May 26, 2013 – Memorial Day weekend
The story is told of a father who was with his young son, waiting in the foyer of the church for someone to pick them up. The father was showing his son the plaques on the wall, pointing out all the members of the church who had died while doing military service. The boy asked, “Who are these men?” The dad replied, “These are the men who died in the service.” The boy replied, ”Which service was that dad, the 830 or the 1030?
We have simplified things for the summer with one service staring today and running through the summer we’ll have one gathering at 10:00am. On Memorial Day weekend honor all who served our nation in uniform. We recall that it’s not only when and how one died that creates memories, but how one lives that we honor. Jesus taught that life and even death can be reflections of God’s love. And so in making memories of life, we should give as much of ourselves as we can, for as long as we can, to honor the spirit of sacrifice for which so many lived and died. Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Open to us the meaning of your word and the reality of your love for all of us. In Christ’ name we pray. Amen.
I will never forget the first funeral I officiated at Arlington National Cemetery. Our waiting in the cemetery rotunda. Heading to the gravesite. There at the grave. The caisson. The guns being fired. The bugles playing taps. And the flag folded and given to a widow on behalf of a grateful country. As I have returned to Arlington several times sense, including with several families here, I always get goose bumps experiencing the majesty of those traditions to honor brave men and women we think of this weekend.
What strikes me most about Arlington is the juxtaposition between the elaborate ceremony and the simple graves. With horses, guns and bugles, Arlington services can be more elaborate than most. Yet the tombstones are less so. Throughout history there have been a variety of ornate graves at different places. The Egyptian pharaohs had huge pyramids to house their remains. Great mausoleums hold presidents. In most cemeteries I have been in there are some large tombstones. And yet in Arlington, the memorials are small, white and simple. It’s in part because of space concerns but also it says something about the honor of humble service. That there is inherent nobility in sacrifice. Someone willing to lay down life.
The 15th chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Jesus said those words on the last night of his life, over a meal with many of those he cared about most. On the night of his betrayal and arrest; the night before his crucifixion. Jesus knew the end was near. But he voluntary stayed there. So he was giving final words of advice. He wanted his disciples to know why he was giving up his life. Because of love. Jesus was talking about the role of love in our understanding of God’s nature and of life. That the central way of understanding God is love. That God’s character is fundamentally about love. As God has loved us so we are to love others. That we are most like God when we love.
Jesus said “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And then he went and laid down his life for them.
Jesus’ followers took his message to heart. The Book of Acts tells us how Jesus followers met, even before there was really a church, they met in the name of Jesus and were persecuted for it. One follower of Jesus was Stephen. Stephen began to talk about and praise Jesus publically. He was arrested and put on trial for some of the same charges as Jesus, fermenting upraising and undermining the traditions of the society. He gave a long speech, in which he accursed the authorities of opposing God and the Holy Spirit. Our text tells us he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This is a day when the broader church also recognizes the importance of the Holy Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Stephen is important in part because, shortly after the arrival of the Holy Spirit told a few chapters earlier in Acts, which we celebrated on Pentecost, Stephen was one of the first to identity the presence of the Trinity in the midst of the people. But this gift, while important to us historically, wasn’t enough to save him. The crowd turned on Stephen, as they did on Jesus, and he was condemned by the authorities and stoned to death. He is the first Christian martyr. Who died for an ideal.
Memorial Day is a day we recognize those men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It was originally known as Decoration Day, after the Civil War it helped commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who died. By the 20th century the holiday had expanded to commemorate all those who died in all military conflicts. We have a tradition here of making flags available at the end of services in respect for those who served here.
Memorial Day has taken on new meaning as well in this century. It has become a day of more general memories for all those who died, especially for relatives. Growing up we used to go to the cemetery each Memorial Day to put cut flowers on relatives graves, whether people had served in the military or not.
This Memorial Day will take on renewed meaning for many across the country. It is the first Memorial Day after the tragedy of the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora Colorado last summer. The first since the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The first since the bombing at the Boston Marathon. And just days after the tragic tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. I was struck by a New York Times article one of you shared in one of our search committee meetings this week about how the tornado utterly flattened the city. Buildings everywhere, hospitals, schools, homes, flattened like a war zone. The tornado lifted drawings some children had made off refrigerators and deposited them down in another states.
Memorial Day helps us remember the depths of sacrificial love. The school teachers who shielded their students to protect them at Sandy Hook. The marathoners who kept running to the hospitals to give blood following the bombings. The families who waited for hours to help others find children in Oklahoma. Sacrificial pouring out of life as acts of love.
The marty Stephen is remembered today as much for how he lived as for how he died. His role in the community in his day was to be one of the key groups of people who ensured the widows had enough food, an act of compassion and service. We get the name of our broader Stephen ministry programs in the broader church from his name. It’s a great program of training thousands of lay people across the country to be present with people in times of need and I hope someday we as a church explore a Stephen ministry program because such compassion is a sign of great love.
Today is the last Sunday before a series of Sundays of what is called ordinary time. The last time we had a Sunday of ordinary time was in February before Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we read the scripture from Genesis “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” from Genesis. And then we go through Lent, Easter and Pentecost with a focus on repentance, resurrection and the birth of the church. Pouring out of life during temptations in the wilderness, on the cross and through the spirit. Pouring out of love into the life of the church. These stages of life this year are bookended by Ash Wednesday and its reminder that we are mortal, and Memorial Day when we are again reminded of the mortality of the human condition. It underscores for us the importance of giving all the life we can for as long as we can.
Jesus helps us realize that to live fully; we have to be willing to lay down life. That could mean the ultimate sacrifice as Jesus and Stephen and as so many in our armed forces we think about this weekend did. On a personal level it means that to find life, we have to lose ourselves in loving something so much that we give ourselves fully to it. That if we want fulfillment, meaning and satisfaction in life we have to find a way to pour out our life and love into something. Whether we love our country so much that we volunteer for military service, or children so much we become a teacher, or justice so much we sign up for a cause, or our church so much we volunteer for a lay ministry, in order to find life we have to lose ourselves in loving something so much that we give ourselves fully to it. That we only get the love we desire when we give our love to something fully.
In 2009, at aged 14, Zach Sobiech was diagnosed with a very rare form of bone cancer. Several operations and bouts of chemotherapy followed, but in May 2012 his doctors told him that the cancer had spread and that he only had a few months to live. In February of this year, Sobiech recorded a song called Clouds, an inspirational song which dealt with his battle against the disease.
Sobiech sang, “Well I fell down, down, down. Into this dark and lonely hole. There was no one there to care about me anymore. And I needed a way to climb and grab a hold of the edge. You were sitting there holding a rope. And we’ll go up, up, up But I’ll fly a little higher. We’ll go up in the clouds because the view is a little nicer.”
His song went viral on the internet this year, clocking up nearly 4 million hits on YouTube because it became an inspiration for people around the globe battling serious illness. In that way Sobiech was the one throwing down a rope. He knew his life would soon be laid down; he in fact died earlier this week, and yet wanted to leave something that inspired others to reach up. Giving as fully as he could for as long as he could.
Two days ago several members of our church joined me in celebrating the life of our member Terry Nagi in Georgetown. He cared deeply about environmental stewardship and sharing his passion with others. He would collect bulletins in the narthex after worship so people would recycle them. He would accompany me to American University to speak with the college students about creation care. He would organize adult education seminars on nature. A week before his died, Terry told me he wasn’t afraid to die. He was done fighting his fight and ready to lay down his life. But in his commitment he wanted to make sure the alternative transportation Sunday would still go on. I assured him that it would. And indeed it did, the Sunday after his passing last month.
There is a God given relationship between life and death and love. This weekend, we miss many people because we love them. There is no greater love than to lay down life for our friends, in many forms, in response to God’s love. And so give all of yourself that we can for as long as you can. For friends, that is what God has done for you. Amen.