Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained accessto this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Back in 1945, Alan Wood was assigned to Navy vessel LST-779, one of some 450 Navy vessels amassed near the pivotal volcanic island of Iwo Jima. When the US military decided to wrest control of the island of Iwo Jima from Japanese forces, they began a brutal campaign that resulted in the loss of nearly seven thousand US servicemen.
The battle for Iwo Jima turned into a thirty-six day siege before US forces ultimately declared victory. But four days into that siege, a group of US Marines was sent to the summit of Mount Suribachi, a rocky, five hundred and fifty-six foot peak on Iwo Jima, to raise an American flag. And at 10:20am on February 23, 1945, a small American flag was erected on a steel pipe above the island…
Not long thereafter, however, someone high up in the US Marines determined that the flag was actually too small to be seen by the troops fighting down below. So a commanding officer sent one dusty, tired Marine out to a nearby Navy vessel to see if anyone had an American flag that was larger and more suitable for the peak. And when that lone Marine boarded Navy vessel LST-779, Alan Wood stepped forward.
Months earlier, Alan Wood had discovered a thirty-seven foot American flag tucked away in a Pearl Harbor Navy depot. And Alan Wood offered that very flag to the Marine. As a result, three hours after the first American flag was raised on Iwo Jima, it was taken down. And Alan Wood’s second American flag was hoisted in its place by five Marines and a Navy corpsman.
Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, captured the iconic Iwo Jima image firsthand on film. That picture not only earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize in 1945…it became one of the most famous American photographs in history. It’s the same picture you see on the cover of your bulletin this morning. And it eventually became the basis for a monument I imagine some of you have visited in Washington, DC, near Arlington Cemetery.
In the years subsequent to 1945, a number of men stepped forward to claim the second Iwo Jima flag as their own. Meanwhile, Alan Wood, like many other World War II veterans, kept quiet about his war experiences. Only years later did one of his Naval superiors verify that the Iwo Jima flag originally belonged to Alan Wood.
At the end of World War II, Alan Wood stated in his own words he was humbled by the fact that “there were men among us who were able to face a situation like Iwo where human life is so cheap.” And part of the reason why those Marines kept on sacrificing and putting their lives on the line day after day was because they could look up and see Alan Wood’s thirty-seven foot American flag standing tall atop Mount Suribachi...
Memorial Day is a day for us to remember. It’s designed to be a solemn holiday, reminding us of the men and women who have died serving our country. Throughout this weekend there will be wreath-laying ceremonies and parades and concerts. And more than a quarter of a million American flags will be placed on the graves of those laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery.
Decorating graves is the oldest of Memorial Day traditions. Actually, tomorrow’s holiday was originally called “Decoration Day” and honored soldiers who died during the Civil War. Every May 30th, flowers were placed on graves, and after World War I, the practice expanded to include American soldiers who died in any war. Finally, in 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May to create a three day weekend.
Unfortunately, creating a three day weekend in honor of Memorial Day hasn’t necessarily had its intended effect. For many Americans, this holiday weekend will be far from solemn and reserved. Quite the opposite, this weekend will provide a welcome excuse for celebrating to excess with barbecues and drinking and watching endless sporting events on television. And the observance of Memorial Day, as it was originally intended, will go relatively unnoticed.
Have we become too nonchalant and apathetic in this country when it comes to observing Memorial Day? What would it be like to reclaim at least some of the solemnity and the reverence and the gratitude Memorial Day originally inspired?
There’s something fitting for that question and for the occasion within today’s Scripture lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Going from suffering all the way to hope. When he penned his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wanted to give hope to Christians who were suffering under the burden of the Roman government. Christians in early Rome were oppressed by high taxes, suppressed under the harsh rule of the Roman military, and bombarded with a tremendous amount of social pressure to worship the Roman emperor. As a result, Paul outlined for the Christians living in Rome a God given process which would help them through their toughest days. A process he knew intimately, because it mirrored what happened to Paul in Paul’s own life.
It’s also a process Paul knew intimately because it mirrored what happened at the end of Jesus’ life. As Jesus Christ went through his trial and the crucifixion, he endured a level of pain and suffering that few of us will ever know. But Jesus endured in the end, moving from the suffering of death all the way to the hope of the resurrection…
In today’s passage, Paul sets forth an outline that is both tested and true in the eyes of faith. The more you suffer, the more God builds up your endurance. The longer God enables you to endure, the stronger your character becomes. The stronger your character becomes over time, the more hope God will instill in you about what the future will hold. And once you have hope about tomorrow, you cannot be disappointed.
What Paul wrote is a good process for humanity to bear in mind and embrace as we reflect on human warfare and genocide, as we gather to lament human loss in the wake of devastating natural disasters, as we struggle to come to terms with acts of terrorism and random and senseless shootings, and as we pray and work for the coming of peace. When we ponder how we make our way through and beyond the suffering we see around us all the time, the Apostle Paul gave us steps to follow.
It’s also a good process for you and me to bear in mind tomorrow on Memorial Day. To be sure, Memorial Day is a time for us to remember and to honor those who have died on behalf of our country. But it’s also a day for remembering that pain and suffering is not an end in itself.
We have lost thousands of precious men and women over the wars we have waged in this country. But as God’s people we believe their suffering and their deaths were not the ultimate end. We manage to make it through sadness and grief because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. And God’s abundant love enables us to endure the pain and the injustice that is so often a part of both life and death. And when we endure, each one of us develops the moral and the ethical qualities, the moral and the ethical compass we need to increase our character. And as our character refines down through the generations, we discover and rediscover God’s reservoir of hope and we draw ever deeper from it.
When those American soldiers fighting at Iwo Jima saw Alan Wood’s American flag atop Mount Suribachi, they were able to see beyond their own suffering. They were given strength enough to endure endless daily and nightly battles. They grew in character and in courage and in resolve. And every time they looked at that flag, they were inspired by hope.
So whenever we pause tomorrow to pray and remember and reflect. Whether we are looking at a flag, or watching a parade, or giving thanks for the servicemen and women who have died for our country, we might recall the words of the Apostle Paul.
“Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope…”
And in the end, hope does not disappoint… Not in 1945. Not in 2014. Not ever in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.