Call to Worship
We honor those who have gone before us,
Who fought and died to preserve our freedom.
Our nation is built upon their work and their witness;
Their faith has been passed from generation to generation.
Almighty God, we thank you for those whose lives have empowered us: for the friends and family members whose faces we see no more, but whose love is with us forever; for the teachers and companions of our childhood and youth; and for those who fell in battle, dreaming of a better world. We have been blessed by their gift, and diminished by their loss. May our lives honor their sacrifices, and may we hold them in perpetual remembrance, knowing they are safe in your city of light. Amen.
Words of Assurance: Psalm 145:14, Good News Bible
The LORD helps those who are in trouble; he lifts those who have fallen.
The Lord’s Prayer
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this daily our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil;
for thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory forever.
Opening Song: Anthem Lights, “America the Beautiful”
Scripture: Joshua 4:4-7, NIV
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, “What do these stones mean?”, tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.
Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, was first observed after the Civil War. Emancipated slaves in South Carolina may have been the first to place flowers on graves and hold a parade, only a month after the war ended, but Waterloo NY has the official honor. Different states had different days for Memorial Day until 1971, when it became the last Monday in May, “when flowers across the country were in full bloom.” The flag is at half-mast until noon, when it is raised to full mast; and a minute of silence is meant to be observed at 3 p.m.
But Memorial Day is also a weird holiday, because somewhere along the line, people decided to call it “the unofficial start of summer,” and recognize it with barbecues, beaches and action movies, to the extent that people say, without irony, “I can hardly wait until Memorial Day.” I said that myself this week. Even in our parades, the mood shifts from something somber to something celebratory, and something is lost.
That something, according to one of the subtitles of Memorial Day, is “remember and honor.” ButThis how? In 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi, a group of women went to decorate Confederate graves, but they noticed some other graves without markers, so they decorated them too. Someone said, “Those are Yankee graves.” One of the women said, “We are sure there are mothers, sisters, wives, or sweethearts who are mourning these dead men, so we are going to honor them also.” The incident inspired Francis Miles Finch to write a poem called “The Blue and the Grey,” named after the colors of the soldiers’ uniforms. The closing stanza:
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.
This story lies at the heart of Memorial Day, and teaches a profound truth. When we fight each other, each proclaiming a different version of America while demonizing the other side, we all lose. The Civil War took an enormous toll on America, which makes the fact that this act of compassion came from the losing side even more remarkable. Our challenge is remember what happened, to honor the fallen, and to not let it happen again.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Civil War veteran in 1885. It’s been through a few revisions, but even at the beginning it included the words, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Most of us love the Pledge of Allegiance. We love saying it and having our children say it in school. So why, if we’re so determined to be “indivisible,” have we become such a divided nation?
This week I had to take my own advice, which is “for every minute of news you read, you have to read a minute of Scripture.” This is how fast despair can set in: in 60 seconds, I read that the Supreme Court ruled that some people ARE allowed to pollute wetlands, that there was a bill to bring back child labor and that yet another book had been banned. Fortunately this was Wednesday morning, so I got an hour and a half of Bible study, and in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t go home after and watch 89 minutes of news to balance it out!
It is very easy to get disheartened, which is why we need Memorial Day to refocus our thoughts. Memorial Day reminds us that when we fought each other in the Civil War, 620,000 soldiers died, approximately the same number as all American soldiers who have died since. America’s largest loss of life came fighting itself.
When I was a kid, I learned a song that I thought was funny at the time, but now I think it’s scary. The lyrics are, “This land is my land, it is not your land. I have a shotgun. You have not got one. If you don’t get off, I’ll blow your head off. This land was made for only me.” What was meant to be a joke is now a common opinion.
John Wesley once wrote, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
When we fight each other, we forget that we have fought together, and defeated tyrants. When we fight each other, we forget that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. When we fight each other, we forget that we are supposed to be indivisible. When we fight each other, we forget the toll that fighting takes. We forget the widows who went to decorate their husbands’ graves, and had compassion for the widows on the other side, whose tears were just like their own. They remembered the dead and honored them. They didn’t make distinctions between “their” dead and “the other side’s dead,” between “my land” and “your land,” between Democrat and Republican, even though those words used to mean different things.
How can we remember and honor the fallen ~ in our lives, those who have died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the War on Terror? We can imagine what they would have wanted for America. Nobody wanted to die, and nobody wanted their sacrifices to be in vain. Every soldier wanted a better life for their children, because every parent wants a better life for their children. No American solider fights so that we can have less freedom. Every American soldier wants our nation to be strong, united, indivisible. The freedom we have today to disagree and squabble and act like idiots is because people died for our right to be idiots but prayed we wouldn’t be.
Memorial Day is a time to remember the price others paid for what we have today, and to be humbled by the cost. As Captain Miller says to Private Ryan, “Earn this … earn it.” May we look for the best in America, and the best in each other. May we count our blessings, because they are many. May we learn from history, so that we do not repeat it. May we focus on the progress we have made and are making. May we focus not on what divides us, but on what unites us, so that we might be united in hope rather than in tears: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Amen.
Closing Song: Anthem Lights, “God Bless America”
May God bless us as individuals and as a nation,
shining a light on the paths we must follow in order
to be better, stronger and more holy. Amen.