The following tells of a a brief ceremony that took place on Memorial Day in Washington, DC, along with a meditation on the day’s lectionary, delivered as a sermon at the Kenwood Community Church in the Sonoma Valley.
June 5, 2011
7th Sunday after Easter
Scriptures from Acts and Ephesians at bottom.
Today I will note what has taken place in history
Talk about Memorial Day
Take note of today’s scriptures
Relate the scriptures to Memorial Day and
Conclude by reading you a story
The theme of this sermon is conflict and conflict resolution, remembrance and forgetting, honoring and forgiving and moving on. It will end with the story of a baptism of sorts, a new beginning.
During this past week in history in 1941, in the Atlantic Ocean some hundreds of miles south and west of England, the British Navy caught up with and sank the Battleship Bismarck. Coming during the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood alone, it was a great morale-boosting victory.
Just to show you how quickly history moves sometimes, the Normandy Invasion took place on June 6, 1944, just three years later; one year after that, the war was over.
Looking back a bit further, our American Civil War both began and ended about this time of year, around 150 years ago. Sesquicentennial celebrations are unfolding. There will be Civil War material all over television and in bookstores for the next several years. Approximately 100 new books about the Civil War come out every year and have done so for the past 50, without end in sight. In a way, we are still fighting the Civil War, fighting over its meaning and significance and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
In the Christian calendar, Today is the 7th Sunday after Easter. The lectionary for today gives us the last words of Jesus to his disciples before being taken up into heaven. I decided to add what were the last words of Paul, these words about girding for battle and so on conclude that his letter to the Ephesians. He was tried and executed not long afterward. Then, in honor of Memorial Day, I decided to add some thoughts about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War to this morning’s meditations.
I just arrived here in the wine country after spending about four months in Washington, DC. You cannot escape from thinking about the Civil War in Washington. There are statues of a Civil War generals and admirals all over town, in traffic circles and parks; yet more across the river in Arlington National Cemetery, along with the graves of thousands and thousands of Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate.
At the beginning of May, on the day after the death of Osama bin Laden, I attended a lecture by Harvard President Drew Faust at the Kennedy Center. She received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award came with a lecture opportunity and she delivered a long meditation on the Civil War, her academic subject, and war itself. Why is war so interesting, she asked? She offered, tentatively, a variety of answers, saying essentially, as I remember, that war is a terrifying and fascinating mystery wherein people do the best of which they are capable, and the worst. And there are consequences, important world-changing consequences.
She quoted Robert E Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” What inspired Lee was seeing all these men, I believe before the battle of Fredericksburg, advancing in lines, colors flying, subjecting themselves to severe discipline in the face of great danger. Many participants in great battles, from enlisted men to generals, have remarked afterwards on the great beauty of the lead-up to the battle. It is awe-inspiring.
President Faust could also have quoted General Sherman’s advice to the graduates of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879: “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”
Of course Robert E. Lee knew this just as well. Everyone in the military knows this.
I celebrated Memorial Day by visiting the Lincoln Memorial and attending a service at the Monument to the First Division. This monument is one of my favorites: a slender eighty-foot column of pink granite surmounted by a golden angel with a flag atop an orb. A plumed helmet crowns the angel's head. One might think it is Michael, the Archangel, but the guidebooks say she is Victory. Modeled after French statue from 1830. Sculptor is Daniel Chester French, who did the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. As the symbol of the division is a big, red numeral one, there is a numeral one-shaped flower bed at the base of the monument, always planted during the growing season with red flowers, tulips in the spring, some other red flowers throughout the summer and into the fall.
I arrived early and rested under the shade of a tree. It was already close to unbearably hot at 10:30. The ceremony started right on time at 11 with a jaunty tune played on a bugle. A few people stayed in the shade, but the sight of several dozen frail veterans, their wives and some widows sitting solidly in the sunshine made me decide to join them and in some way honor those who had endured much worse. The color guard came forward, the chaplain prayed and the speaker stepped to the podium. Retired General Ken Hunzeker promised to be brief as he mopped his brow with a towel. I chatted with him briefly before the service, a large, imposing gentleman. If he were to give me an order, it would never even occur to me not to follow it. What I remember most was stories of three of the Division’s Medal of Honor winners, one of whom fell on a grenade somewhere in Iraq to save his comrades.
The guard retired the colors. The soldiers back in the shade snapped off a twenty-one gun salute. Three quick bursts: Blam! Blam! Blam!
The sound echoed off the buildings. The bugler played taps.
Sun. Heat. Not even the suggestion of a breeze, just the wonderful stillness that follows something important. Finally we arose from our seats and sought the solace of the shade.
The military in services like this functions as a national priesthood, a religious order that connects us to Americans past, present and future. For those few moments, you are certain that you, through your nation, will live forever. God willing, this ceremony will repeat itself every Memorial Day and Veterans Day from now until Jesus comes again.
And now finally, the scriptures. The scriptures today deal with loss and promise. The disciples have lost Jesus. He was executed. Then he miraculously returned and they are about to lose him again. It’s like the last meeting of the class before the exam. Any last questions? So they ask him a huge geo-political, world-historical question:
"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
This is a fantastic story; patently unbelievable in most of its details – unless you have faith - but in this one detail it is true to history as we know it: 1st Century Jews undoubtedly had this question on their minds: When are we going to get our country back?
Jesus replies: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
And those are his last words. After uttering them, he takes off, literally. As we all know, the disciples fled and cowered in the upper room for a while and then the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. We’re their successors and we’re still spreading the Gospel, as best we can.
Today’s letter by Paul to the Ephesians, a powerful much-quoted passage, is also a valedictory:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
He uses the language of warfare to exhort his readers, then and now, to fight an even more important battle than the battles we remember on Memorial Day. He has in mind the spiritual battle we all fight within ourselves, the battle to take control of all the forces and temptations in our own minds; not just to fight the enemy without, but to fight the enemy within, namely our own selves, our own hatreds, and projections and regrets. And so on.
The American Civil War was, among other things, a religious conflict. The soldiers who fought were perhaps the most religiously literate soldiers ever to go into battle. Thousands of them died with Bibles in their pockets. Cease-fires were arranged so the American Bible Society could distribute Bibles to both sides. And this, I don’t need to tell you, was a great tragedy and a matter for some reflection and soul-searching, which President Lincoln provided in the greatest sermon ever delivered in America, which is known more commonly as his Second Inaugural Address, delivered just a month or so before the Civil War ended and he was assassinated.
Lincoln said, in essence, that this war was about over; the boots-on-the-ground, musket and cannon-fire war -- that was about over. But now another was about to begin, a spiritual war within every American to enable us to live as one nation again. And to win this war, this war to come, this inner, spiritual war, said Lincoln, we must confess that this shooting war was caused by all of us. It had to happen. Let there be no gloating or sulking at the outcome and move on:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
How do you get over disappointment, hurt, traumatic injury? No one knows for sure. You can search in the self-help section of bookstores; consult the finest psychologists, psychiatrists, clergy, healers; take workshops and seminars. The advice you will get from them is rather hit or miss and will probably boil down to what Lincoln said anyway: assume that this disappointment, hurt, conflict, war - whatever – had to happen for some reason in the divine economy that we cannot begin to understand. It is not a perfect world. Sometimes it just hurts to be alive. Let us therefore do something to make ourselves feel better and strive on to finish the work we are in.
Now I have story to read, by a great travel writer, Colin Thubron, from his book In Siberia. He traveled throughout Siberia about fifteen years ago, shortly after the break-up of the old Soviet Union. One day he found himself in Omsk, a city just east of the Urals, and was invited along to a ceremonial blessing of waters, some time in June of 1997 or so. Listen:
“Next morning, outside the big, unlovely cathedral, which in Stalin’s day had been a cinema, I found a coach-load of pilgrims setting off for a rural monastery. They welcomed me on board. The monastic foundations were only just being laid, they said, and they were going to attend the blessing of its waters. In 1987 and excavator at the site had unearthed a mass grave, and the place was revealed as a complex of labor camps, abandoned at Stalin’s death. The inmates, mostly intelligentsia, had died of pneumonia and dysentery from working in the fields, and their graves still scattered its earth.
As out bus bowled through ramshackle villages, the pilgrims relayed the story with murmers of motherly pity. They were elderly women, for the most part, indestructible babushkas in flower-printed dresses and canvas shoes, whose gnarled hands were closed over prayer-books and bead-strings, and whose headscarves enshrined faces of genial toughness. When a fresh-faced cantor began chanting a hymn in the front of the bus, their voices rose in answer one after another, like old memories, reedy and melodious from their heavy bodies, until the whole bus was filled with their singing.
We reached a birch grove. It was one of those ordinary rural spots whose particular darkness you would never guess. As the women disembarked, still singing, the strains of other chanting echoed from a chapel beyond the trees. It was the first of four shrines which would one day stake out the corners of an immense compound. Inside, a white-veiled choir was lilting the sad divisions of the liturgy. As the pilgrims visited their favourite icons, a forest-fire of votive candle-flames sprang up beneath the standing cross, and two or three bubushkas shuddered to their knees.
Towards noon a procession unwound from the church and started across the pasturelands towards the unblessed waters. It moved with a shuffling, dislocated pomp. Behind its uplifted cross, whose gilded plaques wobbled unhinged, Archbishop Feodosy advanced in a blaze of turquoise and crimson, his globular crown webbed in jewels. He marked off each stride with the stab of a dragon-headed stave, and his chest glinted with purple- and gold-embossed frontlets, and a clash of enameled crosses. He looked huge. Beside him went the celebrant and behind him tripped a huddle of young priests in mauve, and the trio of raspberry-silk deacons.
I fell in with the pilgrims following. It was oddly comforting. An agnostic among believers, I felt close to them. I too wanted their waters blessed. I wanted that tormented earth quitened, the past acknowledged and shriven. I helped the old woman beside me carry her bottles. My feeling of hypocrisy, of masquerading on others’ faith evaporated. As I took her arm over the puddles and our procession stretched across the wet grass, Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer, and the whole country appeared to be reverting instinctively, painlessly, to its old nature. This wandering ceremonial, I felt, sprang not from an evangelical revolution but from a simple cultural relapse into the timeless personality of the motherland – the hierarchical, half-magic trust of its forefathers, the natural way to be.
We reached a place where a silver pipe, propped on an old lorry tyre, was spilling warm water into a pool. A blond deacon, like a Nordic Christ planted the processional cross on the far side, and the archbishop, the priests, acolytes and pilgrims, the babushkas and their bags and bottles, a few war veterans and one mesmerized foreigner formed a wavering crescent round the water’s rim.
The celebrant, clutching a jeweled cross, was ordered to wade in. From time to time he glanced up at the archbishop, who gave no signal for him to stop. Deeper and deeper he went, while his vestments fanned out over the surface, their mauve silk waterlogged to indigo, until he was spread out below up like an outlandish bird. At last Feodosy lifted his finger. The priest floundered, gaped up at us – or at the sky – in momentary despair, recovered his balance and went motionless. Then, with a ghastly frown, he traced a trembling cross beneath the water.
A deep, collective seemed to escape the pilgrims. Again the cavalcade unfurled around the pool, while the archbishop, grasping a silver chalice, sprinkled the surface with its own water, and the wobbly cross led the way back.
But the babushkas stayed put. As the procession glimmered and died through the darkness of the trees, and the archbishop went safely out of sight, a new excitement brewed up. They began to peel off their thick stockings and fling away their shoes. They were all ready. They tugged empty bottles labeled Fanta or Coca-Cole from their bags. Then they clambered or slid down the muddy banks and waded into the newly blessed water. At first they only scooped it from the shallows. It was mineral water, muddied and warm. They drank in deep gulps from their cupped hands, and winched themselves back to stow the bottles on shore.
Then it all went to their heads. Six or seven old women flung off first their cardigans, then their kerchiefs and skirts, until at last, stripped down to flowery underpants and bras, they made headlong for the waters. All inhibition was lost. Their massive legs, welted in varicose veins, carried them juddering down the banks. Their thighs tapered to small, rather delicate feet. Little gold crosses were lost between their breasts. They plunged mountainously in. I stood above them in astonishment, wondering if I was meant to be here. But they were shouting and jubilant. They cradled the water in their hands and dashed it over their faces. Holiness had turned liquid, palpable. You could rink it, drown in it, bring it home like flowers for the sick.
Two of the boldest women – cheery, barrel-chested ancients – made for the gushing silver pipe and thrust their heads under it. They sloshed its torrent exultantly over one another, then submerged in it and drank it wholesale. They shouted at their friends still on land, until one or two even of the young girls lifted their skirts and edged in. Bottle after bottle was filled and lugged to shore. But it was the young, not the old, who hesitated. The old were in high spirits. One of them shouted at me to join them, but I was caught between laughter and tears. These were women who survived all the Stalin years, the deprivation, the institutional suffering, into a life of widowhood and breadline pensions, and their exuberance struck me dumb. Perhaps in this sacred and chaotic water-hole the world seemed finally to make sense to them, and all this aching, weary flesh at last found absolution.”
Whatever your disappointments have been, whatever hardships you have overcome, whatever your hurts, whether they were physical, or emotional -- may this summer ahead be warm and healing; may you all find absolution.
Acts 1:6-10__So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.