Sunday, May 25, 2014

Remind: Memorial Day

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 25, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 8: 1-5
Ephesians 6: 10-20

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. [1]

Memorial Day is a special day within the life of the church. Many have argued and debated recently as to whether secular national holidays should be celebrated within the church. It is very much caught up in the separation of church and state arguments. Like what is it all about to have an American flag hanging up here, is it appropriate to sing America the Beautiful and the others? There are really good arguments for the separation of religion and the state. . . I am certainly a big fan of the separation. I, for one, am a student of church history who believes that one of the biggest most unfortunate events in the church is it becoming established as the church of the Roman Empire. The biggest challenge to that kind of secular and worldly success is that the secular and the spiritual become linked, tied, and often misconstrued as the same thing. Historical events become irreparably linked to the faithfulness, or lack thereof of the people. Failure and success of the nation become connected to God's favor and disfavor, and things that are actually mysterious and unknown come front and center in absolute certainty and in that absolute certainty is power, and truth becomes lost. The truth that transcends life, the truth that is God, the truth that is so important to remember becomes clouded in the apparent, the seen, and the invisible God who is, is replaced by the very visible idols of power. Such is the danger of established religion. . . so often Christians fight against the separation of church and state, wanting prayer to be in the schools, in the public square, etc. . . . and there is something to those arguments, but the state run drunk with religion actually ends up destroying what it adopts, robbing the actual power of what it subsidizes. . . God needs no subsidy. . . but none of that is what Memorial Day is about. . . memorial day is about remembering, and remembering sacrifice, and what could be more Christian than that. Our faith is built on sacrifice, for sacrifice is the very root of love, and is shown as such by our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
I did a little research about the origin of Memorial Day, and it was originally called decoration day. . . and was done in connection to civil war grave yards both North and South. The idea is that the community would go to the graves of fallen soldiers and decorate those graves with flowers. There was usually originally a church service connected to the observance, and if that wasn't churchy enough, there was also a potluck dinner. Nothing says church like pot luck. I was reminded last week when giving my thoughts on what it means to be Presbyterian that I left out the most important part, the food. You really have got to have at least one green bean and onion casserole to know that you have had a religious experience for the week. So within the history of the holiday there is real religious and Christian observance. When you think about it, it makes more sense in its Christian context than maybe it even does as a National public holiday, turning a religious and spiritual day of remembrance into a kick off to the summer, a three-day weekend excuse for barbecues and heading to the pool. See what I mean about when the state adopts something, it seems to destroy it, at least it tends to shift and to cheapen the strength and meaning of it. So if we don't do the remembering here where would we, tell me that, where else does it happen this week, other than the marathons on AMC and Turner Classic Movies of great war films, where else does it happen? So if we can put off the cook outs, the parties and the pools, and the one sentence facebook remembrances, and really remember, reminding ourselves, for the remembering is important, it is what it's really all about.
We remember people, men and women, who have given all, given their lives to preserve our lives, where we are, where we worship, where we go about our daily routine, the place, the space, the room, the land, and the ideals, they are due to those sacrifices. It's hard to say more than that, it's one of those truths that just is, and so it is to put words to it, especially by someone who can barely imagine what war is really like, what combat is like, because I've never been close to it at all, and I know that some of you have. I've heard some of the stories, and I cherish hearing them. Jim I love to hear about your experiences, and Ned, and Walter the stories you tell are real, and I'll never forget hearing some also from Stuart Richardson. You all have direct connection to remembering those who fell in and around your life. And I can only imagine what that would be like. . . and so I seek to remember, to find something tangible to hold on to because I know remembering is important. It gives perspective, it helps in that way, it brings some humility, knowing that as independent as I like to think I am, my way of life, my safety, and my security, my rights as a human being and citizen of this nation are completely dependent on the sacrifices of others. That's humbling. . .
Christians lately in addition to being uncomfortable with Nationalism, often are also squeamish when it comes to talking about war. We hear Jesus saying things like, Blessed are the Peacemakers, and our natural distaste of violence is increased. Most churches have refrained from singing songs like Onward Christian Soldiers, and the like, because of the militaristic imagery used. . . even though in that hymn, it's more the metaphor of war, being used to describe the battle against evil in the world. It's funny I was talking about how the state adopting something can work to weaken it, the opposite is also true. . .nothing has made "Onward Christian Soldiers" so popular a hymn as it being made taboo by church leaders. The mystique is piqued in the rebellion of it. But then when it comes down to it, when you finally sing it,  you realize it isn't all that great of a hymn.
It is strange that we would be so squeamish about the metaphor when this morning's passage from Ephesians uses the very same one, that we are going to war against evil, and that we are to arm ourselves with God, putting on the armor of God, to be able to go and fight against evil. Paul tells the people of Ephesus that in order to stand against the present darkness, they should put on the whole armor of God, that they should put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. That the key to this armor is praying in the spirit, in prayer, in supplication, keeping alert and persevering. And there it is hidden in the very middle of the image, is that within that armor is the gospel of peace. That peace is a part of the battle, a part of the war, that sometimes, and actually quite often peace is something that is won, through conflict, not through avoidance. It is a hard truth, and one we don't usually like, but truth, righteousness, salvation, faith, and the word of God all point in that direction, and maybe it is that we should remember. The peace that was won on the battlefields from those who gave of themselves, in war, but not for war, for peace. . . wrapped in the armor of God, putting all that armor on, living that life is not living for the conflict, but living through the conflict, through the sacrifice, through the hardship, and sometimes dying, but through that death giving life to all. . . to be reminded of that, is to be reminded of the gospel, to be reminded of how much Christ loved us, giving his life for us, the gift of that sacrifice is very similar to the gift of the soldier who makes a sacrifice, it is the gift of life, of possibility, of faith, of hope, of truth, of love, and for all who have given, we give thanks, and we remember.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Eph 6:10-20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.