John 15: 10-17
Memorial Day is a transcendent moment in time where our past, our present, and our future converge. It is a time when we mend together the pieces of our societal fabric that have been torn apart and frayed, into a quilt of hope that gathers us together as a union built upon freedom and liberty.
We call upon God to consecrate this moment for it is sacred. We honor and remember America’s war dead within the collective memory of those who live.
To date, according to statistics gathered from the Revolutionary War and beyond, over 1.3 million men and women, named and unknown, dearly loved by their families, beloved to God, have laid down their lives so that we might live in a democratic society that values each and every human being as free and equal women and men. They have fought battles for us and have shown strength and courage. They have understood the benefits of a just society and have strived for a better way to live for all people both here and on foreign soil. Freedom stretches far beyond our beaches and it, unfortunately comes at the cost of human life, for which we grieve.
It is from our Christian story that we can understand that cost and begin to make sense of it all.
No greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and fellow travelers in the journey of life. No greater love, not sacrifice – love – than to lay down your life. To love in this way, for one’s own fellow humanity, and for God is a transformative act towards wholeness and healing. To lay down one’s life is the ultimate expression of God’s commandment to love one another. They have shown their love, their compassion for life, their determination towards justice, they have understood and obeyed the commandment to love. Just as God has loved us, they have taken to heart, through their commitment to and actions for our nation, and for the lives of many, that there is absolutely no greater love than to lay down their very life so that others may live.
In the church we continually reconcile the living with the dead, and the grief that will eventually turn to hope for the future. Death within the context of war is a sad reality of a nation with strong political and ethical values.
As one war memorial emphatically states… “They gave, we have…and their glory shall not be blotted out but their name shall live forevermore”. We must not forget them. And so we remember them today, Memorial Day.
When I was in seminary I developed an independent study of war memorials with Dr. William Everett, an ethics professor at Andover Newton Theological School. The task was to study, read and view, and write about the ethics, aesthetics, and theological aspects of war memorials. These granite stones, the monuments to those who have died from the necessity and destruction of war are indeed political markers of a country who has vigilantly fought so hard for liberty. Their beauty and art reflect the time and ideals in which those men and women fought and the actions of those who carry on those ideals.
There are some who perish, and some who survive. This is inevitability when a society engages in war. Whether there is victory or defeat in the war, suffering from the loss of life is great and there is an overwhelming need for a people to remember and pay tribute to the cause. The commemoration of soldiers, through memorials and monuments, is the juncture at which the surviving must come, to reconcile the vestiges of political action and the loved one who perished. Memorialization of war is a crossroad between public acknowledgment and personal intimate losses.
The process of memorialization is a time for people to work through feelings of shock, horror, anger, grief and loss, pride, reconciliation, and national identity. Lives have been dismantled; our ethics, values and theological understanding have been tested, stretched, and for some even beyond repair. At some point, both collectively and individually, we must begin the task of putting it all back together again. We will invent and reinvent the significance of the war and revision our society for years to come.
We stand in reverence at a memorial not because it is a beautiful piece of art but because it is a moving and transformative experience. It brings death and life together, full circle, and invoke the respect for life and love of God.
But war memorials, monuments, markers mean nothing unless we, the living, tend to their meaning. Unless we clean off, and cut down the weeds that might grow around them, unless we decorate and remember those graves as the original intention of Decoration Day or Memorial Day calls for, then their death was meaningless.
They gave, and as Pericles says in his funeral oration, “take them as your model, and judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom as valor, never decline the dangers of war.” Do not shy away from what these men and women have chosen to do and do not shy away from the task that is before us now.
These men and women have challenged us; and we must respond.
No greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life. What would laying down our lives look like in an absence of war context? If we think together I’m sure that we can come up with some alternative ways in which we can lay down our lives for others while we are still living. We already do some of that by our outreach efforts. Preparing and serving meals at Columbus House allows us to lay down or put aside our own needs to help those with greater needs of the very basic sort.
Christ didn’t come into this world to serve himself, far from it, he came into this world to serve others. And he did so by healing the bleeding woman, by curing blind Bartemeaus, by feeding 5,000 people on a moments notice, by being a friend, a confidant and a mentor to his disciples. Ultimately he did give of his life so that others, me and you could enjoy life. So that we may see each day anew with all of the promises that his resurrection offers and then to help others.
So too, we, the church must follow his example. The church is not about itself but about serving others. We don’t exist to make the green in Orange a prettier place (although we do) but we exist through the grace of God so that people might be free from that which keeps them from fulfilling the highest potential. Free from prejudice, from hunger, or societal restraints. The church exists to show kindness in a world fraught with pain. The Church begins with us.
No greater love than this, is to lay down one’s life for another. Let us practice the love the Christ came into this world to show us. Let us thank those who have already laid down their life as we pick up the mantle of peace and walk forward confidently because of Christ’s ultimate love for us.