Sermon for Memorial Day Sunday, May 26th, 2019


2019 May 26

Here is a pdf of the powerpoint I showed to the children about the First Memorial Day.

“Our choice is to be in love or to be in fear. But to choose to be in love means to have a mountain inside of you, means to have the heart of the world inside you, means you will feel another’s suffering inside your own body and you will weep. You will have no protection from the world’s pain because it will be your own.”
–China Galland

“All the Species That Went Extinct in 2018, and Ones on the Brink for 2019”
–Drew McFarlane

In 2018, scientists announced that three bird species vanished from the Earth for good, and more species on the brink could disappear forever in 2019.

Dissimilar to mass extinctions in the past, our current extinction crisis is almost solely caused by humans — specifically activities that cause loss of habitat, introduce alien species and contribute to the changing climate.

While last year in particular didn’t see much wildlife extinction, the Earth is losing animal species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, and as many as 30 to 50 percent of the planet’s species may be extinct by 2050, the Center for Biological Diversity describes. The natural rate is around one to five species lost each year.

“Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years,” the center stated. “We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.”

Here is a list of the species that we lost last year, and some that we’re on the brink of losing:


A small songbird native to Hawaii, the Po’ouli was discovered over 45 years ago. In 1981, its population topped some 150 birds, but saw a decline driven by invasive alien species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Habitat destruction by feral pigs, being hunted by mongooses, cats and rats, mosquito-spread diseases and competition with birds introduced in the area all were factors in the Po’ouli’s extinction.

The last wild sighting of Hawaii’s Po’ouli was in 2004, according to BirdLife International.

Alagoas Foliage-gleaner and Cryptic Treehunter

A pair of songbirds, the similar species called a sliver of the dense forest in northeastern Brazil home before deforestation ran wild in the region. The Alagoas Foliage-gleaner was discovered in 1975,…and it wasn’t until 2002 that researchers discovered the Cryptic Treehunter was a new species of its own.

When the treehunter was discovered, it was immediately placed into the “Critically Endangered” category, like other unique birds in the region.

The last sighting of the Cryptic Treehunter was in 2007, while the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner was last seen in 2011.

Spix’s Macaw

The list’s most vibrant bird, Spix’s Macaw — a blue parrot native to Brazil and known for its onscreen role in 20th Century Fox’s “Rio” — is believed to have gone extinct in the wild.

The creation of a dam, trapping for trade and deforestation drove the decline in the Spix’s Macaw wild population, but an estimated 60 to 80 still live in captivity.

A 2016 sighting brought hope that the then-critically endangered species was still alive in the wild, but it was later believed to be one that escaped captivity.

On the Brink

Discovered in 1958, the vaquita is the world’s rarest marine mammal and could go extinct any day, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. A small porpoise, the vaquita is the smallest cetacean species and calls the northern Gulf of California home.

The vaquita’s decline in population largely stems from being caught and drowned in illegal gillnet fishing equipment.

Vaquita are the only of seven porpoise species that live in warm waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean, sporting dark circles around their eyes and mouth.

Less than 30 vaquita remain in the wild.

Northern White Rhino

In March 2018, Sudan, the last remaining male northern white rhino, died at the age of 45. With Sudan’s passing, the total number remaining northern white rhinos dropped to just two — both of which are female and incapable of natural reproduction, according to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Scientists have found that assisted reproduction is possible, but the fate of the subspecies relies on expensive and difficult procedures never before used in rhinos.

[According to the World Wildlife Foundation], the population’s decline was caused by extensive poaching for their horns.

John 14:22-29
Judas (not Iscariot) says to him, “Master, what has happened that you are about to reveal yourself to us but not to the world?

Jesus replied to him, “Those who love me will heed what I tell them, and my Father will love them, and we’ll come to them and make our home with them. Those who don’t love me won’t obey my words. Of course, the things you heard me say are not mine but come from the Father who sent me.

I have told you these things while I am still here with you. Yet the advocate, the spirit the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything I told you. Peace is what I leave behind for you; my peace is what I give you. What I give you is not a worldly gift. Don’t give in to your distress or be overcome by terror. You heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and I’m going to return to you.’ If you loved me, you’d be glad that I’m going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am. I have now told you all this ahead of time so you will believe when it happens.

Memory and Hope

I am going to begin with the hope.

On the first Memorial Day on April 26, 1866, Confederate women across the South decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers. After they did that they saw that buried in the same place, on the same battlefields were young men from the Union side. The enemy. How much bitterness, hatred, enmity must there still have been in the hearts of the women, sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, daughters of the slain Confederate soldiers, toward these northern soldiers? Were many really even soldiers? Could you call them that? They were young boys in many cases dragged from fields and homes to fight. Only a year after the final surrender, the pain is still raw.

As these women organized across the South the first Decoration Day that later evolved into the Memorial Day we have now, I am sure they were not thinking in terms of Patriotism to some cause or ideal. They were grieving their dead. What horrible loss these four years of war left. You can still feel it today, 150 years later. It was only in 1983 that the Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church reconciled and not without difficulty.

The wounds were fresh and red that first Winter after the war, when these Confederate women decided to unite women throughout the South. Mary Ann Williams, the secretary of the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia wrote a letter and had it published in papers throughout the South to

“beg the assistance of the Press and the Ladies throughout the South to aid us in our effort to set apart a certain day to be observed from the Potomac to the Rio Grande and be handed down through time a religious custom of the country to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers.”

They gathered on April 26th 1866 in towns all over the South. They put flowers on the still fresh graves of the men killed in this devastating war.

[see Dr. Richard Gardiner & Daniel Bellware, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday]

When they decorated the graves of their own martyred dead, they saw the graves of the enemy. What to do about them? Leave them. Who could blame them? Kick dirt on them maybe. Spit on them. That is what we do, isn’t it? How many shed a tear for the graves of the enemy? For the ones who killed your own?

Amidst all the patriotism and flag-waving this weekend for America’s dead, how many flowers will Americans even symbolically place on the graves of the 1 point 6 million Iraqi dead due to the American invasion and occupation? Will our media even acknowledge the Iraqi dead? See how fresh it is? If we cannot even go there, what was it like for these Confederate women less than a year after the surrender?

Something more powerful still exists near our hearts.

It is Spirit.

These women of the South when they organized the first Decoration Day were not thinking of being politically correct or about making peace with the North. They were caring for their own hearts. They needed to grieve their own husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers.

But when they saw the untended graves of the northern soldiers, of course, they could not turn away. These northern soldiers had mothers too. And sisters, wives, and daughters. The Confederate women put flowers on the graves of the dead Yankees. The Gray team put flowers on the graves of the Blue team. South/North. Gray/Blue. Rebel/Yankee. Confederate/Union. Friend/Foe. Ours/Theirs.

Why? Why care? At the time, there may be no reason, no rationale. It is just heart warmed by Spirit. You do it because within you is something stronger than the hate and the propaganda that is built up by those forces that pit brother against brother in the first place.

Somehow Spirit connects.

Francis Miles Finch, a northerner, from Ithaca, New York, inspired by this simple action of putting flowers on the graves of the enemy wrote his poem, “The Blue and the Gray.”

Francis Miles Finch’s last stanza reads:

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.

Spirit is hope.

“They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!”

It is not about forgiveness. It is not about adjudicating who is right and who is wrong. It is about acknowledging that our lives are connected. Like it or not there is one Earth. Oxygen has the same chemical composition no matter who breathes it. We breathe together or die. All of us.

These flowering of the graves of the Union soldiers by the Confederate women is parable. It is history but more than history. It is parable. That is why we repeat that story on Memorial Day.

The hope is parable. A parable of Spirit that transforms hearts and connects us.

It is the only hope I have.

Spirit is up against numbness. Spirit is up against lack of feeling. Spirit is up against labels that pit ‘us’ and ‘them’. Spirit is up against massive propaganda that tells us who and what we should care about, side with, acknowledge, and who and what we should not.

Spirit is my only hope because only Spirit can melt us and break us and tear us open.

“They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!”

On Easter I repeated the fact that half the animals and plants have vanished since 1970. I said in the sermon 40% because I was quoting from Kathleen Dean Moore’s book. But that was from 2012. It is 50% now. 50% of all plants and animals on Earth are gone since the First Earth Day.

As we read today in the article in the bulletin, the rate of extinction is now between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate. This is the greatest mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs. It is happening now in our lifetimes.

Of course, that is too painful even to acknowledge. So we don’t. We become numb. The television assists us in that. Since that is rarely talked about on television we don’t believe it. Television tells us instead to buy things and support more war.

What can I do?

I am a minister so all I can do is say in as many provocative ways as possible, “This is happening!” I don’t say it to you, but with you, through you, to the world at large, and to me, so I don’t become lost in my numbness.

But I can do one more thing. I can say, “Let us remember.” Let us symbolically flower the graves of the species that have gone extinct this past year. Let us religiously and ritually acknowledge reality even if we don’t know how to reverse this trajectory toward our own extinction. Let us ring a bell for life that at one time breathed. Ring a bell of gratitude. Ring a bell of sorrow.

Let us ring a bell for the martyred dead of those who the elite tell me are my enemy. They are absolutely not my enemy, but I am told that anyway. How can Spirit possibly counteract this relentless propaganda, this war machine that has taken us over? That kills off humans, animals, and plants alike?

I saw recently a quote from Howard Zinn that reads:

“They have the guns. We have the poets. Therefore we will win.”

Spirit does love the poets. Speaking of poets:

In the gospel reading Jesus says that when he goes, “the Father will send the advocate, the spirit, who will teach you everything and remind you of everything I told you.”

Muslims interpret that advocate to be Mohammad. They make the connection to the gospels in a similar way that Christians make the connection to the Hebrew scriptures. For example, at Christmas we sing about Jesus being foretold in Isaiah.

We can quickly get lost in the details of the scholars but as parable, I like it. I will take as many connections as I can that Spirit can make between our faith traditions in the hope that if Spirit can enable me to see another’s holy text as holy to me, it just might make it harder to see fellow believers whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews as a “them” rather than an “us”.

That is why I include readings from the Qur’an and other religious traditions in the bulletin. I think it is crucial liturgically, worshipfully, to lay flowers on the memory of everyone, on all the holy texts, and on those through whom they were revealed.

“They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!”

Spirit breaks down the walls of division.

Spirit has always done this.

Spirit always will.

Spirit melts our hearts.

Spirit has always done this.

Spirit always will.

Spirit gives us courage to remember,
to acknowledge painful truth
to connect beyond division
to make hope from memory.

I have no hope for our future except by Spirit. On this Memorial Day, may Spirit move us a step closer together toward healing for all of Earth and all Earth’s creatures. May Spirit break down our walls, melt our hearts, and transform our memory and tears into flowers.