Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorial Day Sermon

Seventh Sunday after Easter
First Presbyterian Church
Saint Helena, California

The scriptures today [texts below] focus on the appointment of another apostle to replace Judas and, in the Gospel, a prayer by Jesus to the Father on behalf of those left behind to do his work, namely his disciples then and all the disciples to come. These are appropriate scriptures for Memorial Day, a day set aside in this country to remember those who served in time of war. They are also appropriate scriptures to help us remember and give thanks for all those who came before us, all the saints of our by now extremely long Christian history, those people who have made our gathering this morning possible.

2,000 years ago Jesus, the carpenter from Galilee, the son of Mary, the son of God, commissioned his first disciples and sent them into the world. Of course he did many other things. He healed the sick, he preached, he told little stories, he multiplied loaves and fishes, he was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again. Etc.

We all know this story, know it so well that we can recite it. Oftentimes in church we do, in the form of the Nicene Creed or something like it. If it were not for the witnesses, we would not know this story; we would know nothing of Jesus of Nazareth. We are here this morning because our parents, probably, taught us to pray, brought us to church or Sunday School or both. There is probably more to it than that. We probably received some instruction or inspiration as young adults and adults, from a teacher, from a chaplain, from an inspiring minister and congregation, whether early in life or later, and so here we are.

In an even wider picture, long before we were here and well beyond the relatively small circle of our families, other witnesses have made us possible, literally some 2,000 years and hundreds of millions of people worth of Christian experience and in the US of A, roughly 200 years of national experience. We are Christians and we are Americans – most of us, I presume – if there is a foreign national among us this morning, I hope you feel welcome on this Memorial Day Weekend, which we began to celebrate a few years after our Civil War, which officially ended exactly 144 years ago. It effectively ended with the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April, but it took a few weeks more to wrap things up. President Andrew Johnson declared hostilities at end on May 10th, whereupon planning began for the Grand Review of the Armies, which turned out to be the biggest parade that has ever taken place in Washington. It took two whole days to parade roughly 150,000 soldiers from the Capitol to the White House reviewing stand; one day for the armies of the eastern theater and another whole day for the westerners, and that parade took place on May 23rd and 24th, 1865. My great grandfather, Hiram Young of the 88th Indiana Infantry, was part of General Sherman’s Army and took part in that parade.

Likewise World War II came to a conclusion in May of 1945, 64 years ago; at least fighting stopped in the European Theater in early May after Hitler shot himself on April 30. Various German commanders tried to surrender to the British or the Americans and not to the Russians. Cease-fires were agreed to but General Eisenhower insisted that the surrender be unconditional and complete to all allied armed services simultaneously (as had been agreed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) and this finally happened on May 8th. There were victory parades of course, in Moscow, in Berlin, in London shortly thereafter. The official American parade took place in New York in January of 1946.

This shows you how much the world had changed in a mere 80 years. In May of 1865, the soldiers marched to Washington. It took a week or two, they camped along the banks of the Potomac, had their parade and went home. That was that. In May of 1945, soldiers still had to disarm millions of enemy soldiers, occupy and police hostile territory, set up a government, feed millions of hungry people and by the way, get ready to invade Japan. The war in the Pacific continued. I’m wearing a little replica of my Dad’s theater ribbon today, the Chine-Burma-India Theater, where the war continued and where my Dad continued to serve, in Calcutta, India, until 1946.

Memorial Day took place officially first on May 30, 1868 to honor the Civil War dead. It had its beginnings of course all over the United States – some time in May around the anniversary of the end of the war, and has evolved into a day to honor all of those who died in all of our nation’s wars. How could we not set aside some time to remember our great Civil War and the great, in effect World Civil War and those who brought these wars to a conclusion? And further, to think about the causes of wars and what we the living must do to avoid them in the future? Thus I placed the quotations from two great Americans in the bulletin this morning [texts below]. More on those quotations in a minute, but first let me add a contemporary quotation to our meditations this morning.

We are all aware that President Obama journeyed to Northern Indiana exactly a week ago to receive an honorary degree and give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. I followed this story with great interest for any number of reasons, not the least of which are the facts that my father graduated from the University of Notre Dame du Lac in 1935 and I spent part of a summer there in 1997 as a Pew Evangelical Younger Scholar. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, maintain great affection for it and am proud to be part of the extended family of Notre Dame. President Obama’s speech has received much attention, deservedly so, but let me quote from the other President on the platform that day, the President of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, who introduced the President of the US. He directly addressed the core issue raised by a celebration of Memorial Day or any national celebration:

More than any problem in the arts or sciences - engineering or medicine – easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.
A Catholic university – and its graduates – are specially called, and I believe specially equipped, to help meet this challenge.
As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church – members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel. Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom. We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”

There are some extraordinary phrases in these three paragraphs:

“As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church - members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel.”

He did not say “As a Catholic University, we are part of the Roman Catholic Church,” which of course is a true statement; he said “As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church – members of the “mystical body of Christ.”

In other words, there is one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They were part of it at commencement at Notre Dame. We are in it now. The Episcopalians down the street – they’re in it, too. The Catholics one street over, they, too are in it. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, we’re all in it. All of us: we’re the church. That’s what Father Jenkins said. God bless him.

“Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom.

This young President of ND has catapulted himself into the very thick of a very important and longstanding conversation about the meaning of America. The poetic phrase, this brilliant use of assonance, three initial e’s - in characterizing the United States, “this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom” puts him in the company of Abraham Lincoln, of George Marshall, of Thomas Jefferson – he’s with the immortals.

Then he clinchesd it:

“We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: ‘God, Country, Notre Dame.’”

With this introduction, President Jenkins challenged members of the ND community, members of the Roman Catholic Church, members of The Church, citizens of the United States and, in effect, citizens of the world, to respect one another despite our differences., not by ignoring our differences but by celebrating them:

God, country, Notre Dame. God, country, whatever your tertiary institution, California, Saint Helena, the Presbyterian Church, your neighborhood mosque or temple.

Our ability to listen respectfully to one another as Christians, as citizens of the United States, as citizens of the world, to be free, yet responsible people – that is the issue. As W. H. Auden put it in his poem at the beginning of World War II, “we must love one another or die.”

At only one time in our national history did we experience the breakdown of civility and we rightly call it the Civil War. A mere 80 year later the Second World War broke out, a war that threatened the existence of civility everywhere. Bearing in mind the words of President Father Jenkins, let us
ponder the quotations by Lincoln and Marshall in the bulletin, what Lincoln said in the midst of the Civil War and what General of the Army George C. Marshall said in the middle of the Second World War.

Upon the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in November of 1863, several months after the battle, Lincoln reassured the American people, despite the carnage of this war

“ . . . that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He could have promised better economic times or greater power upon the world stage; these things indeed came. But he promised a new birth of freedom for all Americans, and, by implication, all people on earth.

George Marshall expanded on this theme some 80 years later:

“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

Thus 425 years after Martin Luther propounded his views on Christian freedom, which sowed the seeds of the American Revolution, the American Army liberated Luther’s homeland from anti-Christian Nazism. Shortly thereafter the United States of America issued billions of dollars worth of loans and aid to ensure that the new Germany would not fall under the sway of another tyranny. After World War II, we did not create a desert and call it peace. This is what Marshall meant by saying that our flag would be recognized as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.

This marked the entrance of America on to the stage of world power; and there we have been, for better or worse, ever since. To still say today that our flag is a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other . . . well, that is audacious to say the least, but that is a good characterization of what we are attempting.

Now if we are to have any hope of effectively wielding power throughout the world, we have to model the civil exercise of freedom at home. Not that we agree about everything, but that we can decently agree to disagree. A week ago, the Notre Dame community modeled this behavior. I don’t see how any university could have done any better. I assume that there were a few arrests of a few rumbustious souls, but acts of incivility were minimal. Those who disagreed with Presidents Jenkins and/or Obama were allowed their say. Some 2,000 people held their own exercises in one of the university’s quadrangles. Alumni threatened to withdraw their contributions. Bishops wrote him nasty letters. Well, such is the life of a university president.

The way President Jenkins endured the heat for extending his invitation and the way the student and alumni body at the Commencement responded to both Presidents made the University of Notre Dame an example for all of us to admire this Memorial Day Weekend.

Has this sort of thing happened before? One other example of surprising hospitality occurred a while ago when Jerry Falwell, the sort of clergyman we liberal Protestants love to hate, invited Ted Kennedy to the campus of Liberty University.

When have we liberals exercised this sort of hospitality? Well, yes, but I think we all could do this sort of thing more often. Yale, of course, invited alumnus George Bush to campus a few years ago, early in his presidency, igniting some sort of uproar. For my favorite case of liberal magnanimity I have to reach back in my memory to over forty years ago when the Harvard Lampoon invited John Wayne to Harvard at the height of the Vietnam War. The editor of the Lampoon drove John Wayne into Harvard Square on top of an army vehicle, where he was pelted with snow balls. He laughingly threw them back; gave a speech, took questions and made clever and funny responses. I don’t think anyone had any idea that the Duke had this sort of skill set in him. It did not affect the war, but comic relief in the gray February of 1967 was most welcome.

I am open to further education on the matter, but I fear that we theological liberals have not been as magnanimous as we could be and we have not had much sense of humor.

This memorial Day we ponder being Christian and being American. We ponder remarks by the now famous President Jenkins of Notre Dame, Abraham Lincoln, George Marshall, and, of course the words and example of Jesus. What can we conclude?

Whenever I am at a loss for a conclusion when the topic is the meaning of America, I usually turn to our own Walt Saint Paul Whitman. Listen to the following words from Leaves of Grass in the context of everything we have thought about this morning having to do with presidents and Americans and how we behave towards one another and how we act in the world:

“Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom -- their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean -- the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states -- the fierceness of their roused resentment -- their curiosity and welcome of novelty -- their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy -- . . . the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors -- the fluency of their speech. . . their good temper and open-handedness -- the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry.

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

This memorial Day we remember with thanksgiving those who have come before us; we particularly remember those whose sacrifice has made this nation possible; we celebrate that we the people are the body of Christ and the greatest poem ever written; and it’s not fully written yet.