There is an ancient Jewish story about the crossing of the Red Sea. God and the angels were all watching the events with tension and excitement, perhaps as we watched the Cubs in the World Series. The angels were cheering and shouting for the Israelites to hurry and enter the water of the Red Sea, even while booing at Pharaoh with his horses and chariots and army who were chasing the children of Israel. When Israel had crossed the divided waters of Red Sea and the waters turned against Egypt and its armies and they were swept away, a loud cheer erupted among the angels and great rejoicing, as they congratulated each other and slapped each other on the back. At some point they noticed that God was stunned and silently weeping. “God, why do you weep? Your children the Israelites are safe on dry land! This is a day to celebrate!”
“Ah yes,” God replied. “But I cannot rejoice. For you see, while my children the Israelites are safe, my children the Egyptians are all drowned.”
There is a similar many-sidedness to our remembrances of Memorial Day. We want to honor those who gave their lives – their sacrifice should not be forgotten and they should be honored. We acknowledge the VERY HUMAN LOSS of not only those who died, but also their families and friends. But in our honoring, we grieve. And for some of us, we had family and friends killed who were fighting on the opposite side of the US. We remember them too. It’s complicated.
The Deuteronomist asks, “What does the Lord your God ask of you?” And then answers the question: to honor God by walking in God’s ways, loving God and serving the Lord your God with all your heart and being.
This advice, written down around 700 B.C.E. in Jerusalem, likely during the reforms of King Josiah by scribes of the Levite order, is staged with Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. In Deuteronomy chapters 4-11, the events surrounded the giving of the Ten Commandments are shared with the people of Israel, and Moses instructs families and leaders on how to encourage everyone to keep the faith. This morning’s reading is a part of a scribed construction of a sermon by Moses to the Israelites on what really matters — what must be shared before they are separated and on their own in the promised land.
For those in King Josiah’s time (641-609 B.C.E.), recalling those earlier events likely reminded them of something that mattered. Something so important that the stories came from the Northern Kingdom with the refugees after it fell to Assyria: that YHWH was not only the most powerful divinity, but the only one and that worship and service of YHWH – translated “The Lord” was to be with all of our being. In the middle of the confusion of cultures mixing and an eight-year old king, this was something to hang onto.
In a sense, our honoring of those who died in service of our country is a similar recollection to that of the writers of Deuteronomy. We weren’t there. We didn’t experience what they did. But we have parts of the stories. And more, there is something compelling in the act of remembering. It is more than simply the tragedy of lost life, although that is worth remembering. As we remember, we connect with war’s devastating losses and perhaps provide some space for healing. This is especially important when we are so insulated from the tragedy of war. Today, we do not often hear the reports of those killed in service, and their bodies are brought home quietly with us unaware unless we happen to be on that plane flight. We are insulated and perhaps even a bit numbed to the human cost of war. Perhaps by remembering we may also learn something of the importance of the moment. Of their moment – when there was something important at stake worth dying for. Perhaps even worth living for.
During the Vietnam War, Rev. Hayes Fletcher was doing draft counseling here at First United Methodist Church. People disagreed and took sides.It split the church and the church struggled financially and with morale. Bob Burchill tells stories of mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms to get ready for worship because there was no money for a custodian. The church remaining hung together despite a range of opinions, and those who remained practiced tolerance – because they understood that views on the war were many and the answers were not cut and dried. Even the government understood it was complicated – and they are often the last to know – and exempted members of Peace Churches from combat.
It is said that in combat, soldiers can focus on their task only as long as they remember what they are fighting for. They carry pictures of their families, sweethearts – one soldier from the very small town of Ferrisburgh, Vermont – population 2,467 at the time, was sent a picture of the entire population of that town gathered on the Fourth of July holding a sign saying, “We love you, Stuart. We are praying for you.” In combat, the rhetoric of political leaders doesn’t matter. Nor do arguments about right and wrong – there is one focus: doing what you must to save what you love.
This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who died by honoring the complexity of remembering. We can avoid the too-quick solutions of grabbing either a flag or a cross and insisting on our opinions – for as Reinhold Niebuhr said in The Irony of American History, “…the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own.” [i]
And the very real cost of war and death is faced by families and communities. Novelist Wendell Berry describes the experience well as Jayber Crow reflects on the death of Forrest Junior in WWII.
I thought a good deal about Forrest Junior and wondered where he was buried, and if anybody even knew where. I imagined that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home – in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses like Mis Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever.”[ii]
Yes, it’s complicated. Loss. Admiration. Remembrance. Honor. Our many-sided view of Memorial Day.
What can we do with our troubled consciences? Our unclean hands? As people of faith we learn to live differently – out of our faith values – by the power of God’s Spirit living in us.
It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to help us get over our self-interest and cultural expectations. It takes the presence of the living God to move us past denial and excuses to confront our own participation in the machines of war. It requires divine intervention to move us to act differently.
Memorial day began. You may know that Memorial Day observances began with the decoration of graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. In many southern towns, women began decorating the graves of soldiers from both north and south before the war even ended. The practice spread after the war. On May of 1865 as more than 1,000 recently freed slaves along with members of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry and other soldiers from regiments of what was known as the “U.S. Colored Troops,” as well as a few while Charlestonians entered a former prisoner camp in Charleston, SC near the city’s Citadel. They sang hymns, prayed and shared readings over a mass grave behind a racetrack grandstand where more than 250 prisoners were buried, dead of exposure or disease. They also distributed flowers around the newly decorated cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Part of the original observance of Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, seems to always have been a recognition that the life of each individual, no matter where they died or what uniform they were wearing, has a kind of sacred worth. Every human being is a child of God. This thought challenges our desire to make those we perceive as our enemies out to be less than human, some kind of “other,” or even “animals.” If we deny them their sacred worth we don’t have to feel so troubled in our consciences. END.This kind of reasoning leads on internment camps in time of war as with the Nisei in this country during WWII, or ethnic cleansing as practiced by the Nazis in Germany, or holding camps for children whose parents are citizens. We deny that they are created in the image of God so we can justify whatever dehumanizing treatment we want to perpetuate on them. Dehumanizing for us.
What do we do when we recognize our participation in the evil?
Our hands are not clean. We people of faith have voted in leaders who consider personal profits above human lives. We people of faith have ignored the practices of the military which target the poor and put them on the front lines. We act as if it doesn’t matter that lives are lost daily in places we cannot pronounce and change the channel when the reports become graphic.
We step back from positions or verbalizations of power.
“Power,” Neibuhr wrote, “always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.”
As people of faith, we do not dare turn away. As we honor those who DIED holding to some ideals of our nation, it is laid upon us – their benefactors – to LIVE according to those ideals.
We remember beyond the rhetoric. — They died to protect the rights of all people – so we may march in the streets or defend the rights of those in court who are being objectified whether through sexual assault or racially-biased violence.
They died to set free captives overseas being put to death because of their race and religion – so we may defend freedom of religion and freedom of speech in our time.
They died believing in an America that was the land of the free – so we can protest unjust sentencing that leaves us with the highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world, disproportionately citizens of color.
They died – so we…have the chance to make this country, this world, a more safe and more just place for ALL people, all made in the image of God no matter where they come from or what they look like.
In the TV show M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahey comments that there were songs that encouraged soldiers in every war, except for the Korean War and decides to write one.
No one’s singing war songs now, like people used to do
No “Over There,” no, “Praise the Lord,” no “Glory Hallelu,”
Perhaps at last we’ve asked ourselves what we should have asked before – With the pain and death this madness brings, what were we ever singing for?
We need God’s help to stand up – and not just a simple prayer in which we give lip-service to God as the source of power and goodness! No! We need the opened up, roiling passion of the day of Pentecost blazing inside us to stand up to the world’s version of truth and speak God’s truth to it.
That every human life has sacred worth.
That all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, are precious children of God and our brothers and sisters.
When the cost of war is touted up it cannot be simply profits for the military-industrial complex that are considered, but the poverty in our nation that is unaddressed while we wreak destruction on other nations. And the families who mourn because their world is forever darkened by loss.
And then, maybe then, we can honor our dead in the way so many of them would wish – by stopping the violence. Challenging those who urge us towards war.
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”― att. Teresa of Ávila
We need to BE EMPOWERED by the Holy Spirit to live out God’s values. Don’t just shake your head over those lives lost, perhaps shedding a tear or two. MOVE! Be a part of this NEW Day Dawning where God’s people raise their voices to pray and demand peace. To live differently with our neighbors so that A New day of love and justice is dawning among us. To allow the presence of God to be visible in us, imperfect us – until God’s Kindom comes among us. Amen.