Summary: Funeral message for Gary Pervall, Air Force veteran who died of the effects of Agent Orange.
Being surrounded is threatening. Even when what surrounds
you is not dangerous, you still feel threatened. How do you
feel if you are closed in? Suffocated if there is too much of
anything surrounding us. I know of people, for example, who
don’t like to be in a small room; they get anxious when there
are too many people around. They cannot ride the Metro,
because it’s crowded. They cannot go to sports events,
because there are too many bodies. And at least a few of
them tell me they don’t like to come to church, because this
place is full, and ask about the good old days when you
could get in and sit by yourself and not be bothered with
other people! Surrounded feels threatening. Even when it’s
not really a dangerous situation.
A soldier knows what it is to be surrounded. If a soldier is
surrounded, normally it is that the enemy has put him in a
place from which there is no escape. A battalion of soldiers,
finding themselves surrounded by the enemy, has little
choice. Either they fight to the death, or they surrender and
face imprisonment. It is threatening to be surrounded,
because generally it is the enemy who surrounds you.
But what if the surrounding were to come not from the
enemy, but from your friends? What if you were to be
surrounded not so much by those who are out to destroy
you, but by those who are on your side, by those you
counted on as friends and comrades? Remember – it
always feels threatening to be surrounded; even when what
surrounds you is not dangerous.
Gary Pervall the soldier was surrounded. Flying missions in
Vietnam, of course he was surrounded by danger. The
enemy was one he could not always see, and whose tactics
were unconventional. Every day was a threat. Gary lived
day and night with the awareness that Vietcong partisans
were out there, maybe nearby, maybe surrounding him, out
to do him harm. That was a threatening experience.
But Gary did his job and did it well. He did what his country
asked and performed the missions assigned. As a helicopter
crew chief, he and his men flew mission after mission, using
Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle and expose the enemy.
They surrounded the enemy with this chemical, so that he
might feel threatened and surrender. What they did not
know, at the time, was that they too were surrounded.
Something was set in motion that was going to become,
unknown to anyone, a serious threat to health. Surrounded
by an unseen enemy on the ground and a poorly understood
enemy in the air. Being surrounded is always a threatening
And, indeed, Gary was surrounded by something more than
a toxic chemical. Gary was surrounded by the political
atmosphere of the time. Many of you will remember those
days – how Vietnam veterans came back home to face the
scorn of their fellow citizens. How some of those who
opposed the war – and I do not dispute that moral vision –
but how some of those who opposed the war poured out
their disgust on those who had simply done their duty. The
nation’s agony over the politics of Vietnam soon surrounded
its veterans and threatened them, surrounded them with a
toxic atmosphere – not a toxic chemical, but a toxic mood, a
poisonous spirit. It must have been hard to come home and
face a nation which not only had no gratitude, but also had
little but ridicule for those who had borne the burden of
battle. Gary came back surrounded. Surrounded by a
health challenge that he did not even know about, and
surrounded by something less than welcome from some of
his countrymen. Surely there was something better than
this! Surely there was something more, something better, on
the horizon for Gary.
We are here this morning to bear witness that God has
surrounded Gary with something better. The threats of the
past have become the possibilities of the future. God has
surrounded Gary with something better.
The author of the Book of Hebrews goes through the long
and tortured history of God’s people, reciting their agonies ,
and then telling us that they did not receive what was
promised, but that God had provided “something better”.
“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not
receive what was promised, since God had provided something
What has God provided? How has Gary Pervall been
surrounded by something better?
First, today, exactly six months after the terrorists’ attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we can say God
has surrounded Gary by a better political and emotional
climate. Today we as a people are more invested in