Early one July morning in 1944, in the little town of Bedford, Virginia, located halfway between Lynchburg and Roanoke, Virginia, a young woman working as a teletype operator at a drug store typed in her usual message to the central operator: “Good morning. Bedford. Go ahead.” Three chilling words came back. “I have casualties.”
The tiny town of Bedford knew that many of its young men were involved in the Allied campaign to liberate Europe. They knew the-D-Day invasion of Normandy Beach had happened June 6, 1944, sixty-eight years ago next week. But no other news had reached the town’s ear. The young operator typed in her usual message in innocence and ignorance, unaware that her little community was about to be forever linked with a beach four thousand miles away. But those chilling words, “I have casualties,” presaged the devastating news that twenty-three young men from Bedford had given their lives on Normandy Beach as part of the invasion of the “Dog Green” sector of Omaha Beach. Twenty-three young men. Their loss would be the greatest per capita D-Day sacrifice of any American community.
“Good morning. Bedford. Go ahead.” These simple words were typed in innocence and ignorance of world events and of a tiny town’s momentous involvement in great things. But three horrific words impressed upon this woman and an entire community the high cost of their involvement, forever shattering Bedford’s ignorance and innocence: “I have casualties.”
Jesus was very aware that even on the evening of his betrayal and arrest, his disciples did not understand the gravity of events that were about to consume their lives. They say to him, “Now we understand that you came from God.” But Jesus responds, “Oh, now you believe? Yet the hour is coming – indeed, the hour is now — when you will be scattered to your homes, and you will leave me utterly alone, save for the comfort of my heavenly Father.” Even at this late hour, the disciples speak in ignorance and naivete of the great struggle about to consume their lives. So Jesus seeks to communicate the nature of the fierce conflict in which they will be engaged by using the symbols of broken bread and poured-out wine. Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you.” Jesus thereby reiterates that the Kingdom of God is not established easily. He saying to them, ‘There will be casualties in this fight, and I am the first.’ The Last Supper makes the point that God’s redemptive narrative only happens through the shedding of blood.
All too often we speak of the great Christian virtues of love, hope, faith, goodness, graciousness, patience and kindness as if such qualities were easily embodied in the world. They are not. They only are made real through strenuous effort. The values of the Kingdom of God are always maintained in conflict with forces of hatred, evil, apathy, selfishness and dishonesty. Christ’s church can only truly be an effective body for God through communal intentionality. Meaningful love only happens through sustained commitment. Faith is only maintained through the ceaseless sustenance of the Spirit. Hope is only made real through a profound act of trust in the providence of God. A spirit of militancy is requisite for embodying the virtues and values of God in the real world. So our Lord offers us the fundamental images of broken bread and poured-out wine to remind us that God’s service takes place amidst fierce struggle — and there will be casualties. To serve God and God’s Kingdom, bodies will be broken, ambitions will be frustrated, energies will be drained, and blood will be spilled. There are twenty-one crosses in front of an elementary school in Texas that underscore this hard truth.
As our nation observes Memorial Day weekend, it is helpful to remember that when the time came to create a memorial for American participation in the D-day invasion, Congress recognized that the most appropriate site for such a memorial was the tiny town of Bedford, Virginia. A series of statues and structures have been erected there to trace the narrative of the D-Day invasion. Among the host of statues at the D-Day Memorial is one of a fallen soldier whose spilled backpack lies beside him. Atop the contents is his Bible.
The message of that symbol is incisive and powerful. The Word of God does not protect us from conflict. The Word of God is no good luck charm against the evil. But the Word of God goes with us into the valley of the shadow of death, and empowers us to bear our cross to God’s glory.
As we go out into the world this morning, we are reminded that we do not practice Christ’s virtues and values in a vacuum. All that we seek to accomplish for Christ takes place in conversation and conflict with hatred, evil, apathy, selfishness, and dishonesty. We must live with a spirit of militancy in behalf of God’s goodness. Yet, even as the forces arrayed against us seem formidable, our Lord speaks to us a word of reassurance through those eloquent symbols of bread and wine — “This is my body broken for you; this is my blood spilled for you.” Our Lord says, “Whatver you face, be of good cheer. Remember, I have overcome the world.