Colleville Sur Mer, on the coast of Normandy, which overlooks Omaha Beach.

This American Cemetery contains almost 10,000 graves of soldiers who died on D-Day, June 6, 1944…and in the following weeks and months in the Battle of Normandy.

In preparation for our visit, I had asked you for the names of your deceased loved ones who had fought in World War II, so that I could remember them in prayer at the Memorial Chapel at the American Cemetery.

As Ted and I walked along the graves, I was particularly drawn to one especially.  There was a huge bouquet of fresh flowers placed on the grave.  As we approached it, it appeared that this man’s name had been engraved in gold on the white marble cross.

I looked around at the surrounding crosses, and as far as I could see, there were no others whose names were written in gold.

Only this grave…the grave of Edward H. Gesner, Pvt 116th Inf 29 Div, Massachusetts July 1, 1944.

That name…Edward H. Gesner…could he be on my list of names from St. John the Divine.

I checked my list…and I checked the golden name on the cross…Edward H. Gesner…and yes…his name was given to me by Florence Johnson…along with the words that Edward had died during the Normandy invasion.

What a special moment that was.  Words cannot express what I felt as I stood at his grave.

I felt a sense of awe that I had been led to stand in front of his cross…as if it had called out to me…come here.

I wondered who this person was, the young man who had given his life in the service of his country.  I had his name, but I didn’t know him.  Now I felt a connection.

When I returned home, I phoned Florence and asked her about Edward.  She told me that he was a second or third cousin…one of five brothers…and the only one to have died during WW II.  He was so young when he died, around 20.  Every year his family remembered him by placing flowers on his grave, on July 1st.…the day he died.

I asked why flowers might have been on his grave in May, and she said she’d have to phone her relatives in Massachusetts to find out.  It seems that a niece was visiting in Normandy, and placed flowers on his grave.  This had to have been within a day or two of my visit.

That explained the flowers.  But what about his name in gold.

We checked with the cemetery staff and learned that with advanced notice, a family member or loved one could visit a grave and be given a vial of sand from Omaha Beach.  They could then take this sand and rub it into the name chiseled in the cross so that it would stand out.  The name would appear golden in the sunlight and would remain until the sand was washed away by the coming rains.

I thought back to the words from Isaiah 43:

“Thus says the Lord, he who created you…who formed you..Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…when you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”

It is a comfort to me that God knows us each by name…and that each and every one of us is precious in God’s sight.

God is with us…whether we are on a foreign battlefield, or facing the challenges of everyday life here at home.

I find comfort in the words of the Psalm appointed for today…Psalm 46…and I find that it is a fitting prayer for this Memorial Day Weekend.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown; God shall help her at the break of day.

The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, what awesome things he has done on earth.

It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. 

Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

This weekend, as we honor those who sacrificed their lives so that we may live in freedom, let us rest in the assurance that God remains our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble…this day, and forever more.  Amen.