May 27th, 2018, the Sunday before Memorial Day.

Cover photo: Al-Salam Valley graveyard in Najaf, the world’s largest cemetery, where Shia dead are delivered from fighting in Fallujah and across Iraq.

Music: Chancel Choir

Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal, arr. Mark Hayes

1. Hark, I hear the harps eternal
Ringing on the farther shore,
As I near those swollen waters
With their deep and solemn roar.

Refrain:
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Hallelujah, praise the lamb!
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Glory to the great I AM!

2. And my soul, tho’ stain’d with sorrow,
Fading as the light of day,
Passes swiftly o’er those waters,
To the city far away.

3. Souls have cross’d before me, saintly,
To that land of perfect rest;
And I hear them singing faintly
In the mansions of the blest.
-Words by F.R. Warren

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Qur’an 2:151-2
We have sent among you a Messenger of your own to recite Our revelations to you, purify you and teach you the scripture, wisdom, and other things you did not know. So remember Me; I will remember you. Be thankful to Me, and never ungrateful.

John McRae, In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields John McRae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Mark 14:3-9
When he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, he was just reclining there, and a woman came in carrying an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment made from pure and expensive nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

Now some were annoyed and thought to themselves, “What good does it do to waste this ointment? She could have sold the ointment for more than three hundred denarii and given the money to the poor.” And they were angry with her.

Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you giving her a hard time? She has done a good deed for me. Remember, the poor will always be around, and whenever you want you can do good for them, but I won’t always be around. She did what she could; she has planned ahead by anointing my body for burial. Let me tell you, wherever the good news is announced in all the world, the story of what she’s done will be told in her memory.”

Sylvan Kamnens and Rabbi Jack Riemer
At the rising of the sun and at its going down
We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter
We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring
We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer
We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn
We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us
as we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength
We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart
We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share
We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make
We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live;
for they are now a part of us
as we remember them.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. 

It is national holiday. 

It is not a church holiday. 

Today is not Memorial Day. 

I make those four obvious statements to make the point that patriotism and faith are distinct and in tension. They will inevitably interact but they are not enmeshed. Here is a one-sentence definition of Memorial Day from Wikipedia:

Memorial Day or Decoration Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.

Of all the patriotic holidays, Memorial Day is one I regard with some devotion. The Sunday before Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those who died while serving in the armed forces of the United States. We will do that. But that is but one remembrance at least in terms of the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Lord’s Day. 

In the words of the last hymn we will sing today:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

I will keep in mind Seamus Davey, a Marine killed in Iraq on October 21st, 2005. I knew him as a skinny kid in the youth group of my first congregation in upstate New York. He was awarded posthumously, the Bronze Star Medal. This is from the Force Recon Association website: http://www.forcerecon.com/Cpl-Seamus-M-Davey.htm 

On 21 October 2005, in Abu Hyatt, Iraq, Corporal Davey’s team was tasked with conducting point raids and the cordon and search of over 70 buildings that were known to be a staging area for foreign fighters and insurgents. Upon entering a house, his team was ambushed by four enemy gunmen at ranges of less than ten feet. Corporal Davey was struck by multiple rounds and collapsed to the ground. Ignoring his wounds, and without regard for his safety, he continued to engage the enemy. Corporal Davey’s suppressive fire drew the enemy’s attention from his fellow Marines, thereby allowing them to safely withdraw from the room. Corporal Davey continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded. By his zealous initiative, courageous actions, and exceptional dedication to duty, Corporal Davey reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

I knew that Seamus, Corporal Davey, believed in what he was doing. I believed in him personally, but I did not believe in the war he was sent to defend. The war in Iraq, as I have come to view the evidence, was not started by a need to defend the United States, nor was it a mistake, it was a deception, a war planned long before the excuses for it were manufactured and delivered to a traumatized American public. The result of this deception is more deception and ongoing death and disaster. 

I know people of good conscience disagree with me and my point is not to go into the weeds about the politics of war. But I do need to point out that this weekend, and Memorial Day in particular, is used cynically to bolster U.S. wars of aggression. 

In my first church I was often asked to say a prayer on Memorial Day itself in the public square, the park where war memorials were erected. I would recite the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by John McRae and pray in remembrance of soldiers killed in action and pray for peace. One year, I shared the podium with a member of the military brass who used his time to promote increasing the military’s budget and blast us with fearful rhetoric. Perhaps his use of Memorial Day as a platform for militarism was an exception, but I won’t forget it nor will I ever forget the dark power of propaganda.

On this Sunday before Memorial Day, I do wish to remember. Remembrance is a spiritual discipline. 

I remember all who have died in war, directly and indirectly. 

I remember all who died regardless of who sent them to die.  

I remember all who died because they were in the way.

I remember all who died because they were targeted to die.

I remember all who died because they resisted war.

On the bulletin cover is a black and white image of the Al-Salam Valley graveyard in Najaf, Iraq. According to Wikipedia:

The cemetery is located near the shrine of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Sunni Caliph and the first Shia Imam. Thus, many Shi’ites in Iraq request that they be buried in this cemetery.

It is the largest cemetery in the world. I hope to visit it when I go to Najaf this fall to begin my pilgrimage from there to Karbala in solidarity with those who honor Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. People have been buried in this cemetery for the past 1400 years.

I remember the five million who are buried in Al-Salam Valley. 

We heard the story of recounted in the Gospel of Mark of the unnamed woman who broke open her alabaster jar and anointed Jesus’s head. The various gospel accounts have different versions of this story, but I am sticking with Mark’s account today. In this account, some objected to her action, saying that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor.  

Jesus calls out the hypocrisy. When Jesus tells them “the poor you will always have with you” he is recalling Deuteronomy 15:10-11:

10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

Jesus is saying in part, OK, so you want to criticize her, what have you done lately, guys? There is plenty of need, be my guest, do what the Torah commands. “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so.” It doesn’t say, “Pick on this woman because of what she is doing.” 

But even deeper than that, earlier in that same chapter it reads beginning with chapter 15 verse 1:

Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 

If this were done, then there would be no need, no poor in the land. If society had the courage and the will to get to the root of the problem, there would not be need. Verses 4 and 5:

There will, however, be no one in need among you…if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.

Jesus is recalling the command to do justice by remitting debts. But as the passage in Deuteronomy 15 develops, the Torah recognizes that justice will not be done, therefore charity is the next step down the list. Because there is need, because we have not done the job of justice, then at least be charitable. 

What Jesus offers is an indictment and a charge to do justice, not just charity.  If there is need, it is because we have not done justice. Because there is need, we must be charitable. 

Charity is no substitute for justice, but sometimes it is the best we have available, so at least do that. The unnamed woman is remembered because she understood that and she understood the mission of Jesus, which was a mission, ultimately of restorative justice. A mission for which he sacrificed his own life. She anointed it and him. 

It is that mission, that quest, that sacrifice, that ideal of justice, that the world will know as the gospel, the good news. It will be told in memory of her. 

On this Sunday before Memorial Day,

I remember the unnamed woman.

I remember the injustice of this world.

I remember the poor and needy.

I remember the summons to justice.

I remember my weakness.

I remember and repent.

In the Qur’an, chapter 1 verses 151-152, this translation reads: 

We have sent among you a Messenger of your own to recite Our revelations to you, purify you and teach you the scripture, wisdom, and other things you did not know. So remember Me; I will remember you. Be thankful to Me, and never ungrateful.

The Qur’an is delivered in one voice. Speaking always is God whether in the first person singular or first person plural. 

Remembrance and gratitude are linked. They are like a married couple. They are lovers wrestling. They are the sun and the moon. Remembrance leads to gratitude and gratitude to deeper remembrance. We hope that remembrance and gratitude will in turn lead to charity, and when we realize the inadequacies of charity, it will in turn, lead to justice. 

On this Sunday before Memorial Day,

I remember God.

Before you say gotcha on my Christian Atheism, do know that I am a work in progress, and I recognize the need of what John Dominic Crossan calls a transcendental metaphor, that is God. With out it, we substitute something else, he says, mammon or greed, usually. Mammon is the metaphor that summons the wars.

I am agnostic about whether or not strings are pulled in the heavens and whether or not we are guided, but I have faith in the transcendental metaphor that is not reduced to truth, goodness, beauty, and justice, but must at least include those ideals. 

On this Sunday before Memorial Day, 

I remember that Truth is in order to Goodness.

I remember that the daughter of Justice is Beauty.

I remember that the other daughter of Justice is Peace.

I remember especially with gratitude, all my ancestors who lived and died to pass this legacy to me. 

Amen.